Like everyone else, presidential candidates differ in the ways they think. Some analyze problems logically, relying on facts and theories; others draw on personal experiences and anecdotes. Across this season’s debates, we have been analyzing their thinking on Wordwatchers to examine how each candidate naturally approaches the world—and, in the wake of the Iowa caucuses, how each party’s candidates are adjusting their thinking to appeal to their respective audiences.
Why bother? The goal is to project how each candidate would make decisions if elected.
The two major thinking styles and how we identify them
Thinking styles can be thought of along a spectrum, from analytic to narrative. Analytic thinkers identify conceptual categories and organize experiences and ideas in hierarchical ways within those categories. At the opposite end of the spectrum are people who are more narrative or dynamic thinkers, pulling their vision of the world together through the stories they hear.
Across many studies, analytic thinking has been associated with intelligence (as measured by standardized tests such as the SAT), better performance in classes across the college curriculum, and better education in high school. Analytic thinking is also more common among leaders, older (as opposed to younger) age, and people with better health habits. Narrative thinking is more common among younger, more impulsive, and sociable people.
Analytical thinkers like to break down and analyze a problem; narrative thinkers prefer to relay their own experiences and tell stories to understand the problem. Analytical thinkers weigh more facts; narrative thinkers rely more on intuition and snap judgement.
One way to identify thinking styles is to use computer-based text analysis methods to analyze everyday language. Based on earlier research, we at Wordwatchers have found that analytical thinking is revealed through a high use of nouns, articles, and prepositions. The use of these parts of speech indicates that the speaker is identifying conceptual categories and organizing ideas within them.
Narrative thinking is linked to low use of nouns, articles, and prepositions—but a high use of pronouns (such as I, she, they, it), auxiliary verbs (is, have), common adverbs (so, really), and related small common words called function words. Interestingly, the more a person is an analytical thinker, the less he or she is a narrative thinker, and vice versa.
Democrats and Republicans debate differently
Here’s what we’re finding. Overall, the Democratic debates are associated with more formal and logical thinking than the Republican debates. More interesting are the trends. Whereas the Democratic candidates are becoming more logical and formal over time, the Republican candidates are becoming less formal and more narrative and personal.
Why? Very likely the two sets of candidates became increasingly familiar with their voters — especially in Iowa and New Hampshire. The stereotypical Democratic primary voter likely knows the issues and may expect reasoned responses from the candidates; the stereotypical Republican primary voter may listen to Rush Limbaugh and Fox News and rely on compelling stories more than hard data.
Another explanation can be attributed to a phenomenon called language style matching. Social psychologists have long known that people naturally mimic one another in the ways they behave, use nonverbal behaviors, and the ways they talk. Studies suggest that lower status people tend to mimic people with higher status — often unconsciously.
Among the candidates, one might expect that the front-runners would set the linguistic tone and that the followers would match them. As we see in the graphs below, the patterns support such language style matching and status predictions, especially for the Republicans. The Democratic candidates are strikingly similar across all the debates.
Republicans’ thinking styles
So how do the Republicans compare to each other and how have they changed as individual candidates?
As the graph below shows, the candidates’ thinking styles compared to one another have remained largely the same. Although all the Republicans have become more informal as the debates have gone on, there are some notable differences among the candidates. It’s also notable that while Donald Trump often dominates in these debates, when he failed to attend the last debate, the other candidates didn’t change their thinking styles in any appreciable way.
So let’s break it down, candidate by candidate, starting with the Republicans.
1. Donald Trump has become more and more informal since the second debate in September. While Trump started the debates speaking in ways that were similar to Ben Carson, his language has drifted further and further away from the other candidates over time. Trump remains an intuitive rather than an analytical thinker, and far more so than anyone else in the Republican field. Research suggests that someone with this type of narrative thinking style may be more impulsive when making decisions.
2. Ben Carson hasn’t changed much over time. Since the first debate, Carson had been relatively informal and focused on narratives. Carson is concerned with his political story, and doesn’t think too much about the logic or rationale behind his ideas. Carson’s language style has become somewhat more like Trump’s (whose top spot in the polls likely gives him the more status) across the debates. And as with Trump, Carson’s thinking style may be associated with more rash decision-making.
3. Marco Rubio’s speech patterns suggest he is relying on both analytical and narrative thinking. While working on his political narrative, he is also looking at the rationale behind it. Rubio’s thinking style has remained relatively stable across the debates, suggesting he may not perceive any of the other candidates as necessarily having higher status.
4. Jeb Bush’s word usage is quite similar to that of Rubio, though Bush falls a little bit more to the analytical, showing that Bush tends to focus on the logic behind his plans. Like those of Rubio and Carson, Bush’s linguistic style has been mostly consistent through the debates.
5. Ted Cruz has become less analytic in the debates since September, but he is still the most logical of the Republican leaders. His analytic language reveals a deliberative decision-making style. As Cruz has climbed in the polls, his thinking style is moving closer to those of the other Republican front-runners. Looking back across all the debates, Cruz’s language reveals a very smart, canny thinker who may be trying to adjust to the thinking levels of his debaters on the stage.
Democrats’ thinking styles
Both Democratic candidates are analytic thinkers, far more so than most of the Republicans. Throughout the debates, their thinking styles have been comparable, suggesting that they approach problems similarly, showing only minor differences across the debates.
1. Bernie Sanders is an analytic thinker and has been relatively consistent across the debates with only small increases in his analytic thinking scores since the first debate. Sanders is focused on his plans for the future and on the logic behind those plans. Prospective supporters can be certain that both he and Hillary Clinton have the native intelligence to grasp the complex problems of the presidency.
2. Hillary Clinton has become more analytic since the first debate, and is catching up to Sanders in her analytic style. In the first debates, Clinton had more balance between logical and informal thinking, but as the race has become more competitive, she has become slightly more analytic.
So who’s changed, and how?
The candidates from both parties may be modifying their strategies to better appeal to the voters in the upcoming primaries. In order to gain or regain support, candidates may have tried to change their verbal approaches.
Cruz and Trump have changed thinking styles the most, which may be partly why they remain the current leaders in most polls; they may be the most responsive to these changes in circumstances. Rubio, Bush, and Carson, on the other hand, have changed less indicating that they might be less flexible and respond less to changing circumstances.
Within the Democratic party, while Sanders has gained some ground, the race has not changed substantially. Maybe, since the competition has been mostly stable, neither candidate has felt compelled to really change the way they are approaching voters.
And there’s more to come
At WordWatchers, we will continue to examine how these candidates compare to one another — and how they may approach the presidency. Our hope is to inform voters as they begin deciding which two candidates will battle for that office.
Kayla N. Jordan is a Ph.D. candidate in social psychology at the University of Texas at Austin.
James W. Pennebaker is the Regents Centennial Professor of Psychology and the executive director of Project 2021 at the University of Texas at Austin.