Did a blind squirrel happen to find a nut?

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The right wing of American punditry has been attacking Donald Trump vigorously. Thus Ross Kaminsky, "The Third Obama Term", The American Spectator 7/21/2015:

[B]ad policy, bad hair, and a bad attitude aren’t the biggest problem with Donald Trump.

Trump’s political differences with the Barack Obama are, in most cases, stark. But I see a troublesome similarity in their personalities, one which makes both unfit to sit behind the Resolute desk.

Beyond championing one destructive and ill-considered policy after another, Barack Obama has an additional defining characteristic, one that makes him such a terrible leader of a democratic nation: he is a narcissist. He can’t get through a paragraph without multiple uses of first person pronouns […]

Yet when it comes to narcissism, Barack Obama has nothing on Donald Trump.

For the record:

But since the relentless repetition of this foolishness motivated me a few years ago to write some pronoun-counting scripts, I took a moment to point them at the transcript of Thursday's Republican presidential debate.

Here are the results, ordered by the ratio of first-person-singular count to first-person-plural count (sometimes called the "I/we" ratio):

Speaker Words 1stSing 2nd 1stPlural 1stSing% 2nd% 1stPlural% 1stSing/1stPlural
Trump 1788 134 43 34 7.5% 2.4% 1.9% 3.94
Paul 1000 55 17 25 5.5% 1.7% 2.5% 2.20
Cruz 933 41 9 19 4.4% 1.0% 2.0% 2.15
Walker 1145 41 18 31 3.6% 1.6% 2.7% 1.32
Kasich 1333 45 16 52 4.2% 1.2% 3.9% 1.08
Christie 1380 48 29 46 3.5% 2.1% 3.3% 1.04
Bush 1525 57 15 63 3.7% 1.0% 4.1% 0.90
Carson 1138 38 30 49 3.3% 2.6% 4.3% 0.78
Rubio 1503 42 11 56 2.8% 0.7% 3.7% 0.75
Huckabee 1244 13 9 44 1.0% 0.7% 3.5% 0.30

There's a wide range of first-person-singular rates — 1.0% (Huckabee) to 7.5% (Trump) — and an even larger range of FPSP/FPPP rates (0.30 to 3.94).

So is this an instance of the adage that "Even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while"?

I'm somewhat skeptical. Although Donald Trump is certainly someone who is not shy about presenting himself in the first person singular, the circumstances of that debate forced him to use a lot of first-person-singular pronouns, because he was repeatedly asked to explain or defend previous statements or actions. Thus

KELLY: Your Twitter account has several disparaging comments about women's looks. You once told a contestant on Celebrity Apprentice it would be a pretty picture to see her on her knees. Does that sound to you like the temperament of a man we should elect as president, and how will you answer the charge from Hillary Clinton, who was likely to be the Democratic nominee, that you are part of the war on women?


BAIER: Now, 15 years ago, you called yourself a liberal on health care. You were for a single-payer system, a Canadian-style system. Why were you for that then and why aren't you for it now?

Although some of the questions to the other candidates similarly involve personal challenges, many of them are more policy oriented, e.g.

BAIER: Governor Huckabee, on Facebook, John Pietricone asked this, "Will you abolish or take away the powers and cut the size of the EPA, the IRS, the Department of Education?" Now, broadly … (APPLAUSE)
BAIER: — broadly, the size of government is a big concern for Facebook users, Facebook persons, as well as, obviously, conservatives. But year after year, decade after decade, there are promises from Republicans to shrink government. But year after year, decade after decade, it doesn't happen. In fact, it gets bigger, even under Republican politicians. So the question is, at this point, is the government simply too big for any one person, even a Republican, to shrink?

So I'd like to see a bigger sample, and to control for the discourse context, before concluding that we can conclude anything about his personality from Donald Trump's pronoun usage.



  1. Keith M Ellis said,

    August 8, 2015 @ 11:17 am

    Have we ever discussed the larger significance of this zombie idea? Obviously egocentric and self-aggrandizing people often demonstrate this personality trait in their speech. But this both variously manifests in their speech and is self-evident — it's self-evident in Trump's case, he's one of these personalities, so why does anyone need a word frequency analysis to tell them what they already know?

