Simplicity Patterns

February 14, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston 

John Sides at The Monkey Cage ran some of Obama’s important speeches through a content analysis program.  In his scan of the speeches, Sides was looking for two factors
  • the complexity of worldview *
  • the belief in ability to control events**
The results show that Obama, in his post-election State of the Union, was much lower on complexity (four standard deviations) and slightly higher on control than in his earlier speeches.

Sides concludes
Obama is indeed more assertive and definitive post re-election.
He says that as though it’s good news.  But I wonder.  How is the reduction in complexity different from “dumbing down”?  And didn’t the Greeks had a word for “belief in ability to control events”: hubris?

I haven’t run any of George W. Bush’s speeches through this program, but I would expect that he would score fairly low on complexity and high on belief in control – just in case you were wondering  how Iraq happened.

So while on policy Obama may be tougher about compromise with the Republicans, he is moving closer to them on rhetorical style. There is much research showing that in general conservatives tend to favor less complexity of thought (they score higher on “intolerance of ambiguity” and other measures of simple-vs.-complex).  That difference is probably reflected in the speeches of their leaders. 

In fact, one of the commenters on Sides’s post ran the Rubio SOTU response through the same content analysis program.  While Obama’s new dumbed-down complexity came in at .49 (Inaugural) and .52 (SOTU), the Republican response level of complexity, .40, was lower still.

* “a simple ratio of words tagged as complex and contingent versus those tagged as simple and definitive”
** “verbs indicative of taking or planning action as a proportion of total verbs”

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