Later On

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Are We All Getting More Depressed?: A New Study Analyzing 14 Million Books, Written Over 160 Years, Finds the Language of Depression Steadily Rising

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Interesting column at Open Culture today, written by Josh Jones — and note at the bottom of the column the links to related content. He writes:

The relations among thought, language, and mood have become subjects of study for several scientific fields of late. Some of the conclusions seem to echo religious notions from millennia ago. “As a man thinketh, so he is,” for example, proclaims a famous verse in Proverbs (one that helped spawn a self-help movement in 1903). Positive psychology might agree. “All that we are is the result of what we have thought,” says one translation of the Buddhist Dhammapada, a sentiment that cognitive behavioral therapy might endorse.

But the insights of these traditions — and of social psychology — also show that we’re embedded in webs of connection: we don’t only think alone; we think — and talk and write and read — with others. External circumstances influence mood as well as internal states of mind. Approaching these questions differently, researchers at the Luddy School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering at Indiana University asked, “Can entire societies become more or less depressed over time?,” and is it possible to read collective changes in mood in the written languages of the past century or so?

The team of scientists, led by Johan Bollen, Indiana University professor of informatics and computing, took a novel approach that brings together tools from at least two fields: large-scale data analysis and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). Since diagnostic criteria for measuring depression have only been around for the past 40 years, the question seemed to resist longitudinal study. But CBT provided a means of analyzing language for markers of “cognitive distortions” — thinking that skews in overly negative ways. “Language is closely intertwined with this dynamic” of thought and mood, the researchers write in their study, “Historical language records reveal a surge of cognitive distortions in recent decades,” published just last month in PNAS.

Choosing three languages, English (US), German, and Spanish, the team looked for “short sequences of one to five words (n-grams), labeled cognitive distortion schemata (CDS).” These words and phrases express negative thought processes like “catastrophizing,” “dichotomous reasoning,” “disqualifying the positive,” etc. Then, the researchers identified the prevalence of such language in a collection of over 14 million books published between 1855 and 2019 and uploaded to Google Books. The study controlled for language and syntax changes during that time and accounted for the increase in technical and non-fiction books published (though it did not distinguish between literary genres).

What the scientists found in all three languages was a distinctive “‘hockey stick’ pattern” — a sharp uptick in the language of depression after 1980 and into the present time. The only spikes that come close on the timeline occur in English language books during the Gilded Age and books published in German during and immediately after World War II. (Highly interesting, if unsurprising, findings.) Why the sudden, steep climb in language signifying depressive thinking? Does it actually mark a collective shift in mood, or show how historically oppressed groups have had more access to publishing in the past forty years, and have expressed less satisfaction with the status quo?

While they are careful to emphasize that they “make no causal claims” in the study, the researchers have some ideas about what’s happened, observing for example: . . .

Continue reading. There’s more, including some likely causes — and note this earlier post by Kevin Drum, which focuses on the US.

Written by Leisureguy

29 July 2021 at 11:35 am

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