Smart Talk and Girly Talk on the Campaign Trail

By Richard Morin
Tuesday, April 4, 2006

Forget the Swift boat ads, the economy or international terrorism. Here's what really may have decided the last presidential election:

President Bush and Vice President Cheney sounded more presidential than their Democratic counterparts. Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) seemed the most depressed or suicidal. And Kerry's running mate, Sen. John Edwards (N.C.), sounded the most like a "girly man."

Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin collected transcripts of 271 televised interviews, news conferences, town hall meetings and candidate debates conducted in 2004. The speech samples -- more than 400,000 words in all -- were run through a computer text-analysis program. The team included lead author Richard B. Slatcher, a doctoral candidate in psychology, and professor James W. Pennebaker.

The key to their study is previous research that has identified subtle but distinctive linguistic patterns and words that, for example, differentiate the way men and women talk.

Specifically, they rated each candidate's use of language along six dimensions: cognitive complexity (marked by sophisticated sentence structure and word choice); femininity (use of words and speech patterns favored by women); depression (use of words that are markers for depression or known "indicators of suicidality"); age (preference for words favored by young or old people); presidentiality (speech patterns and frequently occurring words favored by presidents since FDR in their speeches); and honesty (based on analyses of samples of truthful and deceptive language).

Cheney easily sounded the smartest of the four, while Edwards and Bush favored the least sophisticated language patterns, Slatcher and his colleagues report in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Research in Personality. When it came to sounding presidential, both Bush and his running mate scored considerably higher than Kerry or Edwards. Bush was the oldest-sounding candidate. Edwards also was the most likely to use feminine speech patterns and "female" words (Bush was a close second), while Cheney sounded most like a man's man.

The vice president sounded the most honest of the four, and Kerry the least. Kerry's language also was most like that of a depressed person, followed by Edwards. Perhaps that's inevitable; after all, challengers must sound gloomy and doomy about their opponents' records, though in doing so they run clear risks.

"Voters are most favorable toward those candidates who are the most optimistic," Slatcher said. "The depressive language that Kerry and Edwards used during the campaign may have contributed negatively to the way in which they were perceived by the public."

Say It Loud: I'm 'Multiother' and I'm Proud

We applaud efforts to measure race in a more meaningful way, like this one -- spotted by an unconventionally wise reader -- that appeared on an Air Force medical screening test. But we aren't quite sure why there are no "Multiwhite" or "Multiother" categories.

Looks Matter, Even Among Wonks

Good-looking economists who ran for offices in the American Economic Association were more likely to beat less comely candidates with similar qualifications. Not only that, economists who ran multiple times were more likely to win when they submitted a more flattering photo for distribution to their voting peers, says economist Daniel S. Hamermesh of the University of Texas in Austin.

Hamermesh collected snapshots of candidates who ran for AEA offices between 1966 and 2004. The photos were distributed to society members before each election with each candidate's biography. Four raters judged the attractiveness of the candidate in each photo. Since 73 people ran more than once, researchers could see if better photos, apart from their résumés, increased their chances of winning.

They did. "A particular real-world outcome [winning an election] becomes more favorable for the same person when perceptions of his/her looks improve exogenously," Hamermesh says in a forthcoming article in Economics Letters.

Translation: Always look your best, especially in photos.

Who Would Have Thought? Sexaholics, Retirement and Clubbing as a Rite of Passage

· "Sexaholism: A Perspective " by Samadhi Longo-Disse in Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity, Vol. 13, No. 1. Never mind global warming or bird flu -- the next big disaster threatening civilization is "sexaholism," which this California researcher says may be "a crucial factor in an emerging epidemic, seriously affecting the public's health."

· "The Effects of Retirement on Physical and Mental Health Outcomes" by Dhaval Dave, Inas Rashad and Jasmina Spasojevic. National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper No. 12123. A team of economists finds that Americans age 50 to 75 who retire suffer a 23 to 29 percent increase in difficulties associated with mobility and daily activities, an 8 percent increase in illness, and an 11 percent decline in mental health compared with their counterparts who don't stop working.

· "Nightclubbing and the Search for Identity: Making the Transition from Childhood to Adulthood in an Urban Milieu" by Jeremy Northcote in the Journal of Youth Studies, Vol. 9, No. 1. An Australian sociologist investigates the bar scene and determines that hanging out in nightclubs has become a necessary rite of passage for today's urban young adults.

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