The Emotion Of Literature Reflects Real Historical Events
March 21, 2013

Emotional Trends In Literature Reflect Real Historical Events, Say Researchers

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

Using five million books digitized by Google in recent years as a database, the research team looked at how often words that carry emotional content, or 'mood words,´ were used throughout the 20th Century. Previous work by one of the researchers, Vasileios Lampos from the University of Bristol in the UK, looked at the word content of Twitter messages in six mood categories: anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, surprise.

"We thought that it would be interesting to apply the same methodology to different media and, especially, on a larger time scale,” said lead author Alberto Acerbi, an anthropologist at the University of Bristol.

Acerbi said the team quickly picked up on historical distinct trends within the books´ word content.

“We were initially surprised to see how well periods of positive and negative moods correlated with historical events,” he said. “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."

The team also found that there was a distinct split between American and British literature around the 1960s. They found that American literature tended to become loaded with more emotional words toward the end of the 20th century compared to British literature.

"We don't know exactly what happened in the Sixties but our results show that this is the precise moment in which literary American and British English started to diverge,” said co-author Alex Bentley from the University of Bristol. “We can only speculate whether this was connected, for example, to the baby-boom or to the rising of counterculture.”

"In the USA, baby boomers grew up in the greatest period of economic prosperity of the century, whereas the British baby boomers grew up in a post-war recovery period so perhaps 'emotionalism' was a luxury of economic growth,” he added.

The researchers also found that writers from both sides of the Atlantic tended to use more words associated with ℠fear´ starting in the 1970s.

In their conclusion, the study´s author left the question open whether there was actually a direct causal connection between historical events and the emotional content of literature. While the word usages could represent actual moods or behaviors in society, they could also represent a form of escapism not connected to reality.

“It has been suggested, for example, that it was the suppression of desire in ordinary Elizabethan English life that increased demand for writing obsessed with romance and sex,” the research team wrote.

Acerbi noted that the digitization of literature has enabled anthropologists to apply new metrics to historical trends and data.

"Today we have tools that are revolutionizing our understanding of human culture and of how it changes through time,” he said. “Interdisciplinary studies such as this can detect clear patterns by looking at an unprecedented amount of data, such as tweets, Google trends, blogs, or, in our case, digitized books, that are freely available to everyone interested in them."