Saturday, December 10, 2016

Two-centuries decline in emotional expression in Anglophone fiction

Olivier Morin & Alberto Acerbi (2016): Birth of the cool: a two-centuries decline in emotional expression in Anglophone fiction, Cognition and Emotion, DOI:10.1080/02699931.2016.1260528

Abstract: The presence of emotional words and content in stories has been shown to enhance a story’s memorability, and its cultural success. Yet, recent cultural trends run in the opposite direction. Using the Google Books corpus, coupled with two metadata-rich corpora of Anglophone fiction books, we show a decrease in emotionality in English-speaking literature starting plausibly in the nineteenth century. We show that this decrease cannot be explained by changes unrelated to emotionality (such as demographic dynamics concerning age or gender balance, changes in vocabulary richness, or changes in the prevalence of literary genres), and that, in our three corpora, the decrease is 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. Consistently with previous studies, we also find a link between ageing and negative emotionality at the individual level.

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In a concluding section Morin and Acerbi considered a number of possible explanations. An increase in impersonal interactions due to urbanization is one of them:
Another hypothesis would see the decline of positive emotional expression as a consequence of the devel- opment of impersonal interactions. The period we consider was a time of massive urbanisation; it also saw a marked decline in problematic behaviours such as theft or murder (Elias, 1978; Pinker, 2012). In other words, living peacefully among strangers became the norm, not the exception (Seabright, 2010). There is some empirical evidence (and some informed speculation as well) that such impersonal coexistence involves a decrease in displays of positive emotions. In Daniel Nettle’s study of Tyneside Neigh- bourhoods (Nettle, 2015), two communities are compared, one where incivilities, conflict and crime are rampant, the other a picture of peaceful coexistence. As Nettle finds out, life in the less tranquil of the two neighbourhoods involves considerably more socialisa- tion (not less). Greetings, in particular, are much more frequently seen in the deprived neighbourhood. Greetings are known to involve a great deal of positive emotional displays (genuine or assumed) in every society that has been studied from this angle (Duranti, 1997); by this and other means, inhabitants of the deprived neighbourhood, where social life is much less anonymous and much less peacable, con- stantly monitor one another. Nettle’s account chimes in with the view that modernisation saw the rise of a new and somewhat more tempered bourgeois ethos (Hirschman, 2013; McCloskey, 2010): a quiet search for personal improvement took precedence over the exclusive quest for honour and reputation. A decrease in displays of positive emotions could make sense in this light. One first step to confirm this hypothesis would be identifying the decrease in positive emo- tionality in non-literary material from the period. Even if one did, however, a number of questions would remain unanswered: Why do negative emotions fail to follow the same course as positive ones? Why did early urbanising elites give rise to the romantic movement?
This merits comparison with the article in Ryan Heuser and Long Le-Khac, A Quantitative Literary History Of 2,958 Nineteenth-Century British Novels: The Semantic Cohort Method (68 page PDF), which demonstrates a shift from abstract to concrete words, from telling to showing. Heuser and Le-Khac suggest this is due to urbanization. I discuss this in my post, From Telling to Showing, by the Numbers.

Also, my recent post, Change in national mood shows up in patterns of word usage observed in historical databases, which is links to a recent article on "linguistic positivity bias" (LPB).

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Acerbi has a blog post about this article HERE. In that he references,  Feelings from the Past—Adapting Affective Lexicons for Historical Emotion Analysis (PDF), which he glosses:
...finds the same emotional decline in a sample of German texts of 18th and 19th century, using a different metric for quantifying emotions (the Valence-Arousal-Dominance dimensions), and adapting historically the affective lexicon to “prior language stages”. In sum, this convergence (including other sources we mention in the paper) suggests that this may be a real phenomenon.

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