Only 15% of Americans approve of the way the U.S. Congress is doing its job, but that figure could be higher by the end of the year if lawmakers used words like "educate," "tolerate" and "cooperate" more often.
So say researchers from Canada and Germany who analyzed nearly 124 million words spoken in the House of Representatives over 18 years. The more elected officials used "pro-social" language, the higher the legislature's approval rating 29 weeks later, according to a study published Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The reverse was true as well, the researchers found. In fact, during the 12-year stretch between 2002 and 2014, a 19% drop in words that conveyed a willingness to help others was followed by a 75% plunge in public approval.
The study authors had a hunch that the increasingly toxic rhetoric emanating from the U.S. Capitol was at least partly to blame for Congress's dismal approval ratings. In experiments, social psychologists have established a link between the degree to which someone appears to care about the needs of others and the level of social approval he or she receives in return.
To find out whether members of Congress at least feigned concern about the needs of Americans, the researchers went to capitolwords.org and downloaded every transcript from January 1996 through November 2014. After eliminating months when Congress was not in session, they were left with 123,927,807 words to analyze.
Next, they searched through all that text for 127 words and word stems that reflect notions of "collective interests and interpersonal harmony." For each month, they calculated the proportion of words that had a pro-social meaning. Then they compared those monthly scores with monthly congressional approval ratings as measured by Gallup polls.
The result was "a striking match," according to the study. The language scores and public approval figures "followed the same trajectory," with a 6.7-month lag.
But that wasn't enough to prove that congressional language shaped public opinion. Some larger force, such as the Sept. 11 attacks or a Wall Street meltdown, might be influencing them both. If so, the researchers figured it would show up in economic data or in transcripts of presidential news conferences.
The team performed a statistical analysis that took these factors into account. The results confirmed their hunch: "The strongest single predictor of public sentiment" toward Congress was the content of words spoken on the House floor, they found.
Some words were more powerful than others. Indeed, the researchers identified nine specific words that were particularly influential – gentle, involve, educate, contribute, concerned, give, tolerate, trust and cooperate.
Though words mattered, the speakers didn't. Comments made by Democrats and Republicans were equally predictive of public approval ratings, the study revealed.
How do Americans know what is said under the Capitol dome? In part, it's based on media coverage, the researchers said. When lawmakers used pro-social words, the news coverage was favorable – and when it was favorable, public approval ratings were higher.
But that's only part of the answer, according to the study. Somehow, congressional language is having a direct impact on the public – and it could be via C-SPAN, the researchers surmised. About 47 million people (roughly 20% of Americans old enough to vote) tune into the cable network at least once a week. These "politically active viewers" may influence the rest of us by spreading their impressions "contagiously within their social networks," the study authors wrote.