Language for Winning Hearts and Minds: Verb Aspect in U.S. Presidential Campaign Speeches for Engaging Emotion


How does language influence the emotions and actions of large audiences? Functionally, emotions help address environmental uncertainty by constraining the body to support adaptive responses and social coordination. We propose emotions provide a similar function in language processing by constraining the mental simulation of language content to facilitate comprehension, and to foster alignment of mental states in message recipients. Consequently, we predicted that emotion-inducing language should be found in speeches specifically designed to create audience alignment - stump speeches of United States presidential candidates. We focused on phrases in the past imperfective verb aspect ("a bad economy was burdening us") that leave a mental simulation of the language content open-ended, and thus unconstrained, relative to past perfective sentences ("we were burdened by a bad economy"). As predicted, imperfective phrases appeared more frequently in stump versus comparison speeches, relative to perfective phrases. In a subsequent experiment, participants rated phrases from presidential speeches as more emotionally intense when written in the imperfective aspect compared to the same phrases written in the perfective aspect, particularly for sentences perceived as negative in valence. These findings are consistent with the notion that emotions have a role in constraining the comprehension of language, a role that may be used in communication with large audiences.

DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00899

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@inproceedings{Havas2016LanguageFW, title={Language for Winning Hearts and Minds: Verb Aspect in U.S. Presidential Campaign Speeches for Engaging Emotion}, author={David A. Havas and Christopher B. Chapp}, booktitle={Front. Psychol.}, year={2016} }