Newly published research from the lab aims to understand how politicians use language to engage the emotions of mass audiences. The study was based on work we’ve done to illuminate the relationship between human emotions and language processing, a relationship that has only recently gained attention in the field of cognitive science. The full article can be downloaded at the open-access journal Frontiers in Psychology website.
We know that presidential candidates carefully tailor their language to influence the electorate during the campaign season. But little is known about how, at the cognitive level, presidential speeches stir the emotions of voters. The new study, conducted in collaboration with political science professor Dr. Christopher Chapp of St. Olaf College, looked at stump speeches from then-candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in the 2012 U.S. presidential election to identify the type of sentences that appeared in these evocative speeches more often when compared to more ceremonious State of the Union addresses. Those sentences were then evaluated for what, exactly, enabled them to pack an emotional punch.
We found that stump speeches, meant to engage the passions of listeners, contain many more instances of past tense verbs with the “-ing” ending, indicating an ongoing action, in contrast to State of the Union addresses that are intended to justify a policy agenda. This isn’t because stump speeches contain more past tense verbs in general – they don’t. Instead, the study authors suggest that the “-ing” ending is more effective at tapping audience emotions, which is why politicians are using it (consciously or not) to rally their bases.
For example, the past-tense phrase “the folks here held signs” implies action happened in the past, but is now finished. But when Obama says, “the folks here were holding signs,” now the implied action is unfinished, ongoing, and open-ended. And here is where emotions are helpful – to help the listener to resolve the unfinished action (helping you to imagine the folks passionately chanting and shouting, perhaps).
Campaign speeches are likely to differ from other presidential speeches in many ways, so a crucial question is whether the “–ing” grammatical trick really works to elicit audience emotions. In a follow-up study, the authors asked participants to rate the emotional intensity of 100 phrases taken from the presidential speeches – 50 that had the “–ing” ending and 50 had matching phrases written in the plain past-tense. Participants rated the versions with the “-ing” ending (for example, “The middleclass was getting hammered”) as feeling significantly more emotional than the versions written in the plain past tense (“The middle class got hammered”).
The study was conducted with the help of UW-Whitewater undergraduate students, and is part of our research program aimed at understanding how language and emotion interact. In addition to having implications for the study of language processing and emotion, the findings may contribute a novel approach to understanding political communication.