Prof says Obama's speech suggests little optimism, emotional distance

Prof says Obama's speech suggests little optimism, emotional distance

President Barack Obama's word choice in the State of the Union Address reveals a complex and dynamic thinker who is surprisingly cool and distant, according to James Pennebaker, chair of the Psychology Department.

Using a computer program he's developed to measure the relationship between language and personality, Pennebaker compared the words Obama used to the State of the Union addresses delivered by every president since Harry S. Truman in 1946.

Obama's words were similar to those he used in the address he gave to Congress in early 2009. He is becoming a little more dynamic in his thinking and slightly less positive in his emotional tone.

"Otherwise, he maintains a remarkably even style in the ways he talks to his audiences," Pennebaker said.

However, there are striking differences between Obama and his predecessors, including:

  • Obama establishes less of a personal relationship with the audience than presidents George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, using fewer personal pronouns, positive and negative emotion words or references to other people. His emotional style is most comparable to Ronald Reagan's.
  • His words are less positive or optimistic than any of his predecessors. That is, he uses far more words that convey sadness, anxiety or anger than optimism.
  • He eclipses John F. Kennedy as the most complex thinker of any of the presidents whose speeches were analyzed. Among other things, he uses large numbers of exclusive words -- but, except, without, or -- to make distinctions between what is and what is not included in the idea he is conveying.
  • His words suggest he is also the most dynamic thinker of the modern presidents, evaluating problems from a historical or developing perspective instead of by breaking them down into categories. This trait is marked by the heavy use of verbs. Other dynamic thinkers include presidents Clinton and George H.W. Bush.

Read Pennebaker's full analysis on his blog.