    In my view, this has two complementary functions. It is a criticism that's useful when the personality vice isn't self-evident (except to some, natch) and thus is a kind of esoterica. That flatters the critic's perceptiveness. One can imagine Sherlock Holmes casually diagnosing the personality of a villain on the basis of their FPP frequency. Also, in keeping with the comparison to Holmes, it appears to have the credibility of empiricism; it's science-like. Which also flatters the critic and often intimidates the skeptical. Trump is an exception in that it's hard to imagine anyone not already seeing him as egocentric to the point of vice — but, still, this critique has the veneer of rigor.

    Through not a folklorist, for years I was interested in urban folklore, specifically science-related urban folklore. It's hard to overstate the attraction that this kind of esoterica has for people. Whether it's more classic urban folklore (alligators in the sewer, headlight gang initiations) or science-related folklore (glass flows in old windows, snowclones) or stuff like this, a common attribute is that knowing these things and passing them along is to have a peek behind the curtain, to be one of the people in the know. It's not simply saying "that guy sure does think very highly of himself", it's "his high-frequency of first-person pronouns reveals a narcissistic personality". Give me my ID card, I'm someone who knows stuff.

    More tellingly, though, is to think about this and some similar pernicious linguistic fallacies with regard to the other signal characteristic of urban folklore: it quite often reveals the zeitgeist and anxieties of a culture. Urban folklore very often targets the out-groups and you can see how this manifests within the subcategory of science-related urban folklore. So fry and uptalk is all about young women and their supposed generational vices.

    It's true that Trump is an exception to this, and recent Presidents have all been targeted with this criticism, but I think you'll find that this sort of pop-science linguistic-related analysis of speech and writing tilts strongly toward criticizing the socially marginalized. I think there's an essential similarity between a lot of this pernicious and persistent pop-science and what we more typically consider urban folklore.

  2. Gut said,

    August 8, 2015 @ 2:44 pm

    "Obviously egocentric and self-aggrandizing people often demonstrate this personality trait in their speech"

    Is this obvious? It seems plausible that being narcissistic would cause a person the talk about themself more often, but does this result in a strong difference in number of first person pronouns? There are lots of reasons for variation like, just to take one category of examples, qualifying constructions like "I think", or "I was wondering", which I don't think can be plausibly considered signs of narcissism.

  3. Rubrick said,

    August 8, 2015 @ 4:38 pm

    This tactic of accusing someone in power of being a narcissist because of their use of the first-person pronoun goes back a long way. During the American Revolution, the colonists used it against the King of England, referring to him as "George I I I".

  4. Rebecca said,

    August 8, 2015 @ 4:38 pm

    But how much did they creak?

  5. Ben said,

    August 8, 2015 @ 5:57 pm

    If we call someone "anal," it doesn't imply, in ordinary conversation, that we have evidence that they had issues while potty training. It just means we think they're fussy.

    "The pop-psychology identification of narcissism" is like any other pop-psychology. When people accuse a politician of being a narcissist, it means they've observed that person being overly concerned with themselves. All politicians have recurring themes in their speeches; some of Obama's themes are about himself and that's what people are picking up on. It's an entirely legitimate criticism of him and the way he manages his aides and writers.

  6. Ben said,

    August 8, 2015 @ 6:09 pm

    "The reverberation of this meme in the echo-chamber of right-wing punditry is … well, you finish the thought."

    This is particularly ironic, given that "right-wing echo chamber" has to be the all time most successful meme, to the point where leftists take it for granted like the sun rising in the east.

    [(myl) But in this case, the meme has been promoted by nearly every writer in the cited class, and only by them, despite being false as a matter of simple numerical fact — as documented ad nauseam in the linked posts — so "echo chamber" seems like an appropriate metaphor, even if it's one that's been used before.]

  7. Guy said,

    August 8, 2015 @ 10:07 pm


    I think it's fairly apparent that most punditry, regardless of ideology, can be readily described as an "echo-chamber". In this case it makes sense to specify that the particular echo-chamber in question is that of "right-wing punditry" because that's where this particular meme seems to be confined.

  8. Breffni said,

    August 9, 2015 @ 3:50 am

    Gut: Keith Ellis was saying that people often demonstrate egocentricity and self-aggrandisement in their speech; he didn't say they do this through first-person pronouns.

