Category Archives: Politics

When And Why Do Politicians Use Emotive Rhetoric in Parliamentary Speeches? (Politics)

A study involving Toni Rodon, a professor with the UPF Department of Political and Social Sciences, argues that emotive rhetoric is one of the tools that politicians use strategically to attract voters. Published in American Political Science Review, the article analyses two million parliamentary speeches delivered in the lower houses of parliament in the UK (between 2001 and 2019) and Ireland (between 2002 and 2013).

Politicians use emotional resources in their speeches in parliament depending on the type of debate and use emotive rhetoric strategically and selectively, mainly to attract voters. This is one of the main conclusions of a study published in the journal American Political Science Review (APSR) involving Toni Rodon, a professor with the UPF Department of Political and Social Sciences and member of the Research Group on Institutions and Political Actors, together with Moritz Osnabrügge (Durham University, as first author) and Sara B. Hobolt (London School of Economics and Political Science).

“Our research provides evidence that incentives to attract voters differ systematically depending on the type of debate”

In recent years, much research has been done showing that emotions are important in politics and that the use of emotive rhetoric, based on positive or negative language, is common during election campaigns. Research has also been conducted within political parties regarding the stance adopted and the dissent expressed in parliamentary debates, but when and why politicians use emotive rhetoric in their legislative speeches has been studied less, and is now elaborated on by the authors in their work.

Emotive language usually refers to a style of communication that arouses an emotional response from the listener, thus evoking positive or negative reactions that go beyond the specific meaning of the word or phrase used. So, it can be a powerful tool to convince people of the validity of a particular message, and from the point of view of electoral competition, there is evidence linking emotion-eliciting appeals with the electoral success of certain political formations.

Analysis of two million speeches in the House of Commons and in the Dáil Éireann

The analysis included in article covers two million speeches delivered in the House of Commons and in the Dáil Éireann, the lower houses of parliament of Great Britain and Ireland, respectively. Specifically, a million parliamentary speeches, i.e., all those that were delivered in the House of Commons between 2001 and 2019, and a further one million speeches delivered in the Dáil Éireann between 2002 and 2013.

The authors chose the British Parliament because it is one of the oldest in the world, an ideal institutional environment for studying these kinds of speeches. “We focused on the House of Commons because it is the more powerful of the two legislative chambers in the UK and the debates held there differ in terms of their profile and the size of the audience, which has allowed us to compare emotive rhetoric across different types of debate”, the authors assert. In a second stage, the study of the speeches delivered in the lower house of the Irish parliament has allowed confirming and generalizing their findings.

High and low profile legislative debates: two different styles of discourse

The article which, based on an analysis of how politicians use emotive rhetoric in parliament, contributes to the understanding of political competition and legislative behaviour, underlines differences with regard to incentives that legislators have according to the type of debate. “Our research provides evidence that incentives to attract voters differ systematically depending on the type of debate”, the authors suggest. Thus, in high-profile legislative debates, parliamentarians have more incentives to use emotive rhetoric to attract the attention of a wider audience, which they capture by using more emotive political content and language.

It could be said that PMQs is the debate to which citizens are most exposed, and this gives incentives for MPs to use more emotive language.

In the House of Commons, this is the case of Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs), a debate held weekly. It is a convention during which the prime minister answers questions from MPs, especially the leader of the opposition. It is the parliamentary highlight of the week, broadcast live and covered extensively by the media.

It could be said that PMQs is the debate to which citizens are most exposed, and this gives incentives for MPs to use more emotive languageOther high-profile debates are the Queen’s Speech, which take place annually at the start of each new year of parliament (at which the Queen reads the government’s main priorities, and which also involves the prime minister and the opposition leader) or the Dáil Leaders’ Questions, which are put to the Irish prime minister.

Conversely, in low-profile legislative debates, which are not so avidly followed and generate less expectation, politicians mostly address their colleagues in parliament, and therefore emotional rhetoric is less pronounced.

A new application to measure emotive rhetoric

The study presents a new methodological application to measure emotive rhetoric, and it does so by combining the Affective Norms for English Words (ANEW) dictionary, with word-embedding techniques that enables creating a dictionary specific to the field. Thus, the new tool categorizes emotional and neutral words via ANEW and also identifies new words used in parliamentary speeches to broaden these two categories.

