You voted for Obama twice and marched for women, BLM, and Pride—but that doesn’t mean you don’t talk like a Republican. You voted for Trump, own the hat, and have strong feelings about kneeling during the national anthem — but that doesn’t mean you don’t sound like a hippy. Studies have shown that speech patterns can predict political affiliation, but also that they can run counter to peoples’ overt protestations about their political leanings. In other words, some people who want a small government sound like they want a big one — something psychologies tend to credit in part to unexpressed sympathies.
What’s interesting is that these verbal leanings — conservative or liberal — prime the children who listen to their parent’s speeches and impromptu kitchen debates to lean one way or another by informing their manner of speech. In other words, part of handing down politics is handing down politics-inflected speech potentially out of line with your explicit messaging. Fortunately, scientists have created a test to allow people to know if there speech is out of whack with their beliefs.
To find out whether you speak like a conservative or a liberal, choose one of two versions that would complete each of the following sentences in the way that sounds best to you (not the way that you consider most correct):
Anna saved her friend from drowning. Anna…
- is a hero.
- acted heroically.
Peter was smacking his lips loudly during family dinner. Peter…
- is a churl.
- acted churlishly.
Olga gave her packed lunch to the homeless. Olga…
- is an altruist.
- acted altruistically.
Susanna did an additional experiment to confirm her results. Susanna…
- is a professional.
- acted professionally.
Andrew was doing nothing for the whole day. Andrew…
- is lazy.
- acted lazily.
Anita didn’t allow her daughter to meet her friends. Anita…
- is a despot.
- is despotic.
Karol solved all of the math problems, setting a new record. Karol…
- is a genius.
- is ingenious.
Magda had no doubts about the success of her business. Magda …
- is an optimist.
- is optimistic.
Thomas prepared a candlelight dinner for his fiancée. Thomas….
- is a romantic.
- is romantic.
Jacob did not believe that foreign investors would accept his company’s project. Jacob
- is a skeptic.
- is skeptical.
You may have noticed a pattern here. In each scenario, you have the choice of describing a person with a noun (Jacob is a skeptic) or an adjective (Jacob is skeptical). And while a good editor would probably ask for nouns (active voice is king), both versions are technically correct. But here’s the rub—a conservative will select the noun almost every time, while a liberal (or “one who votes liberally”, right?) will prefer the adjective.
When researchers discovered this quirk in a 2016 study of Polish and Arabic college students, they followed up by analyzing political speeches in the United States. Guess what? Republican presidents used a higher proportion of nouns than Democratic presidents, too.
So what is it about nouns that social conservatives find so compelling? Well, prior research has shown that social conservatism around the world is associated with “the need to maintain certainty, structure, and closure,” as the authors of one 2012 study put it. Indeed, studies suggest that liberals favor foreign films, travel, and other activities that reflect novelty and diversity, while conservatives prefer conventional, orderly hobbies, such as watching TV. Conservatives love nouns because they place people into neat little boxes. Karol is a genius. We have no doubts. When it comes to Karol, we have certainty, structure, and closure.
Interestingly, noun preference doesn’t just predict political ideology (or active voice), it also predicts bias. Calling a member of a certain race by a noun (“a Jew” or “a black”) is often considered offensive, while using adjectives (“Jewish” or “black”) traditionally ruffles fewer feathers. That may be because identifying a person as a noun “facilitates stereotypical and essentialist inferences about the traits and behaviors of another person.” As long as Andrew acted lazily he still has his own identity. We cannot put him in a box with all lazy people, or project our biases against the lazy onto him. He is more than his laziness. But once Andrew is lazy, we can categorize him with confidence, and infer that he shares all the traits of lazy people.
Now there’s nothing wrong with being a conservative per se, and these studies do not suggest that conservatives are more likely to stereotype than liberals. Indeed, the data suggests that white Democrats are only slightly less racist than white Republicans. But it does drive home the point that speech often betrays our subtle biases, and that we can fix this. Because whether you’re a conservative or a liberal, you probably don’t want your children to put people into boxes and assume that all blacks, Jews, heroes, and geniuses are the same. Perhaps the first step toward teaching tolerance is teaching your kids to speak with a little nuance—and fewer nouns.