The effects of figurative language on the perceived credibility of political candidates.

AuthorRinalducci, Ned


The purpose of this study was to determine the effect of figurative language on the perceived credibility of political candidates. One hundred seventy-nine undergraduate psychology students from Mississippi State University and The University of Central Florida viewed a videotaped speech of an actor playing a political candidate. Each subject saw one of three language conditions: a literal script, a high-appropriate figurative script, and a low-appropriate figurative script. After viewing the videotape, subjects rated the politician's perceived credibility and took a test of political sophistication. Some differences between the credibility ratings by male subjects and female subjects were significant, with females generally scoring the actor as being more credible than males. In general, however, few differences in credibility ratings between conditions, or between subjects with high or low political sophistication, were observed.


Research has long suggested that metaphors can assist in persuasion (e.g., Bosman 1987; Reinsch 1971) as well as instructional communications (e.g., Boerger & Henley 1999) and figurative language has been well documented as a part of political rhetoric (e.g., Belt 2004; Duck, Terry, & Hogg 1998; Grand 1996; Mio 1997; Read, Cesa, Jones, & Collins 1990; Voss, Kennet, Wiley, & Schooler 1992). It has been estimated that on average politicians engage in about 1.5 novel and 3.4 cliched figures of speech per 100 words spoken (Pollio & Burns 1977). Ross Perot, 1992 independent presidential candidate, extensively used such talk. He at times referred to putting the federal government in order as "cleaning out the barn," "working under the hood", and "peeling the onion to the core." Perot used a variety of other metaphors in his campaign and, anecdotally at least, this seemed to have had some positive effect on his audience and his credibility as a national political figure. By contrast, his opponent, the former president George Bush, made famous the line "read my lips, no new taxes," which arguably sensitized voters to beware of overly figurative language. (For a collection of more recent examples, the reader is directed to NPRs Morning Edition archival website for the date September 14th, 2005.)

There has been work concerning politics and figurative language (e.g., Billig & MacMillan 2005; Chilton & Ilyin 1993; Hayden 2003; Kress 1984; Read et al. 1990; Rohrer 1991), but much of it is theoretical. For example, Lakoff and Johnson (1980) suggested that all political ideologies are framed in metaphorical terms and that political metaphors can be used to hide aspects of the speaker's real agenda. Subsequently, Lakoff (1991) elaborated this thesis with respect to American involvement in the Persian Gulf, and although his work can be construed to relate to political credibility, such abstract issues are beyond the scope of this study. This study more concretely examines the effects of figurative language on a political candidate's perceived credibility in a laboratory-based experimental design.


Classic research has established that the greater a source's perceived expertise and trustworthiness, the greater the ability to produce an attitude change (e.g., Aronson, Turner & Carlsmith 1963; Hovland & Weiss 1951). In short, highly trustworthy and expert spokespersons induce a greater positive attitude toward the position they advocate than do communicators with less credibility (e.g., Sternthal, Dholakia & Leavitt 1978). It follows then that an important factor for any politician is his or her credibility. In this "information era" where political life is subject to such heavy media scrutiny, it becomes increasingly important that a political candidate is perceived as having credibility.

Basically, source credibility rests on a belief that statements by credible sources can be trusted (e.g., O'Keefe 1990). Research generally has supported the position that source credibility is a very important element in the communication process (e.g., Andersen & Clevenger 1963; McCroskey 1972; McCroskey & Young 1981). Traditionally (as far back as Aristotle), the construct of source credibility has been thought to involve a source's knowledge of the subject that he or she discusses, as well as his or her veracity, and his or her attitude toward the well-being of the receiver.

Subsequently, Hovland, Janis and Kelly (1953) defined such credibility as having three dimensions: expertness, trustworthiness, and intention toward the receiver, although other theorists have also included dimensions such as authoritativeness, dynamism, competence, character, safety, and qualification. This study will adopt McCroskey and Jenson's (1975) definition and analysis of source credibility, which provides reasonable assurances of scale reliability and validity. McCroskey and Jenson have reported that internal reliability estimates for each of their dimensions (competence, character, sociability, composure, and extroversion) exceeds .90, and construct validity has been suggested by factorial stability across a wide and diverse number of uses.


Classically, those who were interested in metaphor (or figurative language more broadly) have focused on the phenomenon itself. Richards (1936) divided metaphors into three components: the subject term called the "topic" or "tenor;" the term being used metaphorically, the "vehicle;" and the relationship, or that which the two have in common, which is called the "ground." For example, in the metaphor "the question of federal aid to parochial schools is a bramble patch," from Barlow, Kerlin & Pollio (1971), the topic is federal aid to parochial schools, the vehicle is bramble patch, and the ground is the idea of impenetrable complication.

The appearance of Lakoff and Johnson's (1980) Metaphors We Live By marked a conceptual change in the analysis of figurative language. One effect of this book was to shift research from the phenomenon, per se, to the cognitive and social implications of figurative language. Lakoff and Johnson noted that traditionally "... for most people metaphor is a device of the poetic imagination and the rhetorical flourish--a matter of extraordinary rather than ordinary language ... and that metaphor is typically viewed as a characteristic of language alone, a matter of words rather than thought or action" (p. 3). They contended that such a view is simply false. Metaphor is not just a matter of language; on the contrary, all human thought processes are largely metaphorical: "Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphoric in nature" (p. 3). Like Lakoff & Johnson; Smith, Pollio and Pitts (1981) have also posited the hypothesis that metaphor and other figures of speech occur centrally in the creation phase of an idea or concept. When a concept or idea is new or unclear, using familiar metaphoric comparisons can help define and clarify the concept. Topics that produce intense feelings or are in some sense problematic become likely centers of metaphoric attraction. Moreover, according to this view politicians frequently resort to such uses of metaphor to cover difficult...

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