Language, Fact & Emotion, Oh My!!

Many thanks for all the kind comments yesterday! They were much appreciated!!


Computers haven’t only changed our day-to-day lives in multiple ways, their computational capacities have made it possible to conduct studies far beyond the ability of mere humans. One of my sons sent me an article published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Scientists detailing a research project that would have been impossible to conduct prior to the availability of today’s technologies.

The researchers set out to examine the roots of what they dub–accurately, in my view– our “post-truth era.”  In order to do so, they employed “massive language analysis” to document the rise of fact-free argumentation. They analyzed language used in millions of books published between 1850 to 2019–an analysis that required Google nGram data.

What they found is illuminating, to put it mildly.

After the year 1850, the use of sentiment-laden words in Google Books declined systematically, while the use of words associated with fact-based argumentation rose steadily. This pattern reversed in the 1980s, and this change accelerated around 2007, when across languages, the frequency of fact-related words dropped while emotion-laden language surged, a trend paralleled by a shift from collectivistic to individualistic language.

The researchers concluded that this “surge of post-truth political argumentation” is evidence that we are living at a time when the balance between emotion and reasoning has shifted.

To explore if this is indeed the case, we analyze language in millions of books covering the period from 1850 to 2019 represented in Google nGram data. We show that the use of words associated with rationality, such as “determine” and “conclusion,” rose systematically after 1850, while words related to human experience such as “feel” and “believe” declined. This pattern reversed over the past decades, paralleled by a shift from a collectivistic to an individualistic focus as reflected, among other things, by the ratio of singular to plural pronouns such as “I”/”we” and “he”/”they.”

The reversal occurred in both fiction and nonfiction. It wasn’t limited to books, either– they found a similar shift in media (like New  York Times articles).  The results of the research “suggest that over the past decades, there has been a marked shift in public interest from the collective to the individual, and from rationality toward emotion.”

The bulk of the article is a description of the methodology employed, the care taken to avoid “cherry picking” of data, and a variety of theories about the reason for the language shift. (There is definitely a “chicken and egg” aspect to the shift: did disillusionment with science and evidence drive a language shift? Or did something else prompt the change in language and thus promote an anti-science mood in the general public?)

The researchers concluded with a section they captioned “Outlook.”

It seems unlikely that we will ever be able to accurately quantify the role of different mechanisms driving language change. However, the universal and robust shift that we observe does suggest a historical rearrangement of the balance between collectivism and individualism and—inextricably linked—between the rational and the emotional or framed otherwise. As the market for books, the content of the New York Times, and Google search queries must somehow reflect interest of the public, it seems plausible that the change we find is indeed linked to a change in interest, but does this indeed correspond to a profound change in attitudes and thinking? Clearly, the surge of post-truth discourse does suggest such a shift, and our results are consistent with the interpretation that the post-truth phenomenon is linked to a historical seesaw in the balance between our two fundamental modes of thinking. If true, it may well be impossible to reverse the sea change we signal. Instead, societies may need to find a new balance, explicitly recognizing the importance of intuition and emotion, while at the same time making best use of the much needed power of rationality and science to deal with topics in their full complexity. Striking this balance right is urgent as rational, fact-based approaches may well be essential for maintaining functional democracies and addressing global challenges such as global warming, poverty, and the loss of nature.

This study is fascinating, albeit depressing.

I’ve previously suggested that our current era will be labeled (assuming there are humans and historians left to do the labeling) “the age of Unreason.” The language we use matters far more than we generally recognize; it both reflects and produces our biases.

And right now, those biases evidently elevate emotion over reason and logic. Which explains a lot….


  1. Speaking of language, I sure hope that the Democrats will STOP say “WE” when they are talking about the latest dumb crap the Republicans are doing. It makes me crazy. Every time they do that, and they do it a lot, they are taking ownership of the Trumper crazy shit. Please call on your elected reps to stop doing this. If you look for it, you will hear it very frequently. Please try to get them to say The Republicans need to stop this rather than WE need to stop this (fill in the blank).
    Words matter.

  2. I struggle with any data produced using Google Technology. Remember, if you can use your computer software programs (algorithms) to determine what data is seen by end-users, the data output is biased.

    As I mentioned, Julian Assange wrote a book about Google stating it is not what it seems. When you start researching internet technology and the laws around it, you will see what I’m talking about.

    Google can create any set of data points you want. They can also filter out any data you don’t want, or THEY don’t want. 😉

    This has been proven time and time again with their search engines. They even got caught in 2016 manipulating search data for Hillary Clinton.

