Tag Archives: #politicians

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: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0003055421000356

Provided by UPF

What We See Shapes, What We Hear (Psychology)

People often move their hands up and down to ‘highlight’ what they are saying. Are such ‘beat gestures’ important for communication? Hans Rutger Bosker from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics and David Peeters from Tilburg University created words with an ambiguous stress pattern and asked listeners what they heard (DIScount or disCOUNT?). The beat gestures people saw influenced what they heard, showing that listeners quickly integrate verbal and visual information during speech recognition.

When politicians address an audience, they typically highlight important words with beat gestures, for example by moving their hands up and down. In fact, we all seem to do it: Such ‘flicks of the hands’ are among the most common gestures in everyday conversations. People align these gestures very precisely to the prominent words in speech. But do beat gestures help listeners to understand the speaker? Hans Rutger Bosker (Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics and Radboud University) and David Peeters (Tilburg University) tested whether what we see shapes what we hear.

“In face-to-face communication, language entails much more than just speech”, explains senior investigator Hans Rutger Bosker. “Speakers make use of different channels (mouth, hands, and face) to get a message across. We want to understand how listeners make use of these different streams of information when they are listening to someone.” In a well-known illusion called the ‘McGurk effect’ , people hear a sound (like the ‘b’ in ‘ba’) as a different sound (for instance ‘pa’ or ‘fa’), depending on the lip movements they see. But is there also a manual McGurk effect? Does what we hear depend on the gestures we see?

Plato or plateau?

To investigate this question, the researchers chose a set of Dutch words that differed only in stress pattern. For instance, the word “PLAto”—with stress on the first syllable—refers to the philosopher from ancient Greece. However, “plaTO”, pronounced with stress on the second syllable, refers to a plateau. Participants watched a video of Bosker producing the words (with ambiguous stress) while making beat gestures (“Now I say the word … plato”). Participants then had to decide which word they heard (PLAto or plaTEAU?). Would it matter whether beat gestures occurred at the first or second syllable?

Listeners were more likely to hear stress on a syllable if there was a beat gesture on that syllable. This ‘manual McGurk effect’ occurred for both words and non-words (“BAAGpif” or “baagPIF”?). Even more surprisingly, beat gestures influenced what vowel people heard (long or short ‘a’ in ‘baagpif / bagpif’), as vowel length is typically associated with the stress pattern of a word.

“Listeners listen not only with their ears, but also with their eyes”, says Bosker. “These findings are the first to show that beat gestures influence which speech sounds you hear”. Bosker and Peeters think that the effect of beat gestures may be even bigger in real life, when speech is less clear than in the lab. In noisy listening conditions, visual beat gestures might be even more important for successful communication. “So wash your hands, and use them”, Bosker adds jokingly.

“Our findings also have the potential to enrich human-computer interaction and improve multimodal speech recognition systems. It seems clear that such systems should take into account more than just speech”, Bosker concludes. “We will follow up on the study by using virtual reality to test how specific these effects are—are they induced by beat gestures only or also by other types of communicative cues, such as head nods and eyebrow movements.”

Reference: Hans Rutger Bosker & David Peeters, “Beat gestures influence which speech sounds you hear”, Royal Society Publishing, 2021. https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2020.2419 https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rspb.2020.2419

Provided by Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics

The Gish Gallop Is A Shady Debate Tactic For Winning Arguments (Psychology)

The debate: whether pineapple is a legitimate pizza topping. You’re against, I’m for.

After you spend five minutes laying out a reasoned argument highlighting the ickiness of the sweet/savory combo and the gastronomic superiority of pepperoni, it’s my turn. I spend my five minutes spewing non-facts, shotgun-style: pineapple will make you lose weight, get promoted, win the lottery, and develop the ability to read thoughts. You get a two-minute rebuttal — what do you do? That confused panic you feel is a result of the Gish Gallop, a sly debate tactic that, in today’s political climate, is more relevant than ever.

The Gish Gallop was originally coined by Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education. Its namesake, Duane Gish, was a prominent creationist in the 1980s and 90s who made it a habit of challenging advocates of evolution to public debates and overwhelming them with false statements. Or, as Scott puts it, “spewing forth torrents of error that the evolutionist hasn’t a prayer of refuting in the format of a debate.”

It’s a sneaky tactic, but it works. That’s because it’s easier and faster to tell a lie than to disprove one. Jonathan Swift once wrote, “Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it.” When you don’t need to worry about accuracy, you can say anything; telling the truth requires careful explanation and detailed reasoning. Once you’ve successfully volleyed a string of lies, you leave your opponent with the painstaking job of explaining why each one isn’t true — and if they don’t address every single one, you can claim victory.


Of course, as we all know, the Gish Gallop rears its ugly head outside of formal debate, too. It can be hard to counteract all the false facts we’re subjected to every day. But there are ways.

According to Quartz’s Carl Alviani, it helps to reframe the argument by focusing in on the most outlandish and difficult-to-debunk lie in the list. You can also change the ground rules, says Alviani. “Just as in a debate, where we have the option of limiting the number of points a speaker can make, we can create online formats designed to discourage Galloping. For example, the rising prevalence of real-time fact-checking is an encouraging step in this direction.”

But fact-checking only has power if audiences pay attention to it. That’s where you come in. If you read or hear something that doesn’t sound right, check up on it. Find multiple sources that attribute their information. If it’s wrong, tell your friends. Misinformation is easy to spread, but with some hard work, the truth can come out.