All Happy Nations…

толпаWhen reading a news article, sometimes (more often then not, actually) one might think that everything is bad.  Some other time, reading some other article/column or news release, one might get an impression that everything is fine. Does this mean that reading a huge stream of various articles  “everything is bad” negates “everything is fine” and the result is simply neutral?

Psychologists, however, know that life is more complicated than that. Aren’t we all know this, too? Dozens of experiments show that people, in general, tend to describe events in a positive rather than negative way, even if in fact the events are rather neutral, bland or, at times, even pretty shitty. Pollyanna principle is in full effect here.

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Thousands of subjects in these experiments strove to present different situations so that they look prettier, using “good” words and avoiding “bad” ones.

Thus scientists have realized that if, in accordance with Pollyanna principle  people choose “good” words more often than not in their speech then it must somehow be reflected in human language.

That is, if you collect all the words and give them a “positivity test”, the average should be not neutral, as suggested above, but positive (albeit based on, well, nothing much.) In short, after reading lotsa-lotsa-lotsa texts in any language there must remain a vague feeling that, in general, everything isn’t all that bad, no matter what detractors say.

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When back when — before Internet, that is — to test this hypothesis experimentally was easier said than done. In practice, this meant collecting tens of thousands of words in different languages, presenting them to at least a hundred native speakers, recording whether the word, in the opinion of each subject, is “good” or “bad”. Then researchers should have determined the “average happiness score” of each word and applied it to the real body of texts in corresponding language…

It would have been an extremely tedious task if not altogether impossible task before the internet. Nowadays things have changed.

Mathematicians and linguists from Vermont took up the case, put together a research group, set to work, got results and published them in PNAS — the article  Human language reveals a universal positivity bias.

It turned out that the hypothesis was true: in all studied languages the distribution of words in their emotional “coloring” markedly shifted toward the positive. Here are the distribution of words in the emotional variance:

'[...] we show distributions of the average happiness scores for all 24 corpora, leading to our most general observation of a clear positivity bias in natural language. We indicate the above-neutral part of each distribution with yellow and the below-neutral part with blue, and we order the distributions moving upward by increasing median (vertical red line). For all corpora, the median clearly exceeds the neutral score of 5. The background gray lines connect deciles for each distribution.

‘[…] we show distributions of the average happiness scores for all 24 corpora, leading to our most general observation of a clear positivity bias in natural language. We indicate the above-neutral part of each distribution with yellow and the below-neutral part with blue, and we order the distributions moving upward by increasing median (vertical red line). For all corpora, the median clearly exceeds the neutral score of 5. The background gray lines connect deciles for each distribution.

“In terms of emotional variance, all four English corpora are among the highest, whereas Chinese and Russian Google Books seem especially constrained.”

Thus mathematicians and linguists have found that people аre prone to wishful thinking in every which language, but Spanish is best for it. More images, tables and pictures here.

Any application for these results? Linguists selected books in three languages ​​(English, French and Russian) and, using the developed methods, measured the “level of hapiness” as it fluctuated from the first to the last chapter of each book.

The most cheerful of the selected English-language books was Moby Dick, while The Count of Monte Cristo came out average, and — no surprise here — Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky embodied the darkest abyss imaginable.

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