This blog analyzes the results of testing out a new class of cognitive/AI software — natural language processing analytics focused on understanding the personality behind unstructured text. That personality might be any public or social figure, a brand, or some form of commercial speech. In this instance, we had IBM Watson Personality Insights assess the personalities of the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees by applying linguistic analytics and personality theory to their convention acceptance speeches. We recount Watson's findings, identify important caveats, and assess how this type of analysis can help retailers improve their brand voice, customer interactions, and B2B corporate communications.
Cognitive/AI software solutions include a broad range functionality to address the needs of organizations and individuals to make sense and uncover insights from vast amounts of structured data, unstructured text, and rich media content. IDC's view of these components is presented in IDC TechScape: Cognitive Systems Technologies, 2016 (IDC, February 2016). One of these technologies is natural language processing.
Most cognitive/AI natural language processing software is trained to understand what the content means; for example, that "the box is light" refers to a container's weight. A second class of natural language understanding analytics software can discern emotional tone. For example, IBM Watson Tone Analyzer uses linguistic analysis to detect and interpret emotions, social tendencies, and language styles. Finally, another emerging type of cognitive/AI software is designed to infer the personality traits of the person behind the words.
IBM positions its Watson Personality Insights service in this third class. According to the service’s demo website Personality Insights "gain(s) insight into how and why people think, act, and feel the way they do. This service applies linguistic analytics and personality theory to infer attributes from a person's unstructured text." IBM explains the science of Watson Personality Insights here.
Well, it's less than 100 days until the U.S. presidential election day, and the airways are consumed by politics. Candidates' speeches, tweets, press conferences, and interviews provide lots of text to analyze. I decided to run the two major party candidates' convention acceptance speeches through the Watson Personality Insights service. What I found is pretty interesting.
Context Is Critical
The text of both Mr. Trump and Secretary Clinton’s convention speeches reflect the electoral political context in which they were given. The speeches also reflect the hand of professional speechwriters skilled in presenting their candidates in the most appealing light for gaining votes. It is persuasive speech with words chosen to ring true with the candidate's voter base and undecided voters. The texts then are specific to this particular role. Call it cynicism or not, these speeches may not necessarily reflect either candidate's authentic personality. I'd say then that evaluating the veracity of the Watson Personality Insights analysis needs to take these factors into account and not be judged by comparing it with the assessments based on broader views of the candidates' speeches, interviews, tweets, and press conferences, especially as interpreted from any concerned citizen's political point of view. The same point applies to business executives, opinion makers, government officials, and other public figures.
The last comment points to the fact that cognitive/AI software works best on a "corpus." Outside of Personality Insights, many other Watson services rely on ingesting as large a corpus as possible. That's true here.
There are other caveats. This Watson service is not focused on understanding the facts of content, just the psychology of the content's presentation. In our example, that means that Watson is apolitical. Its Personality Insights analyzed the two candidates' language to assess their personalities, not evaluate their policy position or politics. Its psychological lens is not normative, but merely descriptive. It passes no judgements.
Finally, it's important to reiterate that Watson Personality Insights only reads written text without regard to the intonation of the spoken word or any aspect of facial expressions or body language — which are very influential in conveying meaning, perhaps more so than the words themselves.
Watson Personality Insights’ "Read on" Candidates' Personalities
First, with respect to Trump, it seems his speechwriters served him well. Watson assessed the speech to present him as genial, empathetic, and compassionate. He's confident, hard to embarrass, and self-confident "most of the time." Based on the text, Trump is "calm seeking" and prefers "activities that are quiet, calm, and safe."
By Watson's account, Trump is complicated. On the one hand, his "choices are driven by a desire for prestige," but on the other, Watson assesses that helping others guides a large part of what he does. The speech, in Watson's opinion, presented him as relatively unconcerned with taking pleasure in life. He prefers activities "with a purpose greater than just personal enjoyment."
