To understand the psychology behind political ideologies, we look to Twitter and Facebook for natural, spontaneous language use. We find that, generally, liberals and conservatives have very different language habits, but the way that extremism is employed is starkly similar.
Sterling, Joanna, John T. Jost, and Richard Bonneau. “Political Psycholinguistics: A Comprehensive Analysis of the Language Habits of Liberal and Conservative Social Media Users.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 118, no. 4, (2020): 805–34. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspp0000275
Jan 09, 2020
Area of Study
For nearly a century social scientists have sought to understand left–right ideological differences in values, motives, and thinking styles. Much progress has been made, but — as in other areas of research — this work has been criticized for relying on small and statistically unrepresentative samples and the use of reactive, self-report measures that lack ecological validity. In an effort to overcome these limitations, we employed automated text analytic methods to investigate the spontaneous, naturally occurring use of language in nearly 25,000 Twitter users. We derived 27 hypotheses from the literature on political psychology and tested them using 32 individual dictionaries. In 23 cases, we observed significant differences in the linguistic styles of liberals and conservatives. For instance, liberals used more language that conveyed benevolence, whereas conservatives used more language pertaining to threat, power, tradition, resistance to change, certainty, security, anger, anxiety, and negative emotion in general. In 17 cases, there were also significant effects of ideological extremity. For instance, moderates used more benevolent language, whereas extremists used more language pertaining to inhibition, tentativeness, affiliation, resistance to change, certainty, security, anger, anxiety, negative affect, swear words, and death-related language. These research methods, which are easily adaptable, open up new and unprecedented opportunities for conducting unobtrusive research in psycholinguistics and political psychology with large and diverse samples.
Over the last 15 years, considerable progress has been made in understanding psychological differences between liberals and conservatives, but many studies are based on self-report measures of psychological variables. Social media platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, offer new opportunities to study naturally and spontaneously occurring linguistic behavior in large, statistically representative sample sizes using objective methods.
We want to answer the question: How do liberals and conservatives use language on social media? And what do these habits reveal about their psychology? We also analyze the role of ideological extremity, or dogmatism and mental rigidity, to better understand how partisanship online is represented. To combat limitations in the research on this topic, we employ automated text analytic methods to investigate the naturally occurring use of language in Twitter users. Ultimately, we observe how people use language on these platforms and then draw on five domains of theory-driven research (e.g., dispositional motives, personal values, motivated social cognition, needs for uniqueness and conformity, and emotion) to understand the broader implications of this language use. Importantly, we utilize nonreactive measurements to remove any bias that a researcher’s presence might inflict on the data collection.
In several cases, we observed significant differences in the linguistic styles between liberals and conservatives. Liberals, for instance, use language that conveys benevolence, whereas conservatives tend to use language that pertains to threat, power, tradition, resistance to change, certainty, security, angery, anxiety, and overall negative emotion. To some degree, these themes correspond to the Republican emphasis on strong military forces, support for capitalism, and religious moral codes. Liberals, on the other hand, were especially likely to use words pertaining to benevolence, perhaps reflecting the Democratic emphasis on equality and social welfare provisions. We also find that moderates use more benevolent language, whereas extremists use language pertaining to inhibition, tentative, affiliation, resistance to change, certainty, security, anger, anxiety, negative affect, swear words, and death-related language. In both cases, extremity was associated with the use of language pertaining to certainty, resistance to change, tentativeness, anxiety, inhibition, security, anger, negative affect, and affiliation. Extremity in general was associated with the increased use of death-related language.