Human Languages Skew Positive

We’re all a bunch of pollyannas

smiley faces
Joseph Sohm/Visions of America/Corbis

A young girl, filled with cheer, marched into American hearts in 1913 through the pages of a book by Eleanor H. Porter. The titular character was Pollyanna, whose name is now synonymous for a person possessing relentless optimism, sometimes to a fault. Pollyanna, an orphan, played the "glad game" by finding something to feel glad about in every situation. The book was a best seller and was into a movie, twice.

In 1969, two researchers took the name even farther to generalize about the human condition: Jerry Boucher and Charles E. Osgood contended that people tend to use positive words more often than negative ones. Now, that work has been updated with the help of big data. A group of researchers combed through Google Books, the New York Times, Twitter, subtitles of books adn movies, music lyrics, and other sources to determine the most commonly used words in 10 major world languages. And they found that the tendency to paint things in a positive light seems to be universal. They published their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

English, Spanish, French, German, Brazilian Portuguese, Korean, Chinese, Russian, Indonesian and Egyptian Arabic all came under scrutiny. Native speakers helped rate the positivity or negativity of each word, and the researchers averaged the scores. Some languages are more "happy" than others, writes Melissa Healy for the Los Angeles Times. Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese and English were more positive whereas, Russian, Korean and Chinese were less so — but still more positive than negative.

The challenge is making sure that the samples of words truly reflect the language and oft-used words. The researchers hope that their methods might be applied to see the happiness levels of users across large populations—say for a geographical area, a time period or a particular social network. 

“We're designing our instruments to be of use for policy makers, countries and cities, journalists, businesses and corporations ("how are my products being talked about?") and, of course, interested individuals,” one of the researchers, Peter Sheridan Dodds of the University of Vermont, told Medical Daily. “Our instruments are not just for Twitter and can be used on any large enough text.”

Of course, some are wary of a society full of Pollyannas. "A person who's a Pollyanna according to our current usage is always looking on the bright side and thinking that things will look up, things will get better, and in many cases that's not the case," says Margaret Matlin, a psychologist at SUNY Geneseo who co-wrote a 1979 book called "The Pollyanna Principle," in an NPR interview. The book extends the 1969 hypothesis to suggest that people tend to have trouble seeing the unpleasant because we are keyed into the positive. 

But the positive bias isn’t necessarily extreme. Matlin points out that even the novels of James Joyce and William Blake skew toward the positive. "I don’t think anyone would have called either of them a 'Pollyanna,'" she says.

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