October 10, 2004

Angry at the guy asking?

From liveblogging the second presidential debate at NRO's The Corner:

WHY DOES BUSH... [Jonah Goldberg]
Sound like he's angry at the guy asking about making drugs cheaper?

Posted at 09:43 PM

Jonah is referring to the exchange that starts this way:

HORSTMAN: Mr. President,
why did you block the reimportation of safer and inexpensive drugs from Canada
which would have cut 40 to 60 percent off of the cost?

BUSH: I haven't yet.
(( Just)) want to make sure they're safe. When a drug comes in from Canada, I want to make sure it cures you and doesn't kill you.
And uh that's why the FDA and that's why the surgeon general
are looking very carefully to make sure it can be done in a safe way.
I've got an obligation to make sure our government does everything we can to protect you.
And um
And what ((I-)) my worry is and- is that, you know, it looks like it's from Canada, and it might be from a third world.
And we've just got to make sure, before somebody thinks they're buying a product,
uh that uh
that it works. And that's- that's- that's why we're doing what we're doing.

To me, in this part of the exchange, Bush doesn't sound like he's angry. Listen to this sample and see what you think. In this direct answer to Horstman, I think the president sounds earnest and friendly.

However, after John Kerry's 90-second rebuttal, Bush breaks in without waiting for the moderator's instruction, and now he sounds vehement, even angry:

If- if- If they're safe, they're coming.
I want to remind you
that it wasn't just my administration that made the decision on safety.
President Clinton did the same thing
((and)) we have an obligation to protect you.
Now, he talks about Medicare.
He's been in the United States Senate twenty years.
Show me one accomplishment toward Medicare
that he accomplished.
I been in Washington DC three and a half years
and led the congress to reform Medicare so our seniors have got a medern-
modern health care system.
That's what leadership is all about.

Again, listen to this sample and make your own evaluation. To me -- and to Jonah Goldberg -- it sounds ranting and angry. Presumably Bush is angry at Kerry, but he's addressed someone as "you" who can't be Kerry: "we have an obligation to protect you"; "show me one accomplishment ... that he accomplished." In these phrases, "you" must be either the audience or Hortsman, so it's plausible for Goldberg to feel that Bush sounds "angry at the guy asking".

There's another whole set of questions about what makes someone sound "earnest" or "angry" or whatever. And there's a long litany of answers, hundreds if not thousands of papers, monographs and books full of details, which unfortunately can be summed up in one phrase: we don't really know.

That's a bit too pessimistic -- we know a lot of facts, some of which are even true, and people have a lot of theories, some of which even make sense. But it's interesting to contrast the emotional and attitudinal content of speech with its lexical content.

When we ask what words someone said on a particular (recorded) occasion, the answer is a subjective one. If people disagree, the best we can really do is to appeal to the perceptions of a panel of unbiased native speaker/hearers. No one would ever say "well, we can't agree about what this person said, let's look at the output of this speech recognition program."

However, the lexical perceptions of unbiased native speaker/hearers are pretty consistent. If transcription conventions are shared, independent careful transcripts of a passage of conversational speech are likely to disagree about no more than 4-5% of the lexical tokens. And many of these disagreements will be fairly inconsequential things -- was that "uh" or "a"? Was it "Cathy" or "Kathy"?

This is a phenomenon we might call "word constancy". We have an extraordinary shared subjective consciousness of words. On a plausible definition of "word", roughly similar to what dictionary makers would use to decide what a dictionary entry is, average American high school graduates have a passive vocabulary of at least 40,000 items, not counting lexicalized phrases, proper names, acronyms and some other sizeable categories. When I teach introductory linguistics, I have my students administer a similar sort of evaluation to themselves -- based on random samples from a dictionary headword list -- and the numbers that come back average about 65,000. There's a lot more to said about this question, but any way you look at it, the members of a speech community inhabit a common lexical world made up of tens to hundreds of thousands of word-like categories.

Lexical knowledge is not the consequence of literacy, but its essential condition. You can demonstrate word constancy in young children long before they've learned to read. For example, play a game with some four- or five-year-olds, where you name a word ("baseball", "sweater", whatever) and offer a prize to the first kid to raise a hand when you use it again. You'll a lot more arguments about whose hand went up first than arguments about whether you actually said "baseball".

Now try the same game with emotional or attitudinal loadings of speech. "The first one to raise a hand when I speak in an angry voice (a happy voice, a sad voice...) gets a prize." You can even start by demonstrating what you mean.

This time, the arguments will be of a very different kind. First, the number of distinct emotions that most people are willing to try to try to differentiate isn't very large -- half a dozen or a dozen or so. Second, the degree of individual confidence and joint agreement is not very high at best, and gets lower as the set of distinctions is increased.

"I win, that was a happy voice". "I think he sounded like he was just in a hurry, not happy". "Maybe he was a little happy, I'm not sure". "It sounded like an ordinary voice to me, that's how he talks all the time." It gets worse as you multiple the categories to cover more of the complex cognitive structure of emotion -- happiness because of personal accomplishment vs. pride in the accomplishment of a loved one vs. satisfaction from the misfortune of an enemy vs. unexpected luck; unselfconscious joy vs. suppressed glee; and so on. Psychologists' attempts to study the perception of emotion in speech tend to involve more like 6 categories than 60,000, and even so, the degree of intersubjective agreement is more like 50% than like 95%. (Of course, the details vary enormously -- I'll discuss some specific studies in a future post).

Now, there are particular questions about particular utterances where most people can agree. Here's another sound clip. Does the speaker seem relaxed, or upset? Submissive, or aggressive? Force such choices and most people will agree on the outcome. But there's a third problem that becomes clear at this point. How you describe an instance of emotional expression depends not only on your evaluation of someone's state of mind, but also on your opinions about them and their circumstances.

There are lots of ordinary-language terms for someone who feels negative-valence arousal directed towards others: aggrieved, angry, annoyed, bitter, enraged, furious, huffy, irate, incensed, irritated, outraged, pissed, upset, wrathful, and a couple of dozen others. These involve not only different degrees of arousal ("annoyed" vs. "enraged") and shades of emotion ("bitter", "outraged"), but also different evaluations of the person in question ("huffy", "wrathful"). There are also more neutral words for aroused emotional states of an aggressive character: fierce, impassioned, vehement.

I don't think that anyone will consider that George Bush's tone of voice, in that last clip, was "relaxed" or "soothing" or "amused" or "seductive". But whether you think that George Bush was "huffy" or "impassioned", "irritated" or "vehement", probably depends at least in part on what you think about him and his policies.

Though it's true that Jonah Goldberg, who is certainly a strong supporter of George Bush and (most of) his policies, perceived him as being "angry" in this sequence.

I'll try to say a few things in some later posts concerning what we do know about the expression of emotion in speech. It's a symptom of the poor state of our understanding, both of emotion and its expression, that it's going to be hard to do this briefly.


Posted by Mark Liberman at October 10, 2004 11:47 AM