A couple of weeks ago, a reader tipped me off to an article in a science journal, highlighting a study that traced the decline of public rationality. It was profoundly depressing
Scientists from Wageningen University and Research (WUR) and Indiana University have discovered that the increasing irrelevance of factual truth in public discourse is part of a groundswell trend that started decades ago.
While the current “post-truth era” has taken many by surprise, the study shows that over the past forty years, public interest has undergone an accelerating shift from the collective to the individual, and from rationality toward emotion.
The researchers analyzed language from millions of books, and found that words we associate with logic and reasoning, such as “determine” and “conclusion,” began a steady rise around 1850; at the same time, words expressing emotion, like “feel” and “believe” began to decline. That pattern , however, reversed over the past 40 years. At the same time, the research found a shift from what they termed “a collectivistic to an individualistic focus” as reflected by the ratio of singular to plural pronouns such as “I”/”we.”
Interpreting this synchronous sea-change in book language remains challenging,” says co-author Johan Bollen of Indiana University. “However, as we show, the nature of this reversal occurs in fiction as well as non-fiction. Moreover, we observe the same pattern of change between sentiment and rationality flag words in New York Times articles, suggesting that it is not an artifact of the book corpora we analyzed.”
Determining that a shift occurred, while a complicated research problem, is obviously much less complicated than figuring out why it occurred. One intriguing (and concerning) factor was the finding that the shift from rationality to sentiment in book language accelerated around 2007, a date that coincides with the rise of social media.
At that point, the researchers found that– across languages– the frequency of fact-related words dropped and emotion-laden language surged, and there was a similar shift from collectivistic to individualistic language.
I suppose the two language changes–from collective to individual and from rational to emotional–could be coincidental, but I doubt it. When the focus of one’s life moves from community to individual, from “us” to “me,” the importance of exterior reality ebbs and the significance of interiority expands.
The ancient Greeks talked about a “golden mean” between extremes. They were onto something.
I’m a civil libertarian and a longtime advocate for individual rights, but I understand that concern for protecting the “unalienable rights” of the individual cannot and should not erase concern for the common good. (For that matter, self-interest properly understood actually requires a concern for the health of the community in which one lives.)
In so many ways, contemporary humans–and certainly, contemporary Americans–are encountering the considerable downside of a lopsided emphasis on individualism. The research cited in the article found an erosion in the use of reason and logic, and an increased emphasis on the individual; the”freedom lovers” who endanger others and slow recovery from the pandemic by refusing to be vaccinated are a perfect example of both.
The health of the broader community–not just public health, important as that is, but measures of justice, fairness, appropriate and honorable governance–is ultimately the guarantor of individual wellbeing. We’ve evidently lost that insight, and with it, an appreciation for the importance of objective reality.