The Missing Words that Help Explain Congress’ Low Approval Ratings - Pacific Standard

The Missing Words that Help Explain Congress’ Low Approval Ratings

A new study links dislike of the institution with a decrease in expressions of concern for helping others.
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The east front of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. (Photo: kynan tait/Flickr)

The east front of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. (Photo: kynan tait/Flickr)

Even as we keep voting our own incumbents back into office, public approval of the United States Congress remains at embarrassingly low levels. A variety of explanations have been offered for this, including partisan gridlock and the resultant difficulty in getting any actual legislation passed.

A research team led by University of Winnipeg psychologist Jeremy Frimer is offering an alternative—or complementary—explanation for this widespread disdain. They suggest the problem isn’t just what our representatives are not doing, but also what they are not saying.

“We suggest that recent public disapproval partly resulted from the disappearance of warm, pro-social language in Congressional discourse,” they write in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “Talking about helping others makes positive impressions upon an audience,” and that topic hasn’t gotten a lot of attention in recent Congressional debates.

"In the years spanning 2002 and 2014, a small (19 percent) decrease in pro-social language ushered in a large (75 percent) decrease in public approval."

Frimer and his colleagues used computer software to analyze all 123,927,807 words spoken by members of the U.S. House of Representative while that body was in session between 1996 and 2014. They specifically looked at the percentage of spoken words that could be classified as “pro-social language”—words such as gentle, involve, educate, contribute, concerned, give, tolerate, trust, and cooperate.

“We then compared levels of pro-social language within each month of Congress with their approval ratings by the American public, and found a striking match,” they write. “In the years spanning 2002 and 2014, a small (19 percent) decrease in pro-social language ushered in a large (75 percent) decrease in public approval.”

Even after taking into account such factors as the unemployment rate, public expectations for the economy, and the number of bills passed, such language “still predicted the public’s approval,” they write. “Indeed, warm, pro-social language was the strongest single predictor of public sentiment.”

Not surprisingly, they did find a bit of a lag between Congressional discourse and this negative public reaction—about six and one-half months, to be exact. While a few political junkies spend their days watching C-SPAN, it takes a while for most voters to get a sense of what our Congressional representatives are talking about, as they gradually digest reports from journalists and other observers.

“What Congress says today best predicts their public approval ratings 29 weeks into the future,” the researchers write.

It all suggests that the tendency for today’s House members to use public proclamations to reflect back the anger of their hard-core supporters may help them personally, but it’s doing the institution considerable harm.

Theoretically, at least, both liberals and conservatives are in office in order to serve the public interest. This research suggests they could repair some of the damage they have done to the institution if they could train themselves to talk in those terms.

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.

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