The Rise and Decline of Thinking over Feeling

In texts, both fictional and non-fictional and in English and Spanish, thinking words relating to technology and social organization (experiment, gravity, weigh, cost, contract) become more common between 1850 and approximately 1977 (beginning of the great stagnation) but since then thinking words have declined markedly and feeling words relating to belief, spirituality, sapience, and intuition (e.g. forgiveness, heal, feel) have become more common.

The graph at right shows the ratio of rationality words to intuition words over time in different corpuses. Paper here.

The surge of post-truth political argumentation suggests that we are living in a special historical period when it comes to the balance between emotion and reasoning. To explore if this is indeed the case, we analyze language in millions of books covering the period from 1850 to 2019 represented in Google nGram data. We show that the use of words associated with rationality, such as “determine” and “conclusion,” rose systematically after 1850, while words related to human experience such as “feel” and “believe” declined. This pattern reversed over the past decades, paralleled by a shift from a collectivistic to an individualistic focus as reflected, among other things, by the ratio of singular to plural pronouns such as “I”/”we” and “he”/”they.” Interpreting this synchronous sea change in book language remains challenging. However, as we show, the nature of this reversal occurs in fiction as well as nonfiction. Moreover, the pattern of change in the ratio between sentiment and rationality flag words since 1850 also occurs in New York Times articles, suggesting that it is not an artifact of the book corpora we analyzed. Finally, we show that word trends in books parallel trends in corresponding Google search terms, supporting the idea that changes in book language do in part reflect changes in interest. All in all, our results suggest that over the past decades, there has been a marked shift in public interest from the collective to the individual, and from rationality toward emotion.

The authors blame the change in language towards feelings on the failure of “neo-liberalism” which seems dubious and without plausible mechanism. If anything, I would put the causality the other way. A more plausible explanation is more female writers and the closely related feminization of culture.

The analysis is consistent with my earlier post on how quickly the NYTimes became woke.

Hat tip: Paul Kedrosky.


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