Thursday, March 21, 2013

Buried emotions

One more, this time from the curious world of culturomics, which is also on Nature news.


Changes in expressions of sentiment can be discerned from Google Books

There’s nothing like having stereotypes confirmed. If you associate contemporary British fiction with the cool, detached tones of Martin Amis and Julian Barnes, and American fiction with the emotional inner worlds explored by Jonathan Franzen or the sentimentality of John Irving, it seems you’ve good reason. An analysis of the digitized texts of English-language books over the past century books concludes that, since the 1980s, emotion terms have become significantly more common in American than British books.

The study [1], by anthropologist Alberto Acerbi of the University of Bristol in England and coworkers, takes advantage of Google’s database of over 5 million digitally scanned books from the past several centuries. This resource has previously been used to examine the evolution of literary styles [2] and trends in literary expressions of individualism [3].

Such mining of the cultural information made available by new technologies has been called ‘culturomics’ [4]. Its advocates believe that these approaches can unearth trends in social opinions and norms that are otherwise concealed within vast swathes of data. “Language use in books reflects what people are talking about and thinking about during a particular time, so Google Books provides a fascinating window into the past”, says psychologist Jean Twenge of San Diego State University, author of Generation Me.

The new results certainly seem to show that familiar narratives about social mood are reflected in the literature (both fiction and non-fiction) of the twentieth century. Acerbi and colleagues find that, while words connoting happy emotions show peaks of usage in the ‘roaring twenties’ and the ‘swinging sixties’, sad words come to the fore during the years of the Second World War.

But there are surprises too: the First World War doesn’t seem to register on this happy-sad index, for example. By this measure, happiness seems to be rising since the 1990s, although it is too early to see whether the global recession will reverse that.

“The relationship between historical events and collective mood is complicated”, Acerbi admits, “but just by doing a somewhat crude analysis of emotion words it is possible to find trends that resonate with what we know about history.” He hopes that further analysis might reveal, for example, whether literature is ahead of its time or only slowly reflect other changes.

“This is a fascinating look at how two cultures have changed over time, especially how world events influence the expression of emotion in media”, says Twenge.

Overall, the use of emotion-related words in English-language books declined over the twentieth century. But when the researchers distinguished books in American and British English (about 1 million and 230,000 respectively), they found that, despite the overall decline, emotion words have become relatively more frequent in the former since about 1980, whereas previously the differences were minor. Such changes were not seen for a random selection of words. “Our results support the popular notion that American authors express more emotions than the British”, they say.

A similar change is seen in the usage of ‘content-free’ words such as pronouns and prepositions (you, us, about, within). Acerbi and colleagues interpret this as indicating that the shift in emotionality is coupled to a general shift in literary style, according to which American texts are increasingly prolix. “The correlation with mood terms is not altogether surprising, as these longer constructions provide increased opportunity for expressing sentiments”, explains biologist David Krakauer of the University of Wisconsin, who has mined Google Books for changes in literary style [2].

“Authors tend to read their contemporaries and their competitors largely within their respective cultures”, he adds, “and so we might expect British English and American English to diverge somewhat”.

Do these shifts imply that the US population in general expresses more emotion than the British? Although that doesn’t necessarily follow – literary norms may sometimes invert rather than mirror tendencies in everyday life – Acerbi feels that these new findings “may reflect a genuine cultural change, because of the size of the sample, and because Google Books is not explicitly biased towards successful or influent books.”

But Krakauer cautions that differences in literary expression don’t necessarily represent differences in the emotional mindscapes behind them. “It is a rather intriguing and open question why different cultures express the same level of feeling with different numbers of words”, he says.

1. Acerbi, A, Lampos, V., Garnett, P. & Bentley, R. A. PLoS ONE 8, e59030 (2013).
2. Hughes, J. M.. Foti, N. J., Krakauer, D. C. & Rockmore, D. N. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 109, 7682-7686 (2012).
3. Twenge, J., Campbell, K. W. & Gentile B. PLoS ONE 7, e40181 (2012).
4. Michel, J.-P. et al., Science 331, 176-182 (2011).

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