Past studies have found that people have a tendency to use more positive-inflected words than negative ones ― "fantastic" rather than "awful," for example ― a trend that linguists refer to as "positive linguistic bias." Does our proportion of optimistic versus pessimistic verbiage actually change as our circumstances change, or are we set in our ways?
A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that awful circumstances arising may lead people to use more negative words than before.
The study found that throughout the time span covered by the study, positive linguistic bias showed fluctuations "predicted by changes in objective environment, i.e., war and economic hardships, and by changes in national subjective happiness."
To measure this phenomenon over time, the study’s authors examined the text of the New York Times and Google Books over the past 200 years. In addition to shifts in the predominance of optimistic language that correlate to times of national suffering or lower happiness levels, the study also found an overall decrease in positive words over the two centuries covered by the study. However, the latter conclusion should be taken with a few grains of salt for now, other researchers argue. Linguist Mark Liberman pointed out to the Times that tracking the tone of word choice over such a large period risks confounding overall changes in language with a decrease in positive word choice.
As with any single study, questions remain. The study’s authors suggested the need for more research into whether "objective circumstances and subjective mood have independent roles" in affecting positivity in language. The study found that "in the years when the level of national subjective happiness in the United States was lower, [linguistic positivity bias] tended to be lower also."
Unlike war and famine, however, it’s conceivable that national subjective happiness could be influenced by the tenor of national media ― or social media. During the past election cycle, a Vox Twitter analysis showed the new president-elect, Donald Trump, used significantly more negative words ("bad," "crooked," "dumb," "worst") than his opponent, Hillary Clinton, did. Was he more successfully tapping into a national mood of misery, or was this campaign language fostering a sense of despair and outrage? Or was it, perhaps, a little bit of both?