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As My Esteemed Opponent Just Said...

New research finds mimicking the linguistic style of your opponent is a smart strategy in presidential debates.
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Donald Trump speaking at CPAC 2011 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

Donald Trump speaking at CPAC 2011 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

As the first presidential debate of the 2016 election cycle rapidly approaches, candidates and their advisors are fretting over how to respond to Donald Trump. One instinctive reaction would be to attempt to differentiate oneself as much as possible from the motor-mouthed millionaire, responding to his bombast with calm, reasoned discourse.

Newly published research, which looks at a long series of presidential debates, suggests that may be a bad idea: The most effective debating technique might just be to match the linguistic style of a political opponent.

According to the researchers, this similarity of expression makes it easier for audiences to process what the second candidate has to say, and therefore increases the chance her argument will be accepted. It further implies a candidate is able to see things from her opponent's perspective—a quality voters find appealing.

"Candidates who matched their opponent's linguistic style increased their standing in the polls."

Candidates who deliberately adopt a different linguistic style than their opponent to highlight the differences between them "may misunderstand that mimicry is presidential," writes a research team led by Daniel M. Romero of the University of Michigan School of Information in a study published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Realizing that mimicking the speaking style of one's opponent could be viewed as a positive or negative—in theory, it could make a candidate come across as more of a follower than a leader, and therefore less presidential—Romero and his colleagues examined all available transcripts of United States presidential debates between 1976 and 2012.

They ignored the content of the candidates' answers and focused on style-related words—the prepositions and pronouns that determine how something is said. Specifically, they measured linguistic style matching via the use of eight different markers: Quantifiers, conjunctions, adverbs, auxiliary verbs, prepositions, articles, personal pronouns, and impersonal pronouns.

A formula was developed to determine the extent to which a candidate changed her linguistic style to match that of the opponent. Its impact on the public was determined by looking at Gallup polls before and after each debate.

After taking into account "other fixed factors known to affect poll changes," Romero and his colleagues found that "linguistic matching results in favorable audience responses." To put it more concretely, "candidates who matched their opponent's linguistic style increased their standing in the polls."

The results support the argument that greater linguistic matching "signals that the matcher takes the opponent's perspective, and is therefore in a better position to be persuasive," the researchers write. They add that it also "facilitates the ease of processing" their responses, which is helpful since "language that can be processed more fluently is rated as more truthful, accurate, and persuasive."

So if Trump sets the linguistic tone of Thursday night's GOP debate—which seems likely—the other candidates may be wise to mimic his hyperbolic mode of expression, perhaps turning his penchant for ridicule back onto him.

This research suggests the alternative—adopting an approach that sets you apart as serious and responsible—may simply cause annoyance and confusion, as struggling viewers attempt to adjust from one speaking style to the other.

Thus the Donald flummoxes his opponents. This is going to be a long campaign.

Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.