Framing Political Messages with Grammar and Metaphor: How something is said may be as important as what is said
October 28, 2012
Millions of dollars are spent on campaign ads and other political messages in an election year, but surprisingly little is known about how language affects voter attitude and influences election outcomes. This article discusses two seemingly subtle but powerful ways that language influences how people think about political candidates and elections. One is grammar. The other is metaphor.
In an election year, voters are inundated with political messages from various sources, including television ads, campaign websites, blogs and social network forums, such as Facebook. Some of these messages focus on candidates’ positions on various issues, including the economy, same-sex marriage, education and war. Some focus on candidates’ personal characteristics. Is the candidate warm and accessible, or cold and distant? An autocrat or a team player? Family oriented? Not family oriented? Some messages focus on candidates’ past actions, and others focus on their apparent abilities to tackle problems ranging from immigration to unemployment. Some messages are factual and objective, and others are exaggerated and sensationalized.
Political scientists, such as James Druckman of Northwestern University and Stephen Ansolabehere of Harvard University, study how political messages affect voting. Their work tells us that voters’ attitudes can be influenced by a number of factors, including which information the media chooses to emphasize and how it is slanted. Framing, how a message is worded to encourage particular interpretations and inferences, can influence the perception of political candidates. Negative framing is often used to make opposing candidates seem weak, immoral and incompetent. It is persuasive because it captures attention and creates anxiety about future consequences. When negative information becomes excessive, however, it can backfire and lead to deleterious outcomes, including low voter turnout. Negative framing can be effective even when subtle or indirect. For instance, people tend to align more closely with their parties when opposition is emphasized, and people may not want to vote for incumbent candidates when there are frequent reports about how bad times are.
It is no surprise that language in political messages affect people’s attitudes about political candidates and more generally, elections. Just about anybody would form a low opinion of a politician who is described as a cocaine addict with a track record of accepting bribes, cheating coworkers and evading taxes by illegal means. What’s interesting is how language has this influence, especially when it comes to framing effects. Particlarly interesting is how the more subtle dimensions of language, including grammar and metaphor, can modify attitudes about political candidates.
Framing with Grammar
Grammar is something we learned in elementary school. We learned that sentences have a subject, a verb and, in some cases, an object. We learned about irregular verbs, such as “went” and “flew.” We learned about parts of speech, including nouns, verbs and adjectives. We learned about active versus passive sentences. We learned that tense signals when events happened in time: past, present or future. And more. What we did not learn is that grammar has meaning, and that it is linked to mental experience and physical interactions with the world. Although grammar is poorly understood and uninteresting to folks other than linguists and grammar teachers, it plays a critical role in our everyday reasoning.
Grammatical aspect occurs in English and many other languages. Its main purpose in a language is to express how events unfold in time. Grammatical aspect works with tense, modality and other systems in a language to provide the reader or listener with information about whether an event has started, whether it has finished, whether it has continued over a significant period of time and more. In English, a person can describe past events in a variety of ways. For instance, you see your friend Maria cycling one evening across campus, and the next morning you report, “Maria was riding her bike last night” or “Maria rode her bike last night.” Both statements are perfectly acceptable English, and express the same event. However, there is a slight difference in how the action is construed. With the former, which uses the past progressive grammatical form (was VERB+ing), the event is conceptualized as ongoing. With the latter, which uses the simple past grammatical form (VERB+ed), the event is conceptualized as an entire, completed event. This distinction is common across languages, even though it is realized in different ways. For instance, Russian has a more complex, nuanced aspectual system than English does.
A few years ago, I began exploring the idea of grammatical framing. In an article with Caitlin Fausey, “Can Grammar Win Elections?” published inPolitical Psychology, we explored the consequences of tweaking grammatical information in political messages. We discovered that altering nothing more than grammatical aspect in a message about a political candidate could affect impressions of that candidate’s past actions, and ultimately influence attitudes about whether he would be re-elected. Participants in our study read a passage about a fictitious politician named Mark Johnson. Mark was a Senator who was seeking reelection. The passage described Mark’s educational background, and reported some things he did while he was in office, including an affair with an assistant and hush money from a prominent constituent. Some participants read a sentence about actions framed with past progressive (was VERB+ing): “Last year, Mark was having an affair with his assistant and was taking money from a prominent constituent.” Others read a sentence about actions framed with simple past (VERB+ed): “Last year, Mark had an affair with his assistant and took money from a prominent constituent.” Everything else was the same. After the participants read the passage about Mark Johnson, they answered questions. In analyzing their responses, we discovered differences. Those who read the phrases “having an affair” and “accepting hush money” were quite confident that the Senator would not be reelected. In contrast, people who read the phrases “had an affair,” and “accepted hush money” were less confident. What’s more, when queried about how much hush money they thought could be involved, those who read about “accepting hush money” gave reliably higher dollar estimates than people who read that Mark “accepted hush money.” From these results, we concluded that information framed with past progressive caused people to reflect more on the action details in a given time period than did information framed with simple past…