Trump Speaks With More Confidence But Less Analytical Thinking Than Past Presidents, Study Finds

donald trump getty
President Donald Trump pictured in the Rose Garden at the White House July 25, 2017. Researchers have investigated the language used by presidents. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Donald Trump speaks with more confidence but demonstrates lower levels of analytical thinking than past presidents, according to researchers.

But while the president's critics may see his arguably informal way with words as a break from political norms, the way he speaks is actually part of a long-term trend in U.S. politics dating back over a century, psychologists at the University of Texas at Austin concluded.

The team behind the study published in the journal PNAS wanted to provide evidence as to whether Trump's communications with citizens and would-be voters is different to past leaders.

To investigate, they pored over texts attributed to all presidents dating between 1789 to 2018. That included speeches given at inaugurations, to State of the Union Addresses and the words used in public papers. To provide context, the team also investigated texts as wide-ranging as interviews given by Canadian, British and Australian politicians between 1895 to 2017 as well as novels, movie scripts and what has been said on TV news outlets between 1789 and 2017.

The researchers rated these varied documents for what they defined as analytic thinking and clout. A text scored higher for analytic thinking if it shunned auxiliary verbs (such as "be," "do," and "have") and adverbs (such as "quickly"), but featured more articles ("a" and "the") and prepositions (such as "with").

Meanwhile, a piece was ranked highly for its "clout" if it contained personal pronouns (like "I" or "you"). The authors argued this demonstrated an individual was attempting to display their status and confidence.

The results led the team to conclude that while Trump was "exceptionally informal" in the way he communicates, he "spoke with a sense of certainty."

The authors wrote: "Indeed, he is lower in analytic thinking and higher in confidence than almost any previous American president. Closer analyses of linguistic trends of presidential language indicate that Trump's language is consistent with long-term linear trends, demonstrating that he is not as much an outlier as he initially seems."

Across all of the texts they assessed, the team noted that analytic thinking dropped overall across the board over time, while confidence spiked in the majority of political contexts. This change was most noticeable among American presidents, they said.

Rates of analytic thinking remained robust between the 18th and 19th centuries, but started to wane around the year 1900 around the time of Woodrow Wilson's presidency and World War I. And by the time Dwight Eisenhower took office, clout was an increasingly used rhetorical tool.

The researchers argued: "These results strongly suggest that the recipe that likely helped Trump to become a successful presidential candidate was set in motion almost 100 [years] before he took office."

Study author Kayla Jordan, of the University of Texas at Ausatin Department of Psychology, told Newsweek that scores on analytical thinking don't necessarily correspond to the intelligence of the speaker.

"Rather analytic thinking is the way people are organizing their ideas," she explained. "People high in analytic are organizing their ideas in a hierarchical, logical manner and are focused on the relationships between ideas and concepts. People low in analytic are organizing their ideas in a more intuitive, narrative fashion and are focused on the relationships between people and actions."

She also acknowledged a limitation of the work: "Our work, while accounting for differences across time and context, is correlational, so while we posit some potential reasons for these trends, we cannot pin down the exact causes.

"We are developing new studies now to hopefully better understand the mechanisms behind these trends."

Last year, a separate study found Trump speaks at a level comparable to a fourth-grader. The next worst was Harry Truman, who ranked at a sixth-grade level.

This article has been updated with comment from Kayla Jordan.