Emotional words

obama-press-conference-obamacare-sad.jpgThis week I came across the work of Drew Westen professor of psychology and psychiatry at Emory University. His book The Political Brain looks at the role of emotion in determining the USA’s political life, essentially making the point that people make political decisions (for example about who to vote for) based on emotion rather than reason and rationality. I didn’t find this surprising but it’s interesting work nonetheless. Other studies seem to suggest that effectiveness of emotion varies by political orientation for example if you are a Republican politician apparently it helps a bit to make the audience laugh.

In Speeching I want to look at how to engage with the emotional content of political speeches by separating out the different elements that create such emotional effects for example I wrote about the impact of rhythm and repetition last week. I’m also interested in emotional embodiment and work with states (something I explored in a les ballets C de la B workshop in 2012) and am thinking about how to bring this into the Speeching process. Last week we worked with the Meg Stuart task shown in the photo below:

Source: Jeroen Peeters (2010) Meg Stuart: Are We Here Yet? Damaged Goods

I’ve also been looking at the impact of individual words, particularly since I have been working with breaking speeches up so the words are no longer part of conventional sentences or phrases. In my research I came across EffectCheck, an online tool that takes written text and analyses the emotions subliminally associated with individual words and phrases (not taking into account the context)

The idea behind it is that many words have subconscious effects on us. “For instance, if you’re walking down the street and you see a sign with the word “ELDERLY” written on it, studies show people actually start walking slower without realizing it. Alternatively, consider responding to someone telling a great joke. You can say “That joke is hilarious” or “That joke kills me” — both mean the same thing, the context is the same, but subconsciously the word “kills” actually raises your stress levels.”

There may be something in it; in 2012 Benjamin Bergen, a cognitive scientist at the University of California published Louder Than Words which argues that “Every time we hear a word…it brings to mind sights, sounds, feelings and actions, as if we are experiencing them first-hand.”

But I’m not sure how accurate EffectCheck is though as it doesn’t factor in the cultural norms of the reader and although it claims to checks words and phrases against a dictionary of “over one million word-phrase associations, each carefully curated by experts in clinical psychology and artificial intelligence” these will only ever be generalised guesses I imagine.

However it probably makes them money from people who want to understand the impact of their writing and for my purposes it’s a bit of fun enquiry.

The tool analyses text across six emotional scales: anxiety, hostility, depression, confidence, compassion, and happiness. For example here is how the system analyses the opening paragraph of David Cameron’s Conservative party conference speech 2012 (below)


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These examples show that how the system doesn’t take context into account – ‘Party’ scores towards confidence, compassion and happiness even though here it means political party, ‘May’ scores towards confidence and compassion even though here it refers to the month – but overall it can give clues to the potential reading of the text.

To test it out I fed in the 2012 party conference speeches of the three main UK political parties to see what happens. David Cameron’s Conservative party conference speech 2012 scores high on anxiety, hostility, depression and low on happiness:

EffectCheck analysis of David Cameron’s Conservative party conference speech 2012. Source: EffectCheck

Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrat party conference speech 2012 is similar but scores even higher on anxiety, hostility, depression:

EffectCheck analysis of Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrat party conference speech 2012. Source: EffectCheck

Ed Milliband’s Labour party conference speech 2012 is a bit less hostile than Clegg’s and a bit less confident:

EffectCheck analysis of Ed Milliband’s Labour party conference speech 2012. Source: EffectCheck

On these results alone it would seem that Cameron’s speech would be the least worst to sit through. But there’s not really much difference between them – they all score pretty high on anxiety, hostility and depression and low on confidence, compassion and happiness.

But perhaps this is just characteristic of any political speech, or any semi formal, medium-brow speech. To test this out I used the system to analyse a TED talk by Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard on ‘The habits of happiness‘ assuming that the topic and the occupation of the speaker might reveal a different pattern. But this shows high numbers of anxiety, hostility and depression words (not as high as our politicians), fewer confidence words and more happiness words.

EffectCheck analysis of Matthieu Ricard on ‘The habits of happiness’. Source: EffectCheck

I also ran it with an example bride groom’s speech which seemed to score fairly typically (i.e. not too high) across all scores apart from Compassion which scored highly. Which is heartening while suggesting that the form of speech and the associated conventions could have a lot to do with it.

I still haven’t worked out quite why she agreed to marry me, but every day I wake up happy that she chose me, and I am really looking forward to the rest of my life next to this amazing lady

EffectCheck analysis of example bridge groom speech. Source: EffectCheck

I also ran another TED talk, this time by Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf ‘Lose your ego, find your compassion‘ which was less anxious, hostile and depressed than the Buddhist monk’s speech, more confident and more compassionate. This could be because his delivery is less TED-y and more Imam-y.

EffectCheck analysis of Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf ‘Lose your ego, find your compassion’. Source: EffectCheck

What any of this means for Speeching (apart from a chance to include some graphs) I’m not sure. Time to get into the studio and into the body I think, but to finish off , here’s what this blog post scored:

EffectCheck analysis of Hamish MacPherson’s ‘Emotional Words’. Source: EffectCheck

Hamish MacPherson is an anxious dance artist.


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