Ngram morality

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David Brooks has found a congenial story in Google ngrams — or rather, in three papers about ngrammatical history, which he interprets to show that virtue, discipline, and concern for the common good have been declining, while subjectivity and concern for self-esteem have increased ("What Our Words Tell Us", NYT 5/20/2013)).

Brooks doesn't cite or link to the papers, which in my opinion is a form of journalistic malpractice, so here they are:

Jean M. Twenge, W. Keith Campbell, and Brittany Gentile, "Increases in Individualistic Words and Phrases in American Books, 1960–2008", PLoS One 7/10/2012
Pelin Kesebir and Selin Kesebir, "The Cultural Salience of Moral Character and Virtue Declined in Twentieth Century America", Journal of Positive Psychology, Forthcoming
Daniel B. Klein, "Ngrams of the Great Transformations", GMU Working Paper in Economics, 2013

I discussed the Twenge et al. paper last summer, with some (non-)replications:

"Textual narcissism", 7/13/2012
"Textual narcissism, replication 2", 7/14/2012
"What does this graph mean?", 7/15/2012
"It's all about who?", 7/31/2012

I haven't read the Kesebir and Klein papers carefully, and don't have time to do so this morning, but a glance at them raises an interesting point about the ideological resonances of certain time spans.

Daniel Klein's "very casual paper" surveys the past 250 years or so, because he's interested in the "governmentalization of society and culture" which on his view "began to set in" around 1880, "as a reaction to liberalism, the first great transformation". (By which he means classical liberalism, as represented by Adam Smith.) Since Klein is himself a liberal/libertarian, he notes with disapproval the rise since 1880 of phrases like "social needs", "needs of the community", "needs of society", "national unity", "social unity", "our society". He also notes a "long decline" — since the early 19th century —  in words and phrases like "liberty", "ought", "duty", "goodness", "good conduct".

In contrast, the Kesebirs are concerned with what they call the "well-established cultural trend in the United States toward greater individualism and its implications for the moral domain", which predicts that "during the twentieth century, words related to moral excellence and virtue" would "largely [wane] from the public conversation". This perspective resonates with the view that moral decline is a consequence of the rise of secular modernism. The underlying ideology, while not precisely the opposite of Klein's, certainly assigns a very different evaluation to the individualism/communalism dimension(s).

Jean Twenge also takes a negative attitude towards the rise in individualism — she calls it "narcissism", just so that we're clear what she thinks about it — but she sees the crucial cultural change as something that's happened since 1960 or so, presumably as a consequence of the counterculture and the hippies and all.  In the previouslycited blog posts, I noted that the trends of interest to her are actually much more striking in the period from 1900 to 1960, and in fact are hard to discern (or even reversed) in the post-flower-power era.

David Brooks doesn't mention this ideological and temporal inconsistency in his sources. In general, as I've noted in discussions of his earlier columns, his "unparalleled ability to shape an intellectually interesting idea into the rhetorical arc of an 800-word op-ed piece" crucially depends on skillful editing — or revision — of his raw materials into a form that fits his theme.

In one of the posts about Twenge on narcissism, I observed that there had been "surprisingly little uptake in the mass media", and expressed particular surprise that "so far, neither David Brooks nor the Daily Mail has taken the bait". So I'm glad to see that despite the debilitating influence of social democracy, modernism, and the counterculture, Mr. Brooks continues to demonstrate the virtue of self-consistency.


  1. Ray Girvan said,

    May 22, 2013 @ 7:18 am

    I blame it all on our becoming progressively more gormless over the past century.

    [(myl) Wonderful! Note in contrast that the 19th century became progressively less and less attentive, no doubt due to the effects of Romanticism, Democracy, and opium-eating.

    The fate of obedient, scrupulous, diligent, industrious, indefatigable, and studious is consistent with this theory. Or consider the rise of cleverness at the expense of discernment…]

  2. Steve Reilly said,

    May 22, 2013 @ 7:40 am

    Minor point, but if the word "ought" is declining in frequency, isn't that likely because we use the word "should" more?

    [(myl) Shh.]

