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Yet another reason books are awesome.....as if we needed one.
April 2, 2013 11:37 AM   Subscribe

Mining books to map emotions through a century. Emotion words aren't consistently used through time, it seems. Things got scary in the 80's.
posted by littleap71 (20 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
The study ...

The Expression of Emotions in 20th Century Books.
posted by ericb at 11:40 AM on April 2, 2013 [2 favorites]


In fact, there is only one exception that Bentley and his colleagues found: fear. "The fear-related words start to increase just before the 1980s," he says.

I remember, as an elementary school kid in the 80s, being terrified that the world was going to end in nuclear holocaust at any moment. One of the reasons Watchmen was so powerful for me when I read it was that it perfectly captured that terror zeitgeist.

It's interesting that we're becoming less open to writing emotion-words in literature. Part of it might be the fashion of show-don't-tell at a peak? So you don't ever simply write "She was frightened," like you might've in decades gone by. Now it's "Her throat clenched and her palms grew clammy."
posted by Andrhia at 11:46 AM on April 2, 2013 [5 favorites]


The interpretation in the article seems, as popular science writing so often does, to get it completely wrong. Wish these writers would rely on the interviewee's interpretations instead of providing their own.

What jumps out at me is this:
"The '20s were the highest peak of joy-related words that we see," he says. "They really were roaring." But then came 1941, which, of course, marked the beginning of America's entry into World War II. It doesn't take a historian to see that peaks and valleys like these roughly mirror the major economic and social events of the century. "In 1941, sadness is at its peak," Bentley says.
The decline is through the Great Depression, which the writer does not mention. 1941 is in fact the point when sadness bottomed out, i.e. stopped declining and began to rise again.
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:50 AM on April 2, 2013 [2 favorites]


Fascinating. This would be an example of digital text analysis, then? Which is now gaining some traction among the academic humanities and lit-crit types?

Would it have been appropriate for them to control for genre? Or did they just assume randomness throughout the 4% sample across time?
posted by notyou at 11:59 AM on April 2, 2013


Oh. To answer one of my own questions:
We performed checks to confirm that the overall decrease in mood word frequency in the data is not merely a reflection of, for example, greater numbers of technically-oriented or scientific books through time. Although the Ngram database does not give an explicit breakdown of book subject categories [2], we analyzed the same mood word lists on Google's 1-grams English Fiction data set, which contains only works of fiction and literary criticism. In support of a real decrease in literary emotion, we found a similar decrease in the overall use of mood words (see Figure S1).
They looked at all books in the data set and compared with just the Fiction data set to test the randomness of the sample. The data set is not broken down into subject categories or genres.
posted by notyou at 12:12 PM on April 2, 2013


well, then, let's hope no one stops writing them
posted by Legomancer at 12:51 PM on April 2, 2013


Aren't there inherent gender and class biases here? You're talking about running an analysis against a culture that was even more predominately white and male than it is today. In the 20's were a lot of minorities and women publishing books? I don't think the 1920's in America were roaring for everybody.
posted by herda05 at 1:15 PM on April 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


The decline is through the Great Depression, which the writer does not mention. 1941 is in fact the point when sadness bottomed out, i.e. stopped declining and began to rise again.

That doesn't contradict what you quoted. Though I agree that the inflection points are interesting as well.
posted by benbenson at 1:47 PM on April 2, 2013


A blog for people who like this sort of thing.
posted by benito.strauss at 1:54 PM on April 2, 2013 [3 favorites]


I was terrified of dying in a nuclear holocaust in the 80s, as well. I was just a kid, though I figured adults had gone through the same thing when they were kids. Perhaps not. Reagan would go on and on about the missile gap, and I was was sure any day would be The Day After. Also: Sting, "Russians", "Land of Confusion"--real fear in the zeitgeist.
posted by professor plum with a rope at 1:56 PM on April 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


Wow - this is really cool. There are so many other great applications for this type of analysis - for example, studying the language used in just mainstream newspapers or magazines (rather than books) and how that changes over time. For example, I'd love to know how the New York Times has changed it's language since the 1880's (hell, I'd love to see how it changed after 9/11)! Or how it changed when certain editors arrived and left! Or when other papers merged, or competitors showed up!
posted by antonymous at 2:11 PM on April 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


