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Professor: In Politics, It’s Not Just What You Say, It’s How You Say It

October 23, 2012

In an election year, as people are being machine-gunned with millions of dollars’ worth of political messages from all sorts of sources, it might be re-assuring (or distressing) to discover that even the more subtle aspects of language use can actually make a make a powerful and priceless difference on Election Day.

How candidates frame their messages might be as important as their basic content, argues UC Merced Professor Teenie Matlock in an article she authored for the November-December 2012 issue of American Scientist, out this month.

Last year, Sigma Xi, the National Scientific Research Society, named Matlock its Young Investigator of the Year, and her lecture at the national meeting in October 2011 was such a big hit that she was invited to write an article for the society’s flagship publication, American Scientist, according to UC Merced’s Sigma Xi chapter.

Her article “Framing Political Messages with Grammar and Metaphor” discusses work published in a 2011 issue of Political Psychology on grammar in political messages and the electability of political candidates.

In that work, she and co-author Caitlin Fausey, a researcher at Indiana University, discovered even small differences in grammatical aspect – for instance, whether a description mentions that a candidate “was having an affair” vs. “had an affair” – can shift voter confidence.

The American Scientist article discusses this year’s presidential race and evaluates how both political parties are appealing to the public with motion metaphors.

Specifically, President Barack Obama’s campaign messages emphasize the idea of forward motion using the simple campaign slogan “forward,” while Gov. Mitt Romney’s campaign messages emphasize a different kind of movement, such as “turn America around,” and “America’s comeback team,” to imply that the country has been going in the wrong direction.

But why does this affect people?

“Grammatical aspect works as a framing device because it involves mental simulation of actions. In some cases it enhances simulation, and in others it diminishes simulation,” Matlock said. “A message like ‘was having an affair’ should be worse for a candidate than a message like ‘had an affair’ because it implies more immoral actions, and suggests that those actions may continue in the future.

“Metaphorical framing works approximately the same way,” she said. “People readily understand metaphorical statements about motion, even the simple messages, such as “forward,” because they ground their understanding in terms of what they know about motion, including how it canonically works: along a path toward a destination.”

In her article, Matlock says metaphors in political messaging are a valuable tool for explaining positions in clear terms and being persuasive.

“People readily understand and react to metaphor because it is such a fundamental part of everyday language and thought,” she said.

Matlock is the McClatchy Chair in Communications at UC Merced and an associate professor of cognitive science in the School of Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities. She has written more than 50 articles that span cognitive science, linguistics, psycholinguistics and computer science. Metaphor and semantics are two of her main research interests. Coming from Stanford University in 2004, she founded the now world-renowned cognitive science program on the newest UC campus.

Her research and others’ over the past decade have looked at how people react to motion language, providing evidence that people simulate motion even when the motion is metaphorical.

“Differences in grammatical aspect or other grammatical forms may create wildly different inferences about when somebody will do something and in what way,” Matlock writes in American Scientist. “And differences in metaphor can be used to magnify or enhance people’s attitudes about political candidates.”

The language isn’t only coming from the campaigns, either. The way the media presents ideas can affect people’s views of candidates, as well, such as “including phrases that refer to battles (‘Romney draws battle lines in GOP acceptance speech’), uncleanliness (‘dirty campaign tactics’), and space (‘Romney is distancing himself from Ryan’s Medicare cuts’),” Matlock writes.

Whose language will be more persuasive?

We’ll find out Nov. 6.

Lorena Anderson

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