The Expression of Emotions in 20th Century Books

We just published a paper in the journal PLoS ONE in which we analysed the usage of words with emotional content in English-language books, using the enormous database provided by Google Books (the version we used contains more than 5 millions books).

We found, for example, that there is a general, steady, decrease in the usage of words with emotional content throughout the last century, with the interesting exception of words associated to “fear”, that have an opposite trend starting from the 70s. Also we found that American and British books are quite different in their trends regarding emotional content, with American being more ’emotional’ than British. Perhaps surprisingly, this divergence is only observable from the 60s, while, before, books in the two variants of English language showed pretty much the same  trends.

These findings resonate well with the popular narrative, but it is great (at least from my quantitative-scientific-minded-anthropological point of view) that we can support it with data, and that we will be able to use those data to dig further into it. Of course many big questions are open: for example, we don’t know what caused those changes – but hopefully our results could provide a starting point to study this – and we don’t know what is the relationships between changes in books and broader cultural changes.  My hope is that, given the amount of data, and the fact the Google Books is not explicitly biased towards successful or influent books, we may be able to detect genuine long-term cultural changes more than ‘literary’ ones.

The paper is open access and can be found here. We had quite a few press interest: articles not surprisingly varied from enthusiastic to skeptical, from accurate and scientifically sound to sort-of sensationalist (and I learn a new British word: boffin) but overall I am happy with what happened. Philip Ball wrote a great (and ‘neat’) piece for Nature about our work, and I was quickly interviewed by Adam Rutherford for the BBC Radio4 science programme Material World.

References

Acerbi A., Lampos V., Garnett P., Bentley R. A. (2013), The expression of emotions in 20th century booksPLOS ONE, 8(3), e59030

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