    Facebook has become a master of this as well which is why millions of people are leaving it. They are even dictating what the “NEWS” is just like the humans called editors and owners did at real live newspapers. This editing of the news is what drove down viewers (subscribers), not advertising dollars like they want you to believe.

    What happened in the 1930s is happening again. Back then it was called yellow journalism (sensationalistic). Muckrakers exposed both journalists, media, and oligarchic owners.

    The same is happening today. The news today is being created to attract certain eyeballs to chase clicks, but most critical-thinking people (serious people) are disinterested in the crime blog sensationalism. The muckrakers are moving to non-controlled platforms like Substack or running their own website publishing their own material.

    In fact, if you’re still relying on large social media and news websites, you are getting less and less informed. This old paradigm along with the economic and political paradigm is like a machine and heading toward a cliff. 😉

  3. Is there anything out there that compares to fear when trying for a desired end? Even left brained people have the flight or fight impulse. It’s so much easier to scare people than to inform them. Why would anyone expend the effort?

  4. Yes. It’s true. When George H.W. Bush hired Lee Atwater and Karl Rove to run the propaganda for the GOP, the acceleration of emotion-based language jumped into high gear. They knew how to activate the most primitive centers of our brains – the sub-limbic areas – where emotions rule and cerebral activity (reasoning) is short-circuited. Add Newt Gringirich’s egregious use of emotional language to thwart any policy-making that actually served the best interests of the people and we have what we have today. The GOP’s utter lust for power is mostly responsible for the emotional language. Heck, go on Facebook and look for “conservative” policy points. Nope. What you’re going to find is Emotion 101 with a kicker of hate Democrats. No policy. No governing.

    And, sadly, it works. We’ve been wondering for all the years I’ve been on this blog why people vote against their own best interests. This is why. The power mongers of the GOP altered the conversation and here we are.

    In another vein, there was an article in the Denver Post this morning discussing the return to the classrooms and other forms of education. The single thing that caught my eye was a comment from an African-American female high school student who said that her handwriting quality has deteriorated since she’s been on the computer so much over the last year. Very telling.

  5. Social media have also provided the platform for statements like “ I think” or “I believe”; then the consumers read it as fact and the process begins.

  6. Who in this day and age actually reads books?? It certainly has to be a declining % of the population, especially in the internet era. So I wonder if the study and its inferences apply to an important but shrinking minority we call the educated class? And if so, does it matter? Over an 8-year period The Former Guy and his predecessor, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, showed millions of Americans , that real Americans have a 5th-grade vocabulary and have little use for: being politically correct, the scientific method, institutions, norms, laws, reason and reading books, and especially non-fiction books.

    Over 5,000 Boomers (born between ‘46-‘64) are now dying each day – they were the largest segment of the population for a significant chunk of American history and drove every predominant trend, including the one about which this essay writes. But 28.5% of them are gone and their influence on culture and politics is waning fast. The largest age segment today is Generation Z and their makeup seems to be far more driven by reason than not – just look at the % of them who profess to be atheists. But they are also more aggrieved about what is unjust in our society, as was put on display after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

    As for me, a product of the American meritocracy as the first in my family to attend and graduate from college, I’m holding out hope that the hyper-individualistic culture of Reagan-Gingrich-Palin-Trump-Greene-Boebert was a product of the Boomer generation and it’s in the final “dry-heaves” that come from binging on Ayn-Randian-level selfishness, envy, rage and the nihilism it inspired. And what will come in to sweep it away is a generation of Americans who are willing to finally shed the bullshit “shining city on a hill” narrative of the last 240+ years and focus on building a more honest, just and perfect union.


  7. Patrick,

    Absolutely well said and perfect. To your point, just 10 years ago an author had to sell 200,000 copies of his/her book for it to become a best-seller. Today that number is 10,000. I have six non-fiction books on Amazon and have sold perhaps 150 copies – combined. My five novels currently available on my website, have sold much better, but it is a mammoth struggle. I’ve given away copies as gifts to my closest, busiest friends, but they can’t find the time to read them. Meanwhile, those who DO read them tell me they can’t put them down. Amazing.

    I hope you are right that the boomers (I was born in 1942) are replaced by reasoning generations. Where did I go wrong? I always thought Ayn Rand – a displaced immigrant – was totally full of shit. But the Republican/capitalist/libertarian sheep picked up on her and rolled with it. The litany of political and social illiteracy is embedded on those we both mentioned in our blogs today… and many more. Josh Hawley? Paul Gosar? Joe Manchin? Mitch McConnell? Matt Goetz? And the list is endless.

