An interesting article appears in the current issue of Translational Issues in Psychological Science: it describes research (based on analysis of inaugural addresses, presidential documents, State of the Union Addresses, and general election debates) into the level of analytical thinking among United States presidents from Washington to Trump. (H/T Alternet)
The article, The exception or the rule: Using words to assess analytic thinking, Donald Trump, and the American presidency, by Kayla Jordan and James Pennebaker, assigns an “average analytic score” of 96.53 for George Washington at 96.53 and 43.99 for Donald Trump.
The scores for all the presidents are listed and analysed, but there appears to me to be one correlation that is not addressed at all in the discussion. It relates to a change or turning point with Woodrow Wilson. Let me explain.
The first twenty-six presidents, Washington to Taft, all have average analytic scores bouncing around the high 90s.
Then Woodrow Wilson appears and the 90s are touched only once after that:
I can’t say it’s a fact, of course, because I have not myself analysed the documents from which the scores were derived or the advice that went into the preparation of them.
But I can’t help but wonder if there is any causal relationship here to the introduction of “scientific” propaganda techniques through the Committee on Public Information (or Creel Committee). One of the more famous names on the Committee was, of course, Edward Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud.
The age of propaganda through researched psychological techniques began in America with Woodrow Wilson’s efforts to persuade Americans to get involved in “World War 1”.
I don’t think the propaganda machine has removed itself totally from political usefulness ever since. The Cold War era was obviously a time of propaganda warfare, and one has to be an ostrich not to have noticed the efforts of “public relations” machinery in American presidential elections and political image work ever since.
Another graphic in the article that points to the Woodrow Wilson turning point:
Those are my thoughts.
The authors of the article do not mention any of that but have another take. Their second points directly to the tools of mass propaganda as they emerged in the Franklin D. Roosevelt years.
The first possible explanation for the decline in analytic thinking is changes in who is voting and what they want in a President. The presidential electoral process has changed markedly since the election of George Washington. The groups of people eligible to vote have expanded considerably from only property-owning white men to nearly everyone over the age of 18 years. . . .
The second potential factor surrounds advances in technology and changes to media. Technologies like radio, television, and the Internet have greatly expanded the number of people that candidates can reach as well as the amount of press coverage the presidency receives. . . .
The final possible explanation is the decline in trust/hope people have in various political institutions. Whereas all Presidents have their ups and downs in terms of their approval ratings, average approval ratings have been dropping since Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Gallup, 2017). In fact, the American people have steadily been losing trust in both their political leaders and the American people in general (Jones, 2016). In this environment, people may increasingly prefer straight-talking leaders offering simple solutions. . . . (p. 315)
Jordan, K. N., & Pennebaker, J. W. (2017). The Exception or the Rule: Using Words to Assess Analytic Thinking, Donald Trump, and the American Presidency. Translational Issues in Psychological Science, 3(2), 312–316. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/tps0000125
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