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Cortex. 2014 Jun;55:167-81. doi: 10.1016/j.cortex.2013.08.014. Epub 2013 Sep 18.

Linguistic biomarkers of Hubris syndrome.

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Stroke and Dementia Research Centre, St George's University of London, UK. Electronic address:
Stroke and Dementia Research Centre, St George's University of London, UK.
House of Lords, London, UK.


Owen and Davidson coined the term 'Hubris Syndrome' (HS) for a characteristic pattern of exuberant self-confidence, recklessness, and contempt for others, shown by some individuals holding substantial power. Meaning, emotion and attitude are communicated intentionally through language, but psychological and cognitive changes can be reflected in more subtle ways, of which a speaker remains unaware. Of the fourteen symptoms of HS, four imply lexical choices: use of the third person/'royal we'; excessive confidence; exaggerated self-belief; and supposed accountability to God or History. One other feature (recklessness) could influence language complexity if impulsivity leads to unpredictability. These hypotheses were tested by examining transcribed spoken discourse samples produced by two British Prime Ministers (Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair) who were said to meet criteria for HS, and one (John Major) who did not. We used Shannon entropy to reflect informational complexity, and temporal correlations (words or phrases whose relative frequency correlated negatively with time in office) and keyness values to identify lexical choices corresponding to periods during which HS was evident. Entropy fluctuated in all three subjects, but consistent (upward) trends in HS-positive subjects corresponded to periods of hubristic behaviour. The first person pronouns 'I' and 'me' and the word 'sure' were among the strongest positive temporal correlates in Blair's speeches. Words and phrases that correlated in the speeches of Thatcher and Blair but not in those of Major included the phrase 'we shall' and 'duties' (both negative). The keyness ratio of 'we' to 'I' was clearly higher throughout the terms of office of Thatcher and Blair that at any point in the premiership of Major, and this difference was particularly marked in the case of Blair. The findings are discussed in the context of historical evidence and ideas for enhancing the signal to noise ratio put forward.


Hubris syndrome; Keyness; Language; Shannon entropy

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