How do politicians win public approval? According to research published in this week’s issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, words uttered in Congress that are suggestive of kindness may have a significant impact on poll numbers.

Photo Credit: Bill Ingalls via NASA

Michael Balter gives a tidy summary of the investigation and one of its major findings, over at Science:

Researchers’ computers analyzed all 123,927,807 words spoken during sessions of the House of Representatives between 1996 and 2014 using publicly available online transcripts, and matched them against a dictionary of 127 words or word stems with “prosocial” meanings—that is, words that connoted kindness or cooperation. The team found that the more members of Congress who used such words overall, the higher the approval ratings Congress received in polls 6 months later.

Similarly, decreased levels of prosocial language in Congressional debates were found to strongly predict public disapproval half a year later.

The findings hinge on a social-cognitive phenomenon in which talking about helping others leaves a positive impression upon a listener. What’s curious about this study is that most of the 124-million words spoken during sessions of the House of Representatives between 1996 and 2014 were heard not by the public, but by other members of Congress. So how does the public get a read on the prosocial conditions in Washington? “The team suggests two possible ways that the public learns how nice their representatives are being,” writes Balter. “Directly, by watching C-SPAN (which 57% of the voting population does at least once per week), or indirectly, through news media coverage of congressional sessions.”

Another possibility is that Congress’ prosocial or antisocial atmosphere correlates to other factors outside of Washington that the public picks up on indirectly. For instance, if prosocial talk translated reliably to prosocial action, one might reason that public approval would be in direct response to the latter, not the former. But talking and doing are of course very different things.


Read the full study at PNAS.

I should mention: This study isn’t the first to examine the rhetorical atmosphere in Congress. Last year, researchers at Yale University reported that people are more likely to fear talk of “global warming,” and campaign to stop it, than they are “climate change.” The findings echoed those of political consultant Frank Luntz, who in 2003 advised the Bush administration to abandon the phrase “global warming” in favor of “climate change,” arguing that the later sounded less scary, while signaling a lack of scientific certainty in humanity’s impact. But as Harry Enten reported at FiveThirtyEight, the use of these phrases in recent years has followed a different trend than you might expect:

Democrats have been much more likely than Republicans to use the term climate change during the Obama presidency. Almost three-fourths of climate change mentions — 74 percent — were by members of the Democratic caucus. And four of the five members of Congress who most frequently mentioned it were Democrats. (At the top of the list: Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, who has been on a one-man crusade in trying to get Congress to act on climate change.)

Global warming mentions are closer, but Republicans were responsible for 60 percent of its mentions. This majority doesn’t hold for all the years, but even eliminating the GOP’s big advantage in 2009 still leaves the party with 55 percent of the mentions. Four of the five members of Congress to use the term most were Republican. (The person who used global warming most? Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, who doesn’t believe that global warming is man-made.)

Cumulatively, from 2009 through [June 3, 2014], Republicans mentioned global warming 1,338 times and climate change 1,243 times. Democrats mentioned climate change 3,584 times and global warming just 865 times.

This seems to fit the opposite of what the pollsters suggest should be happening, yet it’s a pattern that matches what we’re seeing on cable news as well.


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