SCIENCE

A Surprising Thing Happens When Presidential Candidates Use Emotional Language

New research shows that Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders actually have something in common.
Trump addresses supporters at a town hall event in Tampa, Florida. 
Trump addresses supporters at a town hall event in Tampa, Florida. 

Angry, inflammatory rhetoric is the bread and butter of Donald Trump's speeches, which are full of language that's arguably less presidential than any presidential candidate in recent history. 

Many Republicans have expressed concern that Trump's language, particularly when it comes to racial issues, is damaging the party. But new research suggests that Trump's emotionally-charged language may be precisely what makes his supporters see him as worthy of the White House. 

The Ohio State University study, which is slated for publication in September in the journal Presidential Studies Quarterly, finds that emotional appeals makes a candidate appear more presidential and trustworthy to the public -- but only during times of economic hardship and uncertainty.

In times of economic stability, on the other hand, voters prefer a candidate to exercise restraint in their language, David Clementson, a Ph.D. candidate at the university and the study's lead author, told The Huffington Post.

"My study indicated that if you're speaking to the times, you'll be seen as more trustworthy," he said. "If you use low-intensity language in stable circumstances, you're more trustworthy. Conversely, if you use high-intensity language in exigent circumstances, you're more trustworthy."

If you're speaking to the times, you'll be seen as more trustworthy." David Clementson, Ph.D. candidate at Ohio State University

The findings seem to shed light on the rise of not only Donald Trump -- who has drawn supporters with insults, hateful words and emotional appeals to "make America great again" -- but also Bernie Sanders, who invokes fired-up language to rally his supporters around issues like racial and income inequality.

"Even though Donald Trump is on one extreme partisan end of the spectrum and Bernie Sanders is on the opposite, there are a lot of similarities with those two appearing to gain momentum," Clementson said. "They're on these opposite ends of ideology, but they're both gaining momentum using high-intensity language that reflects the emotions of voters."

So where does this all leave Hillary Clinton? Stuck in a double bind, according to Clementson. Clinton's challenge is that while people want emotionally-charged language, research has shown that people do not look favorably upon the use of this sort of language when it's coming from a woman. 

"There's this unfair double bind for female speakers," he said, "in which they are not granted the same latitude of acceptance [as male speakers]."

For the study, which was conducted during the 2012 election, Clementson and his colleagues recruited 300 students of various political persuasions and affiliations from the University of Miami.

Half of the students read about an economic scenario designed to inspire fear (being told that they'd struggle to get employment after graduating) while the other half read an economic situation designed to inspire optimism (being told that students were getting jobs after college and the government was forgiving student loans). 

Then, the students read an excerpt from a speech of a fictional presidential candidate, which featured either high-intensity or low-intensity language. They were asked afterwards to rate their perceptions of the candidate in several areas, including trustworthiness and presidentiality. 

The students who read the negative economic scenario tended to rate the candidates with the high-intensity language as being more presidential and trustworthy, while the students who read the positive scenario tended to rate the candidates who used low-intensity language to be more presidential and trustworthy. 

It makes sense that we might perceive candidates who speak to our emotional state as being more trustworthy, but why high-intensity language increases perceptions of how presidential a person seems is less clear.

As Clementson explains, "presidentiality" is an important but loosely defined trait that consists of being viewed as dignified, refined and competent -- "embodying the trappings of being in the White House." 

But it seems counterintuitive: Don't candidates who use measured, deliberate language seem more "presidential?" Not in times of economic hardship and social unrest, when we expect candidates to act as a mirror to our own concerns.

The researchers concluded that when we're feeling fearful and uncertain about the future, we're more receptive to intense, emotional language that acknowledges and reflects those feelings.

Editor's note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liarrampant xenophoberacistmisogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims -- 1.6 billion members of an entire religion -- from entering the U.S.

HuffPost

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