Word Clouds of Emotive and Neutral Words

Word Clouds of Emotive and Neutral Words

For example, some of the neutral words incorporated by the authors are “walkway”, “diameter”, “metres” and “radiators” and some of the emotional words, “appalling”, “empathy”, “horrific” and “admiration”. With regard to areas where we find a higher average level of emotive rhetoric there is “fabric of society”, “social groups” and “welfare and quality of life”, and the areas where we find a lower level of emotive rhetoric, “political system” and “economy”. “Our measurement technique more accurately captures the emotive use of language in a political environment”, the researchers assert.

The authors conclude their work with a reminder: although emotive parliamentary speeches may have positive implications, with increased public interest in the activities of their representatives and in politics in general, there is the risk of negative consequences: “Emotive rhetoric may also increase polarization and may favour politicians who prioritize emotional appeals over competent, coherent policy, and can harm the quality of deliberation and at the same time the quality of democratic representation”, they warn.

Featured image: Appearance of the House of Commons during a Questions to the Prime Minister session. PHOTO: Wikipedia

Reference work: Osnabrügge, M., Hobolt, S.B., Rodon, T. “Playing to the Gallery: Emotive Rhetoric in Parliaments” (May 2021). American Political Science Review (pp. 1-15) DOI:

Provided by UPF

Twitter Experiment Finds Correcting Misinformation Makes Problem Worse (Politics)

Correcting misinformation on Twitter may only make the problem worse, according to a new study.

In a Twitter field experiment, a research team from the University of Exeter Business School and MIT Sloan offered polite corrections, complete with links to solid evidence, in replies to flagrantly false tweets about politics.

But they found this had negative consequences, leading to even less accurate tweets and greater toxicity from those being corrected.

According to the study’s lead author Dr Mohsen Mosleh, Lecturer in Business Analytics at University of Exeter Business School, the findings were “not encouraging”.

“After a user was corrected they retweeted news that was significantly lower in quality and higher in partisan slant, and their retweets contained more toxic language,” said Dr Mosleh.

To conduct the experiment, the researchers identified 2,000 Twitter users, with a mix of political persuasions, who had tweeted out any one of 11 frequently repeated false news articles.

All of those articles had been debunked by the fact-checking website Examples include the incorrect assertion that Ukraine donated more money than any other nation to the Clinton Foundation, and the false claim that Donald Trump, as a landlord, once evicted a disabled combat veteran for owning a therapy dog.

The research team then created a series of Twitter bot accounts, all of which existed for at least three months and gained at least 1,000 followers, and appeared to be genuine human accounts.

Upon finding any of the 11 false claims being tweeted out, the bots would then send a reply along the lines of, “I’m uncertain about this article – it might not be true. I found a link on Snopes that says this headline is false.”

The reply would also link to the correct information.

The researchers observed that the accuracy of news sources the Twitter users retweeted promptly declined by roughly 1 percent in the 24 hours after being corrected.

Similarly, evaluating over 7,000 retweets with links to political content made by the Twitter accounts in the same 24 hours, the scholars found an upturn in the partisan lean of content and the “toxicity” of the language being used.

However, in all these areas – accuracy, partisan lean, and the language being used – there was a distinction between retweets and the primary tweets being written by the Twitter users.

Retweets, specifically, degraded in quality, while tweets original to the accounts being studied did not.

“Our observation that the effect only happens to retweets suggests that the effect is operating through the channel of attention,” said co-author Professor David Rand from the MIT Sloan School of Management, noting that on Twitter people seem to spend a relatively long time crafting primary tweets, and little time making decisions about retweets.

He added: “We might have expected that being corrected would shift one’s attention to accuracy. But instead, it seems that getting publicly corrected by another user shifted people’s attention awayfrom accuracy – perhaps to other social factors such as embarrassment.”

The effects were slightly larger when being corrected by an account that identified with the same political party as the user, suggesting that the negative response was not driven by animosity towards counter-partisans.

The findings seemingly run in contrary to a previous paper by Dr Mosleh and the research team, published in Nature in March, showing that neutral, non-confrontational reminders about the concept of accuracy can increase the quality of the news people share on social media.

“Unlike the subtle accuracy nudges, direct public corrections were found to make things worse. This shows how complicated the fight against misinformation is, and cautions against encouraging people to go around correcting each other online,” said Dr Mosleh. 

Perverse Downstream Consequences of Debunking: Being Corrected by Another User for Posting False Political News Increases Subsequent Sharing of Low Quality, Partisan, and Toxic Content in a Twitter Field Experiment,” is published online in CHI ’21: Proceedings of the 2021 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.

