THE LEFT-RIGHT GAP IN LANGUAGE: Liberals and conservatives use much different sets of words, according to an extensive textual analysis of chat rooms, news websites and State of the Union speeches. The analysis, published in the current Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, draws on a psychological distinction between the basic needs for “affiliation” and “power.” Liberals manifest their yearning for social connectedness by using words like care, help, kind, neighbor and volunteer more often than conservatives do. Conservatives more frequently use power words like boss, coerce, hero, strong and victory.
The team of German and American researchers say this is the first study to reveal this difference. And, as usual in social science, the difference is presented in a way that looks bad for conservatives. Citing previous research, the authors write:
These results, although novel, seem intuitive in capturing a fundamental difference by political ideology.
For example, the policies more greatly favored by liberals include social welfare programs and affirmative action, both of which appear affiliation-oriented from a broader perspective. By contrast, the policies more greatly favored by conservatives include increased defense spending and the death penalty, both of which are consistent with a desire to be powerful. Indeed, conservatives are often more invested in the trappings of power such as wealth and status.
Ah, those good-hearted liberals, uninterested in status and money. (The Obamas and their fellow liberals vacation on Martha’s Vineyard only because the beaches are so pretty.) And those deadly power-crazed conservatives, reluctant to even utter nice words like volunteer. (Never mind the studies showing that conservatives actually do more volunteer work than liberals do.)
But here’s another way to look at the results. Liberals talk about politics in language that appeals to our primal socialist instincts, developed on the savanna when we belonged to small clans of hunter-gatherers who really did look out for their kin. Conservatives discuss politics in language that reflects modern reality: socialism doesn’t work in groups larger than a clan, because people do not behave selflessly when they belong to a large group of unrelated strangers. Liberals believe in what the economist Daniel Klein calls “The People’s Romance,” but that fallacy has been exposed by Adam Smith, de Toqueville and Darth Vader, among others.
When liberals say that “government is the word we give to the things we choose to do together,” they score high on affiliation, and some of them may even believe government is one big happy collaboration among equals. But conservatives know that philosophy just means giving one small group of people in the capital more power to boss and coerce the rest of us.