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Why Conservatives Prefer Nouns

Researchers link social conservatism with grammatical preferences that foster feelings of stability and predictability.
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(Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

(Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

As another election cycle heats up, liberals and conservatives are, once again, talking past each other. As it turns out, that's true not only substantively, but stylistically.

Reflecting the psychological pulls that underlie our political differences, right- and left-wingers tend to construct sentences in different ways. According to newly published research, conservatives have a decided preference for nouns.

"Referring to things by their names, rather than describing them in terms of their features, preserves familiarity, stability, and tradition—all of which seem to be more highly valued by conservatives than liberals," writes a research team led by psychologist Aleksandra Cichocka of the University of Kent.

Since nouns "elicit clearer and more definite perceptions of reality than other parts of speech," they satisfy the desire for "structure and certainty" that is common among social conservatives, the researchers argue in the journal Political Psychology.

Compared with liberals, conservative political leaders are "more inclined to use parts of speech that stress clarity and predictability."

They offer evidence of this from three countries: Poland, Lebanon, and the United States.

Their first study featured 189 undergraduates at the University of Warsaw. They indicated where they stand on a left-right scale, and gave their opinions on policy questions ranging from economic inequality to abortion.

In addition, they were instructed to complete 10 sentence fragments, which could logically end with either a noun or an adjective (in six cases), or with either a noun or a verb/adverb pair (in four cases). For example, they were given the statement "Magda has no doubts about the success of her business. Magda...." They were then asked to choose between "is an optimist" and "is optimistic."

"Conservatism—measured in terms of ideological self-placement and support for social policies—was a significant predictor of the preference for nouns over other parts of speech," the researchers report. "This relationship was evident with respect to attitudes toward social, but not economic, issues."

The second, similarly structured study featured 100 young adults in Beirut, Lebanon. It found conservatism "was associated with an increased preference for Arabic nominal sentences (which were composed of nouns only), relative to verbal sentences (which included verbs and, in some cases, adjectives)."

As in Poland, this was true of general and social conservatives, but not economic conservatives. This distinction helps explain why Rand Paul couldn't get any traction in the GOP presidential race: While he tried to sound like a social conservative, his grammatical choices may have inadvertently revealed his libertarian roots.

For the final study, the researchers examined all the inaugural addresses and State of the Union speeches given by presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama—a total of 101 speeches given by 13 chief executives between 1933 and 2014.

"Republican presidents employed a higher proportion of nouns in (their) speeches," they report. This confirms the notion that, compared with liberals, conservative political leaders are "more inclined to use parts of speech that stress clarity and predictability."

If this dynamic seems strange, consider an example. "Jill is a lesbian" uses a noun to place her in a clearly marked category. "Jill sleeps with women" uses a verb to describe an action; it leaves open the possibility she also sleeps with men, or that her orientation could shift at some point. Liberals, being more comfortable with ambiguity, are fine with that latter construction; conservatives, seeking clear definitions and "cognitive closure," not so much.

So it's not a coincidence that Richard Nixon famously stated "I am not a crook," while Bill Clinton declared "I did not have sexual relations with that woman." Nixon, the conservative, was categorical, while Clinton, the liberal, was descriptive.

Or, to put it in their native tongues: Clinton was lying, while Nixon was a liar.


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.