Featured image: To conduct the experiment, the researchers identified 2,000 Twitter users, with a mix of political persuasions, who had tweeted out any one of 11 frequently repeated false news articles. © University of Exeter

Provided by University of Exeter

Politically Polarized Brains Share an Intolerance of Uncertainty (Politics / Neuroscience)

A new study on political polarization led by a Brown University team showed how an aversion to uncertainty is often associated with black-and-white political views.

Since the 1950s, political scientists have theorized that political polarization — increased numbers of “political partisans” who view the world with an ideological bias — is associated with an inability to tolerate uncertainty and a need to hold predictable beliefs about the world.

But little is known about the biological mechanisms through which such biased perceptions arise.

To investigate that question, scientists at Brown University measured and compared the brain activity of committed partisans (both liberals and conservatives) as they watched real political debates and news broadcasts. In a recent study, they found that polarization was indeed exacerbated by intolerance of uncertainty: liberals with this trait tended to be more liberal in how they viewed political events, conservatives with this trait tended to be more conservative.

Yet the same neural mechanisms was at work, pushing the partisans into their different ideological camps.

“This is the first research we know of that has linked intolerance to uncertainty to political polarization on both sides of the aisle,” said study co-author Oriel FeldmanHall, an assistant professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences at Brown. “So whether a person in 2016 was a strongly committed Trump supporter or a strongly committed Clinton supporter, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that an aversion to uncertainty only exacerbates how similarly two conservative brains or two liberal brains respond when consuming political content.”

Jeroen van Baar, study co-author and a former post-doctoral researcher at Brown, said the findings are important because they show that factors other than political beliefs themselves can influence individuals’ ideological biases.

“We found that polarized perception — ideologically warped perceptions of the same reality — was strongest in people with the lowest tolerance for uncertainty in general,” said van Baar, who is now a research associate at Trimbos, the Netherlands Institute of Mental Health and Addiction. “This shows that some of the animosity and misunderstanding we see in society is not due to irreconcilable differences in political beliefs, but instead depends on surprising — and potentially solvable — factors such as the uncertainty people experience in daily life.”

The study was published online in the journal PNAS on Thurs., May 13.

To examine whether and how intolerance for uncertainty shapes how political information is processed in the brain, the researchers recruited 22 committed liberals and 22 conservatives. They used fMRI technology to measure brain activity while participants watched three types of videos: a neutrally worded news segment on a politically charged topic, an inflammatory debate segment and a non-political nature documentary.

After the viewing session, participants answered questions about their comprehension and judgment of the videos and completed an extensive survey with five political and three cognitive questionnaires designed to measure traits like intolerance of uncertainty.

“We used relatively new methods to look at whether a trait like intolerance of uncertainty exacerbates polarization, and to examine if individual differences in patterns of brain activity synchronize to other individuals that hold like-minded beliefs,” FeldmanHall said.

When the researchers analyzed participants’ brain activity while processing the videos, they found that neural responses diverged between liberals and conservatives, reflecting differences in the subjective interpretation of the footage. People who identified strongly as liberal processed political content much in the same way and at the same time — which the researchers refer to as neural synchrony. Likewise, the brains of those who identified as conservative were also in sync when processing political content.

“If you are a politically polarized person, your brain syncs up with like-minded individuals in your party to perceive political information in the same way,” FeldmanHall said.

This polarized perception was exacerbated by the personality trait of intolerance of uncertainty. Those participants — of any ideology — who were less tolerant to uncertainty in daily life (as reported on their survey responses) had more ideologically polarized brain responses than those who are better able to tolerate uncertainty.

“This suggests that aversion to uncertainty governs how the brain processes political information to form black-and-white interpretations of inflammatory political content,” the researchers wrote in the study.

Interestingly, the researchers did not observe the polarized perception effect during a non-political video or even during a video about abortion presented in a neutral, non-partisan tone.

“This is key because it implies that ‘liberal and conservative brains’ are not just different in some stable way, like brain structure or basic functioning, as other researchers have claimed, but instead that ideological differences in brain processes arise from exposure to very particular polarizing material,” van Baar said. “This suggests that political partisans may be able to see eye to eye — provided we find the right way to communicate.”

David J. Halpern of New York University and the University of Pennsylvania was an additional study author.

The research was supported by a Brown University seed grant and by National Institutes of Health COBRE Grant P20GM103645.

Reference: Jeroen M. van Baar, David J. Halpern, Oriel FeldmanHall, “Intolerance of uncertainty modulates brain-to-brain synchrony during politically polarized perception”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences May 2021, 118 (20) e2022491118; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2022491118

Provided by Brown University

What Is Stability-instability Paradox? (Politics)

The stability-instability paradox is an international relations theory regarding the effect of nuclear weapons and mutually assured destruction. It states that when two countries each have nuclear weapons, the probability of a direct war between them greatly decreases, but the probability of minor or indirect conflicts between them increases.


