Technology reflected in our words

New research shows that as culture has evolved over the last two centuries – with increasing urbanization, greater reliance on technology, and widespread availability of formal education – so has human psychology. The findings are forthcoming in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

Psychological scientist Patricia Greenfield measured culture-wide psychological change over two centuries using the Google Ngram Viewer, examining the frequencies of specific words in a corpus of over 1 160 000 English-language books published in the United States between 1800 and 2000.

Drawing on her Theory of Social Change and Human Development, Greenfield hypothesized that the usage of specific words would wax and wane as a reflection of psychological adaptation to sociocultural change. Data from the corpus of books supported her hypothesis.

For example, the words “choose” and “get” — markers of the individualism and materialistic values that are adaptive in wealthier urban settings — rose in frequency between 1800 and 2000. Words that reflect the social responsibilities that are adaptive in rural settings – such as “obliged” and “give” — declined over the same period.

Interestingly, there was a short-term deviation from this overall trend: Usage of “get” declined between 1940 and the 1960s before rising again in the 1970s. Greenfield believes this deviation may reflect a decline in self-interest motivation during World War II and the Civil Rights movement.

Greenfield also observed a gradual rise in the use of “feel” and concomitant decline in the use of “act,” suggesting a turn toward inner mental life and away from outward behavior.

The corpus also revealed a growing focus on the self, with the use of “child,” “unique,” “individual,” and “self” increasing from 1800 to 2000. Over the same period, the importance of obedience to authority, social relationships, and religion in everyday life seems to have waned, as reflected in the decline of “obedience,” “authority,” “belong,” and “pray.”

The same patterns in word usage also emerged in the corpus of books published in the United Kingdom over the last 200 years. Furthermore, Greenfield was able to replicate the findings using synonyms for each target word in the both the U.S. corpus and the U.K. corpus.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.