  8. This study confirms what I have observed where reporting has devolved to what I call is “newsertainment”, where the emotional content is more important than the information content.

    I have now gotten to the point where I hate podcasts. It is too easy to add emotional content with the corresponding decrease in informational content. If it has enough information content to make it worth communicating, then it is worth taking the time to transcribe it into text so that I can read it without all of the emotional baggage attached.

    I suspect that this whole change as been accelerated by the communication tools of the information age, where engagement can be measured in real time. Engagement is what drives eyeballs, clicks, and revenue.

  9. Any discussion of language these days calls out for a “call out” of the coarsenessing of it. There are no “curse words” anymore – those we would avoid as showing our crudeness, except, perhaps, when extremely angry/frightened are everyday, in many young people, every other word. They are mirrors, reflecting the same in dress, behavior, etc..

  10. I sensed what the researchers have nailed during the Reagan campaign of 1980 and since with the rather abrupt emphasis on emotion and individualism rather than rationality and “We’re all in this together” modes of communication. Such change preceded the internet takeover and should be ascribed to something else afoot in our socioeconomic and geopolitical processes since the researchers have told us what happened and is happening but not why, a query beyond the bounds of their effort. Perhaps political scientists and economists such as a research-driven Piketty can enlighten us on this void.

  11. Shelia, it appears me that these language word shifts and collectivistic to individualistic focus might be related to society’s desire for immediate gratification. Why investigate to find an answer when you can google for a desired result.

  12. While the very few now use books and news professionally the vast majority of us use them for entertainment.

    This research is among many that “suggest (that in entertainment, over) the past decades, there has been a marked shift in public interest from the collective to the individual, and from rationality toward emotion.”

    Another such intertwining concept is the balance between freedom of self versus power of others which can be for collective good (rational) or self alone serving (emotional).

    Performing some simple logic leads to a trend from government successfully providing for the collective good to moving towards emotional self satisfaction supported by the movement of financial wealth and therefore political influence from collective wealth and power (the economy) towards wealth and power distributed upwards (aristocracy).

    It doesn’t take much more logic to see the workings of manipulation of the commons here to favor individual wealth and power. The commons has been led to stand down for self interests and rise up in support of the few.

  13. Colossians 3:14 reads, “clothe yourselves with love a perfect bond of union!”

    The decay of western society is doubtless. The only way to control the rot would be to use an authoritarian hand. It’s a possibility that things could be corrected, The Supreme Court, conspiracy theorists, other abusive free speech, complete and utter equality, Voting rights and fair elections including gerrymandering, amongst other issues.

    But then those who would use an authoritarian hand Would have to be trustworthy. And who would anyone consider trustworthy In this day and age. In a free society the majority rules with compassion. They take into consideration Everyone in a secular society. Unfortunately, religion has developed a free and unfettered dalliance concerning secular civil society.

    So what has happened? religion is not a representative of theocratic beliefs. If one were to read the scriptures from Genesis to Revelation, We would see That religion today does not abide by any scriptural doctrine. And, Islam doesn’t abide by The Quran , or the Tavrat the Zebur or the Insul.
    and, How much Jewish doctrine is actually from the Hebrew scriptures? There is no temple anymore, so, how can the Mosaic Law be upheld? It can’t! No matter how much any Rabbi, Priest, or Mulah tries to contort original scriptural writings to satisfy political goals and consolidate power amongst the general population of their So called flocks, He will eventually fail.

    Christ himself said, You are like the blind leading the blind, and you both will fall into the pit. Matthew 15: 14. Then the Pharisees of the Sanhedrin asked Christ, We are not blind also are we? John 9: 40. Christ then replied in verse 41: “If you were blind, you would go and have no sin. But now you say, we see. Your sin remains.” Later John said at Revelation 3:17 because you say, “I am rich and have acquired riches and do not need anything at all” But you do not know that you are miserable and pitiful and poor and blind and naked.

    People today worship celebrities, they worship athletes, they worship money, they worship politicians, they worship material possessions, they worship religious leaders.

    Every single idol that People worship has failed human society. The proof is in history, Historically Western based civilization has failed to be long lived. Eventually society decays, Loses it’s cohesiveness and therefore collapses. Then, It’s the next in line.