One more thing about Trump: According to Watson, Trump is likely to click on an ad and follow and reshare on social media.
Now, with respect to Secretary Clinton, Watson sees her as relatively unconcerned with tradition. She cares more about making her own path than following what others have done. According to Watson, she is social and outgoing, comfortable around people, empathetic, and compassionate. She is also confident and hard to embarrass — all characteristics shared with Trump. Again, like Trump, Clinton considers helping others as a guiding principle. However, unlike Trump, Watson sees Clinton as driven by a desire for connectedness, not for prestige.
A couple of other things about Clinton: Watson sees her as likely to buy ecofriendly products, reply on social media, and adapt to situations. She's unlikely to treat herself and change careers.
Watson Personality Insights’ Decomposition of Personality Attributes
So far I’ve summarized Watson’s overall assessment of both candidates’ personality. It also decomposes personalities a deeper level as depicted in Figure 1. The starburst design displays its assessment of needs, values, and a “Big 5” of characteristics—openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and emotional range. Watson Personality Insights evaluates 47 characteristics across these seven dimensions.
Pass the Salt
How good was Watson in this particular test? Well, it did surmise that Trump is active on social media, and that Secretary Clinton is unlikely to change careers. Beyond that, you be the judge.
More broadly though, evaluating this Watson service depends on the yardstick used to measure its performance. It seems to me that every measurement of Watson's performance should be taken with a grain or two of salt. Remember, it's apolitical. Therefore, it shouldn't be judged in political terms. Also, I only gave it one speech from each candidate — speeches crafted for particular events with specific motives and their audiences' dispositions and perspectives in mind.
Much the same can be said of text written in very different circumstances. Letters to shareholders in corporate annual reports take their own slant, though not as much as the wild and wooly parlance of today's American presidential politics. Can these letters be read to understand an executive's personality? That's hard to tell; at least to date based on the test data we have. The texts of football coaches' pregame and halftime exhortations probably bear more similarities to political speech than to corporate speech — both reflective of their circumstances, audiences, and intent of the person behind the words. Again, to what extent do their words reflect personality in particular circumstances? To the extent that personality, role, and intention are authentically united, probably to a large extent.
This brings me to a final consideration: the notion of "speech acts," defined as an "utterance considered as an action, particularly with regard to its intention, purpose, or effect." When Watson Personality Insights is tasked with assessing a single utterance, even one as long as these two acceptance speeches, it may well be assessing the psychology of the intent, purpose, or effect.
Opportunities: Understanding the Psychology of a Brand Voice
Understood in the aforementioned way, I see very good opportunities for Watson Personality Insights in the realm of commercial speech acts — for example, in promotional emails, advertising copy, corporate B2B communications, investor relations, customer claims processing, customer service responses, content marketing, and product descriptions.
Brand voice seems to present a particularly good opportunity to benefit from cognitive/AI analytics. Brand voices are intentionally constructed to have specific effects. Brand voices combine three types of speech acts — those that inspire, inform, and incent. These are just as much integral to a brand voice as to political speech acts. There is nothing necessarily nefarious in constructing a voice to inspire, inform, and incent so long as its statements are true, but discerning the truth is not the purpose of psychological insight. Let's leave that to the fact checkers.
Watson on Watson
So, again to conclude, how good is Watson Personality Insights? If I answered that question, wouldn't you need to have some insight into my psychology to assess my judgement and wouldn't you need to understand my intent? Ultimately, speech, insight, meaning, and psychology are cultural constructs. Perhaps, then, a "wisdom of crowds" approach might be better at understanding personality than cognitive software, at least for now. Isn’t that what voters will do on election day and what consumers do from their zero moments of truth to purchase?
I ran the draft of this document through Watson Personality Insights, and then I had Watson read its own assessment of it to learn what Watson thinks of itself. Watson seems to have a pretty good handle on its own psychological complexities. All in, Watson holds itself in high regard: