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Ideologically Speaking, You Are What You Tweet

New research finds liberals and conservatives use distinctly different language in their Twitter messages.
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(Photo: lculig/Shutterstock)

(Photo: lculig/Shutterstock)

Do liberals swear more than conservatives?

You're f#$%ing right they do—at least in their tweets.

A new study that looks at the different use of language in the Twitter messages of those on the political right and left found that conservatives who send messages on the social network are far less likely than liberals to use four-letter words.

However, conservatives are more partial to using the article "the"—even when confined to 140 characters.

Those are among the revealing findings of Karolina Sylwester and Matthew Purver of Queen Mary University of London. They argue in the online journal PLoS One that these linguistic choices reflect the psychological underpinnings of political ideologies.

Liberals are more likely to proudly wear their hearts on their sleeves, while comparatively cautious conservatives tend to see the world in hierarchical terms.

To take the above two examples: Liberals tend to use a vocabulary marked by "high emotionality," which explains why they are more likely to lapse into four-letter territory. And conservatives' use of "the" frequently turns up in "appeals to authority—the Lord, the government, the USA, the Senate, the law," the authors write.

So liberals are more likely to proudly wear their hearts on their sleeves, while comparatively cautious conservatives tend to see the world in hierarchical terms. Sounds about right.

We've written frequently about the different psychological make-up of liberals and conservatives. In 2009, psychologist Jonathan Haidt explored the ways the two groups emphasize different aspects of morality, while other research has found conservatives tend to fixate more on threats than liberals.

To give these ideas, which are based largely on results from lab experiments, a real-world test, Sylwester and Purver turned to Twitter. Specifically, they analyzed 5,373 Twitter feeds of Democratic users, for a total of 457,372 tweets; on the Republican side, they looked at 5,386 feeds, with 466,386 tweets in all.

Liberals and conservatives were identified by the fact they were followers of the Republican or Democratic parties. People who followed both were excluded. The messages were all sent during the final two weeks of June 2014.

The researchers found Democratic tweeters "tend to use first-person singular pronouns more often that Republican followers, which we interpret as their greater desire for expressing uniqueness." Conversely, they report "the language of Republican followers highlights their group identity," with far greater use of terms such as "we," "our," and "us."

"We found that the expression of positive emotions is positively correlated with following Democrats, but not Republicans," they write. "This result supports recent evidence that, despite reporting higher life satisfaction, Republicans express it less."

Looking at "differentiating words" (that is, terms used far more frequently by one group than the other), the researchers note that "Republicans focus on religion (God, psalm), national identity (America, American, border), in-group identity (Republican, RINO—Republican in Name Only), government and law (vote, impeach, defund), and their opponents (Obama, Reid, Pelosi)."

In contrast, "Democrats' most differentiating words are more emotionally expressive (like 'feel,' and variations on 'happy' and 'amazing'), and reveal their focus on entertainment and culture." (At the time the data was collected, they were far more likely to tweet about the World Cup.)

Liberals were also more interested in non-sports-related world affairs, offering many more mentions of Kenya, which had just suffered a violent terrorist attack.

Altogether, the data supports the growing consensus that "on average, left- and right-leaning individuals differ in their personalities, how they reason, and how they make decisions." As Sylwester and Purver note, "Language encodes who we are, how we think, and what we feel," and the language we use on Twitter suggests major differences between liberals and conservatives on each of those levels.

Bridging the gap, or at least reaching common understandings, will likely require more than 140 characters.

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.