    Concerning those celebrity religious leaders, at Matthew 13: 22 Christ States: “As for the one sown among the thorns, this is the one hearing the word, but the anxiety of this system of things and the deceptive power of riches choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful.”

    What celebrity or leader today could compare with Moses? He gave up tremendous wealth and power to lead a people out of bondage. Those people were witness to many miracles, and, still continuously rejected their God. I believe they were called “a stiff necked people” A Perfect example is the book of Judges! Eventually The temple was torn down by the Romans and never rebuilt.

    Without a temple, without Levitical priests, without a Holy of Holies, without the sacred blood sacrifice requested, There could not/cannot be true Hebrew worship. There can be no mosaic law, Because no one can pick and choose what part of the law they want to embrace, And, what part of the law they want to cast aside. So, with all of the lies and falsities of religion, How can anyone expect anything honest to happen at all? Where would this tremendous leader come from or, better yet, What celebrity politician or celebrity religious leader could even come close to a Moses or a Christ?

  14. My read on the genesis of this change is, yes, fear,
    but not of any single trigger, but of society in general.
    Let me count the ways:
    Nuclear disaster.
    Climate disaster.
    Political disaster.
    Social shunning.
    Personal economics vs oligarchy.
    Complexity in support machinery.
    Dilution of intrapersonal support.
    Dystopian entertainment.
    Failure of government, esp USA.
    People are being forced into a sub-nuclear family.
    You’re on your own. Don’t have kids.
    That’s a bleak future. Zone out.
    Which doesn’t work.

    Credits to my 35 yr old daughter,
    And Jordan B. Peterson.

  15. Interesting that the reversal was coincidental with the presidency of St. Reagan, infamous for his “You can have it all,” and
    appeal to bigotry, neither of which,of course, is related to rationality. Reagan was , also, responsible for the near merging
    of religion and government, bringing Jerry Falwell,and others of his ilk closer to the White House than previously. Of course,
    there was his imbecilic statement that “Evolution is just a theory.” Hey, so far the same is true of gravity. But, you’ve heard this
    from me before.
    It is all too sadly evident that a president can lead a culture without passing anything legislative.
    daleb and Vernon, I salute you. I’d forgotten about the idiocy dripping from the GWB era.
    I read books, but I preceded the boomers by a few years, for what that is worth.
    Hoping that you are right, Vernon, and the Gen.Z folks bring us back to rationality. I was troubled by the study’s assumption that
    the best we can expect is to have a new balance with less rationality. I can not dismiss the importance of emotion, but in order
    to survive, if that is still possible, we need to emphasize rationality.

  16. It’s curious to me that the shift coincided with the Republicans finally getting to employ their conservative ideas on economics on a wide-scale basis. Reaganomics, people! The data since that time shows how badly those policies decimated the middle and lower classes, and–not incidentally–increased the wealth of the upper classes immensely. Yet, a lot of conservatives (and even many liberals, sadly) still believe in those conservative ideas on economics. I’d say the misinformation campaign begun around them was very successful. Perhaps it paved the way for other misinformation campaigns, around science, social values, etc.

    As a current example, you can look at the recent hysteria around inflation. First, stir up feelings around a largely nonexistent fear, and second, use that fear as an excuse to avoid doing anything to counteract the problems we actually do face. What a great plan! (Aside: Joe Manchin sucks.)

  17. John H,
    Joe Manchin Has fallen in love with himself, that’s the ultimate form of idolatry. Joe Manchin thinks he’s an iconoclast, Unfortunately He’s still sleeping Living the dream, lol!

  18. John H; can the current inflation be considered price gouging during this 2+ years of Pandemic.

    John P; Joe Manchin is the proverbial “legend in his own mind” and has made a name for himself politically, I believe he has his eye on Joe Biden’s job but…as a candidate for which party?

    A once close Florida friend, a gay, Catholic, Republican man, and I didn’t discuss politics as such; we had the same complaints about infrastructure in disrepair and other issues in general. Out of the blue he E-mailed me after I moved back to Indy to say his partner didn’t believe I was a “leftie” so he was going to confront me with some issues to prove his point. He began accusing me of supporting politicians and issues I had never heard of and accused all Democrats of “relativism”, a term I was unfamiliar with politically but understood. A college graduate and Michigan University Administration retiree, he said our friendship needed a hiatus; that was in 2006, I haven’t heard from him since and he deleted my E-mails. It took a while before I remembered he only watched Fox News, including while visiting in my home here, and I let go of my pain at the loss of a friend.

    “Language, Fact and Emotion…Oh My”

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