Do Liberals and Conservatives Even Speak the Same Language?

New research shows that the political left and the right communicate differently

Posted Sep 30, 2020

Over the course of the 2020 election cycle, each candidate has stuck to their overall message. President Trump often speaks of strength, while Vice President Biden underscores the need to heal.

Research suggests that this is no mistake. Indeed, studies demonstrate that liberals and conservatives communicate differently. Take an ambitious study led by Joanna Sterling of Princeton University in which she and her collaborators sought to better understand the differences in linguistic styles between conservatives and liberals.

What made this study stand out from previous work on the subject was its scope. Sterling and her collaborators analyzed “the spontaneous, naturally occurring use of language” of nearly 25,000 Twitter users who sent a total of 11,703,650 tweets. The investigators then analyzed these texts using a Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count program. This dictionary-based software program contains roughly 6,400 word components and 90 psychologically relevant word categories. The authors also employed several other dictionary-based methods in their analyses of these tweets.

By combing through prior work, Sterling and her team derived a broad range of hypotheses about the ways in which conservatives and liberals communicate differently, which fell into five domains. The following is a selective overview of their findings.

Affiliation and Power. Extending previous research on dispositional motives and political communication, the team focused on two motives and their use in language by conservative and liberal Twitter users. Affiliation motivation refers to the development and maintenance of close, warm relationships. Power motivation, by contrast, is about the desire to have influence and control over other people. (The third dispositional motive is achievement, but this was found to be unrelated to political linguistics)

The results of this study found that conservatives used more language on Twitter referencing power than liberals. While words like “show” and “say” were top words for liberals, they weren’t for conservatives. Meanwhile, words such as “god” and “win” appeared in the list for conservatives but not liberals.

Personal Values. Personal values are the behaviors, events, objects, and ideas that people deem to be important to them. According to one theory, there are 10 basic value dimensions that appear across cultures: universalism, benevolence, conformity, tradition, security, power, achievement, hedonism, stimulation, and self-direction. In keeping with previous work, the investigators found that conservatives’ tweets were more likely to reference power, security, tradition, and achievement. By contrast, liberals’ tweets were more likely to reference benevolence.

Ideology as Motivated Social Cognition. According to the theory of political conservatism as “motivated social cognition,” those on the right strive to establish certainty, order, and structure and seek to decrease existential conditions like fear, threat, and insecurity. In turn, these strivings are aligned with a preference for tradition and hierarchy — two social spheres that are at the heart of conservative thinking, and in contrast from liberals.

Would these ideological differences surface in the language used in tweets? The results revealed that conservatives were more likely than liberals to send messages with language reflecting certainty, resistance to change, references to the past, inhibition, threat, and risk focus. Contrary to expectation, conservatives used tentative language and talked about the future more than liberals.

Needs for Uniqueness and Conformity. In addition to a thinking style of conservatism, it has also been argued that there is a relational style as well, in which people strive for social belongingness and a sense of a shared reality with like-minded individuals. Indeed, studies have found that conservatives place greater importance than liberals on conformity, loyalty, and embracing convention. By contrast, liberals show an “illusion of uniqueness,” with research suggesting that they see their own views as more distinctive than they really are.

These psychological stances are captured in language use. Building on previous work, Sterling and her collaborators hypothesized that more frequent use of first person singular pronouns (“I” words) would reflect a greater desire for uniqueness, whereas more frequent use of first person plural pronouns (“we” words) would reflect group similarity and adherence to conformity. As expected, the investigators found that conservatives used more first person plural pronouns, that is, the word “we,”  than liberals. There were no differences in the use of “I."

Emotional Expression. According to theory, liberals show more moral outrage, anger at injustice, and excitement and are more focused on the attainment of positive outcomes (i.e., approach-related emotions). By contrast, it is believed that conservatives show more anxiety, calm, and have a prevention-oriented focus on risk management (i.e., avoidance-related emotions). Building on this work, the investigators hypothesized that liberals would use more positive emotion words, whereas conservatives use more negative emotion words in their tweets.

In keeping with expectations, conservatives’ tweets contained more negative emotion than those of liberals. Conservatives also sent more tweets with anger-related language, comporting with public opinion data finding that rightists tend to express more anger than leftists. Contrary to expectations, however, the investigators didn’t find ideological differences when it came to the use of positive emotions or anxiety-related language. Conservatives’ top negative emotion words included threat sensitivity words, like “attack” and “terror,” whereas liberals’ language was less overtly threatening (e.g., “f**k and “sorry”).

Politicians and their surrogates understand the vital importance of having a clear message to communicate to the public, especially during an election season. This study is one that helps us better read between the lines.

References

Sterling, J., Jost, J. T., & Bonneau, R. (2020, January 9). Political Psycholinguistics: A Comprehensive Analysis of the Language Habits of Liberal and Conservative Social Media Users. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/pspp0000275