    Ben: if you extrapolated your line of argument, here's how I bet things would play out:

    Pundit: Obama is a narcissist; just look at his crazy overuse of first-person singular pronouns.
    Person who counts: *counts pronouns* He doesn't overuse first-person singular pronouns.
    Pundit: Don't be so literal; you know that's not what I meant. The point is, he's a narcissist because of the way he dwells on personal themes.
    Person who counts: *counts themes* No he doesn't.
    Pundit: Oh come on, you're being pedantic. He's obviously a narcissist, because [some alleged phenomenon even harder to define and measure]…

    And so the retreat from objective facts would continue, ending at the last line of defence: "For crying out loud, stop picking on my factual claims! It's just obvious he's a narcissist, OK?"

  9. Natalie Solent said,

    August 9, 2015 @ 9:33 am

    Prince Charles and other British royals used to make a lot of use of "one" as a substitute for "I", presumably to project an image of modesty in this egalitarian age. So many people imitated Charles' use of "one thinks" to mean "I think" that he has almost stopped doing it.

    One could also bring the royal "we" into this discussion somewhere, couldn't one / I / we?

  10. Ben said,

    August 9, 2015 @ 3:45 pm

    Breffni, no, it won't get that far because the two interlocuters won't agree how to count themes because it's so subjective, and because counting wouldn't prove anything no matter what the result. If you're going to predict where an argument is going, you have to assume the other party will challenge you.

    Look, it's obvious any diagnosis of narcissist is silly as long as it's not done by an experienced psychologist doing a proper examination. And counting the pronouns is a silly factoid that floats around because it gives a veneer of scientism to the claim. But all of that falls under the banner of "pop psychology."

    The basic observation that the guy is unusually self obsessed is nevertheless supported by the way he acts and speaks. There are a few notable instances, such as when he gave the Queen of England an iPod with recordings of all his speeches. As he was roundly criticized for being an ass at the time, I don't think he's ever repeated that, but critics still catch it in his speeches, and it's still fair to criticize him for it.

  11. James said,

    August 9, 2015 @ 11:45 pm

    According to news reports (and not "the echo-chamber"), the iPod in question contained photos and video footage of the Queen's 2007 visit to America, 40 songs, and photos of Obama's inauguration and audio of two Obama speeches. I don't know if this is or is not evidence of narcissism on Obama's part, but using this one incident as example of such seems just as disingenuous as counting first-person singular pronouns.

  12. Graeme said,

    August 10, 2015 @ 12:04 am

    "I am sorry said did that". 16.7% usage of first person.
    "You will be sorry you crossed me". Twice as much other-regardingness as first person pronominalism…

    BTW. Can anyone explain to this linguistically impoverished Australian, what Trump might be referring to (if anything) when he claims that 's/he had blood coming out of her eyes (or nose, or any other upper body orifice)' is a common idiom?

  13. richardelguru said,

    August 10, 2015 @ 5:53 am

    I'd have thought that the only not-done-by-an-experienced-psychologist-doing-a proper-examination indicator of narcissism for The Donald was usage of terms like 'The Donald'.

    Also was the 'with the Barack Obama' (my emphasis) in the OP quote perhaps an attempt to use this against the Pres?

  14. Pflaumbaum said,

    August 10, 2015 @ 7:27 am

    Has there ever been a president who was not more 'narcissistic' than the average person?

    We'll never know. But you have to suspect that pretty much all of them, at some point when they weren't president of the United States, believed they could and should be president of the United States. And for about the last century, that's been tantamount to believing they could and should be the most powerful man in the world.

    So the only fair comparison is between presidents – or at least presidential candidates. I don't see much evidence of Obama being more narcissistic than, say, Reagan or Clinton or Romney. The pronouns are nonsense, we all agree. And the iPod story isn't exactly compelling.

  15. modaca said,

    August 10, 2015 @ 1:41 pm

    What about people/ politicians who speak about themselves in the 3rd person? That's pretty weird. Narcissistic? I think so.

  16. Beck Laxton said,

    August 11, 2015 @ 8:52 am

    Ah, politicians talking about themselves in the third person. There's a quite brilliant comedy sketch on the subject that illustrates just how tricky it is. I do hope you can see it… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PbCNl_K3f6k

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