This occurs because rational actors want to avoid nuclear wars, and thus they neither start major conflicts nor allow minor conflicts to escalate into major conflicts„thus making it safe to engage in minor conflicts.

For instance, during the Cold War the United States and the Soviet Union never engaged each other in warfare, but fought proxy wars in Korea, Vietnam, Angola, the Middle East, Nicaragua and Afghanistan and spent substantial amounts of money and manpower on gaining relative influence over the third world.

A study published in the journal of conflict resolution in 2009 quantitatively evaluated the nuclear peace hypothesis, and found support for the existence of the stability-instability paradox. The study determined that while nuclear weapons promote strategic stability, and prevent large scale wars, they simultaneously allow for more lower intensity conflicts. When a nuclear monopoly exists between two states, and their opponent does not, there is a greater chance of war.

In contrast, when there is mutual nuclear weapon ownership with both states possessing nuclear weapons, the odds of war drop precipitously.

Reference: Robert Rauchhaus, “Evaluating the Nuclear Peace Hypothesis: A Quantitative Approach”, Journal of Conflict Resolution, 2020.

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The Spiral Of Silence Keeps People From Speaking Out On The Issues That Matter Most (Psychology / Politics)

If you had to name the issue that’s the most important to you, what would it be? Whether your opinion on it is shared by most people or puts you in the minority, there are a lot of reasons you might not feel like speaking up about it. Experts refer to this phenomenon as the “spiral of silence.”

This effect has been studied the most in the area of climate change. In March 2016, The Yale Program On Climate Change Communication performed a national survey that had some pretty counterintuitive results. It’s clear that climate change is close to people’s hearts: more than 60 percent of Americans say the issue of global warming is at least somewhat important to them personally. However, a whopping 82 percent of them hear people talk about the issue less than once a month (24 percent never even hear it being discussed!), and 68 percent “rarely” or “never” discuss the issue with family and friends. If it’s so important to people, why aren’t they speaking up about it?

The phenomenon got its name in the book The Spiral of Silence: Public Opinion—Our Social Skin by German political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann. The author pointed out that when it comes to opinions we hold on issues that are important to us, both people in the majority and those in the minority will keep quiet—just for different reasons. The majority assumes everyone thinks like them, so any discussion of their opinions would just be “preaching to the choir.” The minority, meanwhile, assumes nobody thinks like them, so they fear being ostracized if they speak up. The key is that both groups misjudge how popular their opinions are, and operate on that assumption.

As Olga Mecking writes in The Science of Us, that’s not always a bad thing. “When people with racist, xenophobic, homophobic, or otherwise prejudiced views feel that they’re in the minority, it means that oppressed groups may feel more comfortable expressing themselves, like the way LGBTQ people feel more comfortable coming out in states where same-sex marriage is legal.” Still, if an issue is important enough, the spiral of silence can keep beneficial change from happening. So what’s an opinionated person to do? Whether you think your views are shared by everybody or nobody, speak up. Who knows what you could accomplish?

Politicians Now Use Simpler Language, Express More Sentiments (Politics / Social Science)

Research by Kansas State University shows how politicians from both major parties have changed their political speech from previous centuries. The research results show that more recent speeches use a smaller vocabulary, simpler language, express more positive or negative sentiments, and have more noticeable differences between Democratic and Republican speakers.

Fig: Mike braun speaking to reporters in the senate basement at the US IMG credit: gettyimages

A computer science research team at K-State analyzed nearly 2 million congressional speeches made by Republican and Democrat legislators from 1873 to 2010. Their computer analysis shows that political speeches are in fact very different in their style from political speeches made in Congress several decades ago. They used automatic text analysis algorithms to analyze congressional speeches in different years.

The algorithms measured different aspects of the speeches such as the vocabulary, the reading level, the positive or negative sentiments expressed in the speeches, and more. The sentiments are measured by using artificial intelligence reading of the text and associating words and phrases with positive or negative sentiments given their context.

The algorithms also measured the frequency in which different topics were discussed. These quantitative speech elements were computed from thousands of congressional speeches made in each year, and the average of each year allowed to measure the changes in the language and topics discussed in Congress during a period of 138 years.

