You have probably heard the adagio that “man bites dog”, and not “dog bites man”, makes for a good piece of news: unusual, exceptional, events are better stories than everyday occurrences. Hidden behind the surface, however, there is another message that seems so obvious we do not even think about it: both examples are negative events. “Dog wins the lottery” would probably be a good piece of news too, but it is not mentioned. That negative news – and possibly negative narratives in general – are more attractive than positive ones is a bit of a cliché, but it supported by much research.Continue reading “The ordeal simulation hypothesis”
Online misinformation, fake news, false news, hoaxes, you name it, has been blamed for almost everything bad happening in the last years, from the success of Trump to Brexit, from the election of Bolsonaro to the (relative) spread of the anti-vax movement. The scientific consensus on the prominence and on the effect of online misinformation, however, is, at best, mixed.Continue reading “Morgue employee cremated by mistake while taking a nap”
The phenomenon of online diffusion of misattributed quotes is so widespread that got its own dedicated meme. You may have seen a picture of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, that warns: ‘Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet just because there’s a picture with a quote next to it’. Lincoln, apparently nicknamed ‘Honest Abe’ when young, was assassinated in 1865, which makes it unlikely he had opinions about the Internet, and he is one of the historical celebrities most quoted (often incorrectly) on the web. Lincoln shares this questionable honour with the likes of Mark Twain and Albert Einstein. ‘The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result’ is one of the most famous quotes of Albert Einstein. Except that is not: the earliest known exact match of the quote appears in a Narcotics Anonymous information pamphlet in 1981, some 25 years after Einstein’s death.
The complexity of some cultural domains, such as technology, seems to be linked to population size. This makes intuitive sense: after all, we have iPhones and rockets, whereas hunter-gatherer societies do not. How does this work, however, for other, non-technological, cultural domains? Western stories are not more complex than Aboriginal Australians ones (I guess). What about religions, or kinship systems?
I recently published, together with Olivier Morin, a paper in Cognition and Emotion: Birth of the cool: a two-centuries decline in emotional expression in Anglophone fiction. The main result is about a clear decrease in the emotional tone in English-language literature, starting plausibly from the XIX century, a decrease driven almost entirely by a decline in the proportion of positive emotion-related words, while the frequency of negative emotion-related words shows little if any decline. In other words, English literature became in the last centuries less “emotional” and, in particular, less “positive”.