Impressive Words: Linguistic Predictors of Public Approval of the U.S. Congress

Frontiers in Psychology. 2016;7 DOI 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00240


Journal Homepage

Journal Title: Frontiers in Psychology

ISSN: 1664-1078 (Online)

Publisher: Frontiers Media S.A.

LCC Subject Category: Philosophy. Psychology. Religion: Psychology

Country of publisher: Switzerland

Language of fulltext: English

Full-text formats available: PDF, HTML, ePUB, XML



Ari eDecter-Frain (University of Winnipeg)

Jeremy A Frimer (University of Winnipeg)


Blind peer review

Editorial Board

Instructions for authors

Time From Submission to Publication: 14 weeks


Abstract | Full Text

What type of language makes the most positive impression within a professional setting? Is competent/agentic language or warm/communal language more effective at eliciting social approval? We examined this basic social cognitive question in a real world context using a big data approach—the recent record-low levels of public approval of the U.S. Congress. Using Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC), we text analyzed all 123+ million words spoken by members of the U.S. House of Representatives during floor debates between 1996-2014 and compared their usage of various classes of words to their public approval ratings over the same time period. We found that neither agentic nor communal language positively predicted public approval. However, this may be because communion combines two disparate social motives (belonging and helping). A follow-up analysis found that the helping form of communion positively predicted public approval, and did so more strongly than did agentic language. Next, we conducted an exploratory analysis, examining which of the 63 standard LIWC categories predict public approval. We found that the public approval of Congress was highest when politicians used tentative language, expressed both positive emotion and anxiety, and used human words, numbers, prepositions, numbers, and avoided conjunctions and the use of second-person pronouns. These results highlight the widespread primacy of warmth over competence as the primary dimensions of social cognition.