The research showed that the frequency of words related to women’s identity—such as she, her, hers, woman, women, etc.—has been increasing consistently since the early 1980s, while the frequency of words that identify men have been decreasing. The frequency of words related to women’s identity in the 21st century is five times higher compared to the 1950s, but still lower than the frequency of words related to men’s identity. Since the 1990s, terms related to women’s identity are more frequent in speeches made by Democratic legislators compared to speeches made by Republican legislators.

Fig: The Coleman-Liau index shows the reading level of Democratic and Republican congressional speeches in from 1873 to 2010. Credit: Kansas State University

The research also showed that the reading level of the speeches changed significantly over the years. The analysis measured the Coleman-Liau readability index, which estimates the reading level of a certain text and associates it with the appropriate school grade. The analysis showed that the reading level of congressional speeches made by both Republican and Democratic legislators increased consistently from the eighth-grade reading level in the 19th century, to the 10th-grade level in the 1970s. But since 1976 the reading level of political speeches has been declining consistently, and as of the 21st century, it is below the ninth-grade reading level. The same trend was also observed with the vocabulary used by congressional members in speeches, which had been increasing consistently until the early 1970s, and then started to decline—and it is still declining.

The researchers’ analysis of the speeches also showed that more recent congressional speeches express more positive and negative sentiments than the speeches made in Congress during the 19th century and early 20th century. The sentiments in political speeches became gradually more positive and peaked in the 1960s, but declined sharply during the 1970s. Since the 1970s the sentiments expressed in congressional speeches have been becoming more positive.

According to the study, the decline in reading level and vocabulary of the speeches can be related to the increasing presence of media—including live radio and TV coverage—in Congress beginning in the 1970s. Members of Congress started to gradually adjust their speech styles, addressing the public through the media rather than addressing their fellow legislators.

Another aspect reflected through the analysis was the partisan split. Starting in the mid-1990s, Republican and Democratic speeches became increasingly different from each other and also correlated with the political affiliation of the president. For instance, during the George W. Bush administration, speeches of Democratic legislators expressed more negative sentiments compared to their Republican counterparts. That difference flipped immediately after 2008, with the beginning of the Obama administration, during which Republican speeches became more negative.

References: Ethan C. Tucker et al, A data science approach to 138 years of congressional speeches, Heliyon (2020). DOI: 10.1016/j.heliyon.2020.e04417 link:

Blue Lies Are Why You Can’t Talk Politics With Some People (Psychology / Politics)

Let’s say you have a friend who roots for the Minneapolis Mollusks, while you’re for the St. Paul Seacows all the way. At last night’s game, one of the Mollusks blatantly fouled the Seacow’s star player, but your friend won’t admit it happened. What’s more, neither will any of the other members of the Mollusks fan club. How can they deny seeing something so obvious? The answer is that they are telling blue lies—falsehoods meant to reinforce the bonds within a group and keep others out.


As it turns out, we all learn to tell lies at a pretty young age. Around age 3, kids figure out that their parents can’t actually read minds, and they start telling black lies (that is, lies for self-gain) such as “I didn’t eat the chocolate chips.” Later, around age 7, their developing sense of empathy leads to white lies, such as “I like your drawing.” As these nuances develop, they are learning the entire time about blue lies, and a new study shows that, the older they get, the more likely they are to participate in these lies.

Groups of children ages 7, 9, and 11 were asked to assemble a team of four Chinese chess players—two experienced players, and two novices. Every class decided to break the rules without prompting from the experimenter, but later, when asked if they had done as instructed, the older children were much more likely to lie for the group than the younger kids. As it turns out, those same groups were also less likely to tell lies for their self benefit, suggesting that a growing sense of morality is linked to these kinds of lies—but don’t take that to mean that it’s a good deed.


The phrase “blue lies” allegedly originates in cases when police officers would cover for the department or fabricate evidence to ensure the state’s case. In that sense, it’s pretty easy to see how these kind of lies are detrimental to society. They can also come into play in the political arena. We’ve all seen it in action—a politician can get away with a lot more falsehoods when he’s speaking to supporters than he can otherwise. That’s because those lies either reinforce the beliefs the group holds dear, or because they demonize those outside of the group. Again, it’s clear how this hurts society. When political parties traffic mostly in lies, the gap between them grows insurmountable. That’s why it’s so important to hold each other accountable for the lies we tell, even if those lies benefit us or those we identify with.

References: (1) Genyue Fu, Angela D. Evans, Lingfeng Wang, and Kang Lee, “Lying in the name of the collective good”, Dev Sci. 2008 Jul; 11(4): 495–503. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-7687.2008.00695.x ; link