Tuesday, August 28, 2012
A team of psychologists from San Diego state has conducted a pair of studies (here and here) examining the use of words in books over many decades and discovered a couple of interesting trends; 1. we have become more self-absorbed over time; and 2. women have gained prominence and status as measured by pronoun usage. Pacific Standard Magazine reports on both studies:
See Dick. See Dick look in the mirror. See Dick admire his reflection.
Researchers who have scanned books published over the past 50 years report an increasing use of words and phrases that reflect an ethos of self-absorption and self-satisfaction.
“Language in American books has become increasingly focused on the self and uniqueness in the decades since 1960,” a research team led by San Diego State University psychologist Jean Twenge writes in the online journal PLoS One. “We believe these data provide further evidence that American culture has become increasingly focused on individualistic concerns.”
Their results are consistent with those of a 2011 study which found that lyrics of best-selling pop songs have grown increasingly narcissistic since 1980. Twenge’s study encompasses a longer period of time—1960 through 2008—and a much larger set of data.
Last month, we described a sobering study of 50 years’ worth of books, which found “an increasing use of words and phrases that reflect an ethos of self-absorption and self-satisfaction.” The same research team—Twenge, W. Keith Campbell and Brittany Gentile—has just come out with another analysis of our reading matter, and its implications are more inspiring.
Using the Google Books database, the researchers examined the ratio of male pronouns (he, him, his, himself) to female ones (she, her, hers, herself) in the texts of 1.2 million books published in the U.S. between 1900 and 2008. They suspected feminine references would represent a larger percentage of such words over time, as women gained in power and status.
They were right. But there were periods of regression, and a real shift didn’t occur until the late 1960s.
Specifically, they found 3.5 male pronouns for every female pronoun in books published between 1900 and 1945. This ratio increased to 4.5 to one in the 1950s and early 1960s—the Father Knows Best era, when women stayed in the kitchen and, apparently, off the printed page.
With the coming of the feminism, however, things shifted rapidly. “Beginning around 1968,” the researchers write in the journal Sex Roles, “the ratio dropped markedly until, by the 21st century, U.S. books used about two male pronouns for every female pronoun.”