I liked this comment:
As an aside, the most commonly used words in English also happen to be, as a result of being commonly used, the most resistant to change. This is clearly shown by the fact that the most commonly used English verbs tend to be irregular, reflecting older patterns.
posted by aniola at 2:11 PM on April 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


Neat! I'm currently working in a history-of-emotions research group, so this'll make me briefly popular at the virtual water cooler tomorrow.

p.s. I'd love to see a similar graph with psychoanalytic terms like "depression" "anxiety" "repression" "bipolar" etc. Obviously, these will likely increase with the rise of post-Freudian pop-psychology, but I'm still curious as to which terms are more popular.
posted by LMGM at 2:57 PM on April 2, 2013


I remember, as an elementary school kid in the 80s, being terrified that the world was going to end in nuclear holocaust at any moment.

This was my experience as a kid in the 90s, too. I thought about it constantly and felt kind of weird, like no one else was-- the way kids think about death in bed at night and wonder if it's just them.

I'd love to see a similar graph with psychoanalytic terms like "depression" "anxiety" "repression" "bipolar" etc. Obviously, these will likely increase with the rise of post-Freudian pop-psychology, but I'm still curious as to which terms are more popular.

Completely agree. I went through a big psychoanalysis phase when I fell in love with lit crit, but lately I've been exhausted by how much I use pseudo-clinical terms to describe the workaday emotions of life, and obscure truly abnormal behavior by painting all behavior with the same diagnostic brush. I remember when I was dating an older man, he was surprised and mildly shocked by my casual use of the word "avoidant," which to him was more a clinical term than everyday parlance. It's interesting to me that we filter our emotions so broadly through that particular navel-gazing lens now, and sort of do the work of literature on ourselves, but nearly as farce. It's kind of stomach churning at times, I guess.
posted by stoneandstar at 3:38 PM on April 2, 2013 [4 favorites]


How am I limerent for thee, let me count the ways
posted by tel3path at 3:41 PM on April 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


I, too, was terrified of dying in a nuclear holocaust in the 80s. The YA section in the library had a book called "Jenny, My Diary" about a shelter dweller, there were short stories about tunnel-dwelling mutants in deserts singing songs in a strange language which turn out to be derived from the ancient folk song "Never gonna give you up," schoolteachers would devote lessons to hectoring us out of our fatuous complacency in... Not using our votes better, I guess? we were 14.

I spent the 80s quivering in abject terror, and even now, Margaret Atwood's short story "When It Happens" is a good exposition of the underlying assumptions that guide my life. (though I don't recall that it was overtly emotional). All this time I thought I was just unusually neurotic. I had no idea that it came from the zeitgeist and that a whole world of kids were quivering in their own private terror just as I was.
posted by tel3path at 3:58 PM on April 2, 2013


antonymous: "Wow - this is really cool. There are so many other great applications for this type of analysis - for example, studying the language used in just mainstream newspapers or magazines (rather than books) and how that changes over time. For example, I'd love to know how the New York Times has changed it's language since the 1880's (hell, I'd love to see how it changed after 9/11)! Or how it changed when certain editors arrived and left! Or when other papers merged, or competitors showed up!"

Apparently being "left behind" was the equivalent for Christian children. I don't know why, maybe I was too young to really realize the horrors of it or what. I mean, I'm not sure if I saw "The Day After" or if I only saw the previews. We never had to do duck and cover for nukes, but we did do it for Tornadoes. Or was that just a ruse they told us midwest farm kids to protect us from the real horror? Regardless, I think my terror was being left behind when the ol' Rapturino happened and Jesus took all the REAL believers away.
posted by symbioid at 5:40 PM on April 2, 2013


"It's not like the change in emotion is because people are writing about the Depression [...]"

Um... Mightn't it be? I mean, I'd like to think they've omitted "depression" from their 115 words for sadness, because duh, but, like, did they?
posted by Sys Rq at 6:50 PM on April 2, 2013


Bulk data pattern research....
posted by littleap71 at 7:25 PM on April 2, 2013


There's an open thread about this research.
posted by stebulus at 8:41 AM on April 3, 2013


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