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Liberal or Conservative? Your Choice of Words Gives You Away

New research provides more evidence that people on the left and right perceive the world in different ways.

By Tom Jacobs


Il Facchino, one of the talking statues of Rome. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

It is increasingly clear that one reason liberals and conservatives hold such divergent beliefs is the fact our brains process information differently. Conservatives are more attuned to potential threats; liberals are more open to different experiences. The difference is clear enough that, in a 2014 study, researchers could accurately predict political orientation by looking at a person’s brain scan.

But you don’t need an MRI machine to find empirical evidence of our different ways of thinking. All you have to do is check out our choice of words.

In a recently published study, a research team led by psychologist Michael Robinson of North Dakota State University reports liberals’ language tends to emphasize mental concepts, while conservatives use more references to the body.

If you’re trying to reach people on the other side of the divide, you might want to try using their metaphorical language.

“The liberal-conservative dimension may be understood, although not exclusively so, in terms of variations in whether the mind or the body is salient to the individual,” the researchers write in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology. “Liberals may spontaneously focus on mental operations to a greater extent than conservatives, and conservatives may spontaneously focus on bodily operations to a greater extent than liberals.”

Their analysis aligns nicely with the aforementioned brain study, which found conservatives’ gray matter responding far more strongly to images that evoke disgust, “particularly ones that served as reminders of our animal nature.” This heightened attention to the body turns up — presumably unconsciously — in the written words conservatives use.

While conceding up front that their results “can only indirectly support this hypothesis,” Robinson and his colleagues bolster their argument by looking at three very different writing samples: articles from right- or left-leaning news websites; personal essays by college undergraduates; and the text of Republican and Democratic presidents’ State of the Union addresses.

The first study featured 600 articles taken from three liberal websites (the Huffington Post, Salon, and Talking Points Memo) and three conservative ones (Drudge Report, Politico, and Newsmax). Using the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count program, the researchers examined the ratio of terms referencing cognitive processes (such as “causality and insight”) vs. those referencing biological processes, including “words related to the body, health, sexuality, and ingestion.”

As they suspected, texts from the liberal sites had terminology that was relatively more mentally focused rather than bodily focused, while the opposite was true of stories from conservative sites.

The same pattern was found for State of the Union addresses (analyzed from Ulysses S. Grant to Barack Obama), and for essays written by 94 undergraduates. Importantly, it was consistent whether the student essay in question addressed a political or an apolitical topic.

The results suggest there is “a linguistic signature of political ideology,” as Robinson and his colleagues put it. They identify “the mind-body distinction as one that maps onto, and potentially underlies, differences between liberal vs. conservative ideological mindsets.”

While more evidence of our differences may be depressing, this research does have a potentially positive practical application: If you’re trying to reach people on the other side of the divide, you might want to try using their metaphorical language.