Language is getting less rational. That’s the gist of new findings from researchers at Wageningen University & Research (WUR) and Indiana University. Their study—”The rise and fall of rationality in language,” published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America—found that the past 40 years have seen a shift from the language of rationality to the language of emotion.
“Whatever the drivers, our results suggest that the post-truth phenomenon is linked to a historical seesaw in the balance between our two fundamental modes of thinking: Reasoning versus intuition,” study co-author Ingrid van de Leemput said.
The researchers looked at the language used in millions of English- and Spanish-language books published between 1850 and 2019, analyzing the use of 5,000 frequently used words. The rise of reasoning words like determine and conclusion and the decline of intuitive words like feel and believe could be seen starting around 1850 and lasting until the late 20th century. But over the past 40 years, this trend reversed, as words associated with intuition and emotion were used more frequently and words associated with fact-based arguments were used less frequently.
Drawing broad conclusions from all this may be a little hasty, as the findings could simply reflect a shift in the way language is used or the way authors state their cases rather than a deep reset in our modes of thinking. (Maybe writers are just being more frank about how subjective their own interpretations of the world are.) Still, the results of the analysis are somewhat interesting, even if they only reveal shifts in communication styles.
“The nature of this reversal occurs in fiction as well as nonfiction,” the researchers point out. “Moreover, the pattern of change in the ratio between sentiment and rationality flag words since 1850 also occurs in New York Times articles, suggesting that it is not an artifact of the book corpora we analyzed.”
The phenomenon has only sped up in more recent years:
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 accelerating shift since 2007 coincides with the rise of social media, which the authors offer as one potential explanation.
But “the trend reversal we find has its origins decades before the rise of social media, suggesting that while social media may have been an amplifier, other factors must have driven the stagnation of the long-term rise of rationality around 1975 to 1980 and triggered its reversal,” the study states.
“Print culture is selective and cannot be interpreted as a straightforward reflection of culture in a broader sense,” the researchers caution. “Nonetheless, across large amounts of words, patterns of change in frequencies may to some degree reflect changes in the way people feel and see the world.”
“It is also worth noting that the link between book language and social sentiment has been validated in other studies and that the long-term trend we find until 1980 is in line with what has been found in other studies including different text corpora and different indicators,” they add.
You can read the whole study here.