What are you in the mood for?: Emotional trends in 20th century books

Literary trends come and go; one year’s vampire is another year’s zombie. According to new research published today in PLOS ONE, certain moods also experience trends in literature. Which moods, or emotions, do you think were popular in the literature of the 20th century?

To find out, researchers created six categories of words to express anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness and surprise. These terms were pared down to word stems and then entered into Google’s Ngram Viewer, an immense and interactive database of over 5 million books. The researchers looked at all English language books in Google’s database that were published between 1900 and 2000. Three additional datasets were created to analyze the use of mood words in English fiction (i.e., all books written in British and American English, excluding all works of non-fiction), British English books, and American English books.

Their data indicates that the use of mood words generally decreased in books published in the 20th century. Curiously, the use of words relating to disgust declined the most. The use of fear-related words similarly decreased until the 1970s, when the trend took a sharp turn upwards (and continued to climb for the next three decades). When they plotted the frequency of words relating to joy and sadness, the trend of happy and sad words correlated to major historical events such as World War II and the Great Depression.

In their comparison of books written in British and American English, researchers noted that the frequency of mood words in American English books increased relative to British English books beginning in the 1960s. This trend continued throughout the latter portion of the century, even as the use of mood words generally decreased.

For students of cultural and linguistic evolution, these massive, text-based datasets may present a new way of analyzing trends over a great period of time. For others, they can simply provide a fresh perspective on the previous century!

To learn more and share your thoughts about the study, click here to read the full article. If you are interested in similar studies, click here to read the authors’ research on word usage in climate change science and and here for the accompanying New York Times op-ed.

 

Citation:

Acerbi A, Lampos V, Garnett P, Bentley RA (2013) The Expression of Emotions in 20th Century Books. PLoS ONE 8(3): e59030. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0059030

Images:

books is power, by the second fiddle

The graph comes from Figure 2 of the manuscript.

Wrapped up in a Book: The Role of Emotional Engagement in Reading

Have you ever gotten lost in the pages of a good book? If so, you may have been more empathetic afterward. According to new research published in PLOS ONE, reading fiction may affect the reader’s empathetic skills over a period of time. The key to this effect is the reader’s level of emotional engagement with the text.

The researchers conducted two studies to explore the relationship between fiction and empathy. In the first, they recruited university students and randomly assigned them to read either a piece of fiction or non-fiction. Participants in the fiction group read an excerpt from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘The Adventure of the Six Napoleons’. Participants in the non-fiction group read selections from a newspaper. To make the passages as similar as possible, the researchers chose news articles that focused on an individual, mirroring the potential for fiction readers to engage with the main character in story.

Participants’ empathy was assessed immediately before and after the experiment. Their levels of emotional engagement were also measured immediately after the reading, and a follow-up empathy level assessment was conducted a week afterward.

In the second study the researchers conducted the same assessments – with an added dimension. The fiction group read an excerpt from José Sarmago’s Blindness and the non-fiction control group read a selection of news articles of a similar length. In addition to measuring the participants’ levels of empathy and emotional engagement, the researchers asked participants to rate their positive and negative emotions after the reading.

In both studies, they found that the fiction readers who were more emotionally engaged in the narrative became more empathetic over the course of the week. Fiction readers who were not emotionally engaged were less empathetic the following week, and non-fiction readers did not display these effects to a significant degree. With the additional data on the participants’ emotions, the researchers ascertained that the effects of empathy and emotional engagement were similarly significant regardless of positive or negative emotions.

Readers of fiction rejoice! If you would like to learn more about the role of emotional engagement in reading fiction, read the full text of the study here.

Citation: Bal PM, Veltkamp M (2013) How Does Fiction Reading Influence Empathy? An Experimental Investigation on the Role of Emotional Transportation. PLoS ONE 8(1): e55341. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0055341

Image credit: On the platform, reading by moriza.