Readersforum's Blog

March 29, 2013

Expression of emotion in books declined during 20th century, study finds

The use of words with emotional content in books has steadily decreased throughout the last century, according to new research from the Universities of Bristol, Sheffield, and Durham. The study, published today in PLOS ONE, also found a divergence between American and British English, with the former being more ’emotional’ than the latter.

The researchers looked at how frequently ‘mood’ words were used through time in a database of more than five million digitised books provided by Google. The list of words was divided into six categories (anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, surprise) previously used by one of the researchers, Dr Vasileios Lampos, to detect contemporary mood changes in public opinion as expressed in tweets collected in the UK over more than two years.

Dr Alberto Acerbi, a Newton Fellow in the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Bristol and lead author of the paper, said: “We thought that it would be interesting to apply the same methodology to different media and, especially, on a larger time scale. We were initially surprised to see how well periods of positive and negative moods correlated with historical events. The Second World War, for example, is marked by a distinct increase in words related to sadness, and a correspondent decrease in words related to joy.”

In applying this technique, the researchers made some remarkable discoveries about the evolution of word usage in English books over the past century. Firstly, the emotional content of published English has been steadily decreasing over the past century, with the exception of words associated with fear, an emotion which has resurged over the past decades.

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