Evidence of increasing sentimentalism and individualism in written language

The recent paper “The rise and fall of rationality in language” (PNAS, Dec 2021), by Marten Scheffera, Ingrid van de Leemputa, Els Weinansa, and Johan Bollenc, brings some quantification over the way we use language to communicate, express ideas, argue, etc, in the course of time.

The abstract is itself very enlightening:

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 arti-fact 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.

There are several figures illustrating findings in different segments regarding language (English and Spanish), source (books and newspapers), and type of writing (fiction and non-fiction). Two of them can speak for most of the findings. Next we see measurements of the [average frequency Rationality words] / [average frequency Intuition words] over the years for texts in English (regardless source or type of subject).

In another figure, we see the [frequency singular pronoun(s)] / [frequency plural pronoun(s)] over the years.

It’s true that the internet era, and the social media, have been a huge accelerator for diverse types of peculiar effects, such as fake news (which by the way, they have their own universe of diverse behaviors, e.g. some of them are intuition-based, others are irrational interpretations of science, hence dressed-like-science). However, it is very clear that the shifting trend has started long before the wide use of the internet, at mid-70s. The article, in a discussion section, mentions a series of factors that can be contributing to this phenomenon. Speaking about and around those factors, one can maybe relate this shift observed in the curves:

a) to the ruling neoliberal policies and the way modern societies project their future prosperity (of themselves and their offsprings) – it is well-known that in most corners of the developed world the new generations are the first, to be having lower life quality expectations than their parents, after decades of steady relative improvement.

b) to the way the “individual” has been proposed and used as the core subject or reference in public affairs (as opposed to the collective) by the schools of politics and economics that have been setting the rules of the game for many decades now.

c) to the observed increasing polarization in most aspects of social and political sphere in the developed countries, which usually leads to hetero-determination (defining one’s position and stance as just being the opposite of something else/other) that may disregard the need for serious validation of one’s ideas.

d) and finally, to the way science and factual argumentation is perceived as being part of the toolbox of the wealthy ruling class that instrumentalize them in order to rationalize and legitimize unfair policies that marginalizes the majority of the societies. Losing faith to the (so called) democratic establishment and its institutions takes people farther away from the intellectual tools and means of the former.

It is impossible to analyze precisely all the thread of this story that brought us here, and more future studies can shed more light on it. However, in the practical field, it’s not productive to lose time with endless analyses when the findings are so terrifying. This situation urges for wide coalitions, cooperation, and consensus, and should be put very high in the agendas of international scientific and progressive thinking.


P.S. One thing that impressed me is the “Received October 25, 2021; accepted November 2, 2021;“, that is hardly 8 days of review period. This honestly sounds like the dream paper submission, compared to the several months waiting time for an editor to engage reviewers and collect reviews. Sure, this paper doesn’t have difficult technical parts that require time-consuming review, but still it’s impressive if it hasn’t been some sort of urgent push by the editor in view of the paper’s very interesting findings.