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Study Shows Our Language is More Emotional, Less Rational

Say it again – once more with feeling.

The National Academy of Sciences has published an exhaustive study that demonstrates language is becoming more emotional and less rational. This conclusion really should not come as a surprise, but somehow it does when facts and graphs are presented to validate what we already feel is true. In making that statement, perhaps we’ve already made their point.

New banner Feelings banner.LKDResearchers at Wageningen University in The Netherlands and the Cognitive Science Program at Indiana University joined forces “to demonstrate that the rise of fact-free argumentation may perhaps be understood as part of a deeper change.” The first line in their abstract reads, “The surge of post-truth political argumentation suggests that we are living in a special historical period when it comes to the balance between emotion and reasoning.”

Political observers and news junkies are likely to agree with that statement, but this analysis provides science to back it up. The study used a computer algorithm to scrutinize “millions of books in English and Spanish” (both fiction and non-fiction) published between 1850 and 2019, as well as the content of the New York Times as the basis for its investigation. Then researchers took the 5,000 most frequently used words and ranked the “emotional” vocabulary. They found that “word trends in books parallel trends in corresponding Google search terms.”

Extrapolating on this, Reason Magazine pointed out:

“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.”

The report “suggest[s] 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 report examines what they have termed “the post-truth era” as a time when “feelings trump facts.”

The Social Media Factor

A notable trend showed that the use of feeling words accelerated around 2007. One cause of that may have been the surge of social media usage. Issues discussed on social media platforms, researchers maintain, are often exaggerated and foster the spread of conspiracy theories. Thus, researchers indicate:

“Perhaps a feeling that the world is run in an unfair way started to emerge in the late 1970s when results of neoliberal policies became clear and became amplified with the rise of the internet and especially social media.”

The study also draws attention to “a historical rearrangement of the balance between collectivism and individualism and—inextricably linked—between the rational and the emotional or framed otherwise.”

This is particularly ironic considering the leftist political bent toward socialism which is, after all, collectivist by its very definition. In conclusion, researchers posit the following: “… 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.”

Researchers stipulate that even with all the efforts to quantify language use, they could not exclude the possibility that their deductions contained some bias, but they certainly seemed to do everything imaginable to come to a logical and scientific conclusion.

At least that’s the way it feels.

~ Read more from Leesa K. Donner.

Read More From Leesa K. Donner

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