Harding University psychology professor discusses human perception of political figures

On Tuesday, Feb. 2, Dr. Jeremiah Sullins, assistant professor of behavioral sciences at Harding University, spoke on UALR Public Radio, the Arkansas branch of National Public Radio, about research that he and his students are doing on human perception of political figures.

In the interview segment, titled “The Psychology of Voters Deciding Who to Support for President,” Sullins discussed details and findings from his research. Sullins said the idea was developed surrounding the current presidential race.

“When you are talking about a political election, every day that you wait to talk about results, it becomes less relevant, especially in something like this,” Sullins said. “I wanted to get this out to as many people as possible because I feel like it is important information.”

Sullins said that the research explored two specific areas of human perception of political figures: initial judgments based on appearance versus informed judgments based on speech content and linguistic qualities of political candidates’ speeches. Research subjects were shown pictures of current presidential candidates and asked to rate them on presidential qualities, such as trustworthiness and humility.

“Regarding the candidate images, we are finding contradictions between the way voters make judgments about top-tier candidates and lower-tier candidates,” Sullins said. “More specifically, the top-tiered candidates are judged to be more ‘presidential’ than the lower-tired candidates when participants are basing their opinion solely on the image of the candidate. These differences vanish when participants read the speeches, not knowing what speech belongs to whom.”

Sullins said the second part of the research analyzed the linguistic qualities of different candidates, political parties, etc. by looking at aspects of speeches such as the amount of narrative used and sentence complexity.

“We found striking similarities between the speech characteristics of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Furthermore, we found similar speech patterns between Marco Rubio and Bernie Sanders,” Sullins said. “We are still in the process of exploring the linguistic qualities of the lower-tiered candidates and how these might be different from the top-tiered candidates. Furthermore, we are continuing to explore differences between political parties and regional differences.”