Politicians in the United States tend to use moral language more often when they have less power, according to a new study published in Psychological Science.
“Moralization is an important part of understanding political communication and partisanship. Language is a source of data that hasn’t yet been studied much in moral psychology, despite the fact that it can be a revealing source of people’s moral concerns,” said Sze-Yuh Nina Wang of the University of Toronto, the lead author of the study.
Wang and her colleague, Yoel Inbar, analyzed 687,360 Twitter messages of U.S. Congress members from 2016 to 2018 as well as 2,630,688 speeches published in the U.S. Congressional record from 1981 to 2017. The researchers used an automated text-analysis technique to identify language associated with the moral foundations of harm, fairness, loyalty, authority and purity.
Surprisingly, the researchers found that “ideological differences in moral-language use were inconsistent with moral-foundations theory (which predicts that authority, loyalty, and purity should be referenced more by Republicans than Democrats).” Democrats used more moral language related to all five foundations than Republicans on Twitter, and this difference became even more pronounced in the wake of Donald Trump’s electoral victory in 2016.
The analysis of congressional speeches, on the other hand, found that the use of most moral language fluctuated based on political power. Politicians tended to use more moral language when their political power diminished and they were in the minority than when their power increased and they were in the majority.
The researchers also found that Democrats used significantly more moral language related to harm and fairness in their speeches compared to their Republican colleagues, a finding in line with previous research on moral foundations.
The findings show how “moralization can be a tool used to rally support and spread messages,” Wang explained. “People may employ moralization in different circumstances: e.g., after their political party loses an election.”
But she also noted that the current findings are limited to U.S. members of Congress. “Extending this to other political contexts is important,” Wang said. In addition, “we show that a lack of political control is one factor that motivates moralization but future research could identify other motivators of moralization.”
The study, “Moral-Language Use by U.S. Political Elites“, was published December 11, 2020.