American writing is now more emotional than British writing (big data for books)

by on March 29, 2013 at 1:54 pm in Books, Data Source | Permalink

From Alberto Acerbi, Vasileios Lampos, Philip Garnett, and R. Alexander Bentley:

Our results also support the popular notion that American authors express more emotion than the British. Somewhat surprisingly, this difference has apparently developed only since the 1960s, and as part of a more general stylistic differentiation in American versus British English, reflected similarly in content-free word frequencies. This relative increase of American mood word use roughly coincides with the increase of anti–social and narcissistic sentiments in U.S. popular song lyrics from 1980 to 2007, as evidenced by steady increases in angry/antisocial lyrics and in the percentage of first-person singular pronouns (e.g., Imemine), with a corresponding decrease in words indicating social interactions (e.g., matetalkchild) over the same 27-year period.

And there is this:

As these findings appear to genuinely reflect changes in published language, a remaining question is whether word usage represents real behavior in a population, or possibly an absence of that behavior which is increasingly played out via literary fiction (or online discourse). It has been suggested, for example, that it was the suppression of desire in ordinary Elizabethan English life that increased demand for writing “obsessed with romance and sex”. So while it is easy to conclude that Americans have themselves become more ‘emotional’ over the past several decades, perhaps songs and books may not reflect the real population any more than catwalk models reflect the average body; the observed changes reflect the book market, rather than a direct change in American culture. We believe the changes do reflect changes in culture, however, because unlike lyrics of the top 10 songs, the book data are independent of book sales.

The full article is here, with other points of interest.  For instance of the major emotions coded for, disgust is the one least likely to show up in book writing.  I owe the pointer to someone or other on Twitter, but right now it is simply an open window on my computer, next to the Twitter window.

Stan March 29, 2013 at 2:23 pm

I first saw it in the @Neuro_Skeptic twitter feed a few days ago.

Linda Seebach March 29, 2013 at 2:26 pm

Langage Log has examined the claim that there has been an “increase of anti–social and narcissistic sentiments in U.S. popular song lyrics from 1980 to 2007″ and found it wanting.
See http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=3114
with links to other such claims.

Norman Pfyster March 29, 2013 at 2:45 pm

The calm, reasoned discourse of the internet/blog commenting world surely stands as a counterexample.

Steve Sailer March 29, 2013 at 3:26 pm

My impression of the basic lyrical contention of current pop songs aimed at the teenage girl market:

Female singer: “I’m so sexy.”

Male singer: “You’re so sexy.”

Mike in Qingdao March 29, 2013 at 9:20 pm

That might have been true about 25 years ago.

Now it’s:

Male singer: Your ass is so sexy
Female singer: My ass is so sexy
Male singer: Your ass is so sexy
Female singer: I want your big c***

Orange14 March 29, 2013 at 5:38 pm

I’m afraid that this looks like more junk science. We really don’t know the impact of the American vs British comparison without knowing something about the books that were in the database. A Raymond Carver book is likely to be quite different from a Barbara Kingsolver book just to cite one quick example. What would probably be a better survey would be to look at the American NBA fiction winners vs the British Man prize winners and see if this is really a trend line.

londenio March 29, 2013 at 5:46 pm

You don’t use tabs?

dearieme March 29, 2013 at 7:18 pm

Off with their heads!

CPV March 29, 2013 at 10:59 pm

Well, in opposition now we have this:

The Empirical Kids
http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/29/opinion/brooks-the-empirical-kids.html?src=recg

In which David Brooks leapfrogs Tom Friedman and the execrable (and hopefully now-defunct) Roger Rosenblatt and claims title to the most embarrassingly grasping-for-a -theme, on-campus-with-the-evidence, guy-with-no-real-point-of-view writer on the planet (pace Tom Wolfe).

Is this evidence for anti-emotionalism? Whoa! If so, it’s outsourced and manufactured. Well, what about emotion? I know some emotional people!! I just taught some last week! The campuses are rife with irrational emotional thinkers! So I say no! I know a girl who agrees with me! And wow, aren’t the kids all smarter than us all anyway? Especially David Brooks apparently? [BTW is this his David Petraeus moment?]

Boy, it’s a good thing we have people watching for manufactured “trends”. “We’re getting more analytical this week.” “Bowling is on the decline”: ..”Fewer trandgener indivduals are having sex on prom night”. Are there any smart people left in the public arena?

prior_approval March 29, 2013 at 11:26 pm

‘because unlike lyrics of the top 10 songs, the book data are independent of book sales.’

Nope – published books are sold to a publisher, and very accurately reflect that market.

This is slowly changing with the entire rise of e-books, and data derived from this market might be more useful.

Emanuele March 30, 2013 at 7:29 am

The main problem in the paper is the supposed correlation between the lack of affective labels and a lack of expression of emotions in the novel. The “Show, don’t tell” rule is well defined in literature, and no good author would write “He was angry” nowadays. He would write that he was screaming, his carotid artery was pulsing.
I would say that the increase* of affective labels in the USA is just related to a higher share of writers targeting the broader market, people that are more comfortable with an easier writing: “He was sad”, “They were evil”, “He was kind”.

* relative increase, in both countries the labels decreased as expected.

Edward Burke March 30, 2013 at 9:12 am

From an occasional writer of fiction: let us say that this study is suggestive without necessarily being definitive.

To confirm validity of the methodological approach or to assess the measure of the temporal component the researchers seem to strive for, it might be good for the team to perform historical surveys of ancient Greek (say, Homer to Lucian of Samosata) and Latin (say, Plautus to Juvenal) and measure those outcomes against what else is known about the respective histories of those fabled states. Equally instructive would be a survey of British English literature of the entire modern historical (not simply “literary”) period (oh let’s say Spenser and Sidney through say Philip Larkin and Geoffrey Hill), where analysis of word counts bearing upon a) Biblical sources and b) classical Greek and Latin sources might be instructive (separate study of the “ancient vs. modern” feud in the late 17th-early 18th cents. could also prove useful). Such historical analysis might also adduce or invoke some Vichian analytic component to measure affectivity and critical rational components over the course of imperial waxing and waning.

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