  3. Ian Olasov said,

    May 22, 2013 @ 8:19 am

    I'll need to read the Kesebirs' paper, but I think it's tremendously important that most moral communication today is implicit – speakers expressing moral attitudes don't generally use words or phrases with moral meanings. (See Luckmann, "Moral Communication in Modern Societies", Human Studies, 2002.) And explicit and implicit moral communication are, at least sometimes, functionally different – for obvious reasons, explicit moral communication is, roughly and as a rule, more suitable for "bald on record" moral communication (cf. "That's wrong", "What a coward", or "Her behavior was indecent" with "I would never do that", dodging responsibility for something by avoiding referring to yourself as the subject of agentive verbs, or telling a story in non-moral terms which invites a moral inference). A decrease in the frequency of moral terms does not mean a decrease in the frequency of moral discourse, although it might mean a shift in how moral discourse is perceived.

  4. Alex Blaze said,

    May 22, 2013 @ 9:10 am

    I'm surprised to see a conservative sad that words like "tribe" and "community" are on the decline. They busted an artery over Obama's use of the term "compassion" a few years ago and they didn't like Hillary Clinton's use of the term "village" as in "It takes a village." Even the more recent "You didn't build that" thing was because they thought painting Obama as a "collectivist" would doom his election chances, but here's Brooks citing "collective" as evidence of a people needing less government instead of more.

    How can anyone take these linguistic critiques seriously when the subjective standards change based on the evidence and the argument being made?

    And what a way to finish this silly column: "Evidence from crude data sets like these are prone to confirmation bias. People see patterns they already believe in. Maybe I’ve done that here." NOOOOOOO!!!! You're not supposed to explain the con to the rubes!

  5. David Brooks is a Cultural Problem--Power and the Culture of Greed said,

    May 22, 2013 @ 10:13 am

    […] at the Language Log, Mark Liberman takes a closer look at this Ngram morality. Liberman first chides Brooks for not citing or linking to the papers, "a form of […]

  6. Jason Antrosio said,

    May 22, 2013 @ 10:20 am

    Thank you for this great and more detailed discussion of the papers. Brooks is indeed wanting to tell a huge story about "tectonic shifts in culture" based on word-use changes. By portraying this as a "cultural" issue, he then in typical Brooks fashion proposes that there is not much that can be done economically or politically to address such problems.

    I previously posted about this at David Brooks is a Cultural Problem–Power and the Culture of Greed and just updated that with a link here.


  7. bjv said,

    May 22, 2013 @ 10:24 am

    Sorta funny that I stumbled across this blog entry and *this* blog entry within mere minutes:

    *And* David Brooks has irritated me for years! :-) I need to stop listening to the choir….

  8. Steve Treuer said,

    May 22, 2013 @ 1:30 pm

    I typed in "excused doing" and "justified doing" in the N-gram viewer and was surprised to see large peaks for "excused doing" in the 1830s and 1840s but a gradual decline after that with "justified doing" taking over. Viewed in isolation, it looks like a trend that supports Brooks and the papers (which I haven't read), if you think that "excused doing" reflects a more moralistic point of view, which I think is reasonable. But if you type in "excused from doing" and "justified in doing" the trend seems to disappear.

  9. Steve Treuer said,

    May 22, 2013 @ 1:30 pm

    I typed in "excused doing" and "justified doing" in the N-gram viewer and was surprised to see large peaks for "excused doing" in the 1830s and 1840s but a gradual decline after that with "justified doing" taking over. Viewed in isolation, it looks like a trend that supports Brooks and the papers (which I haven't read), if you think that "excused doing" reflects a more moralistic point of view, which I think is reasonable. But if you type in "excused from doing" and "justified in doing" the trend seems to disappear.

  10. Rubrick said,

    May 22, 2013 @ 4:17 pm

    Someday in the distant future, scientists will devise a technique enabling them to reconstruct the first sentence ever uttered by a human. That sentence will be "Things sure are going downhill, aren't they?"

  11. AntC said,

    May 22, 2013 @ 4:35 pm

    Never mind ngrams, Klein (and the whole neoLiberal movement) ought(!) to pay closer attention to their historical sources:
    (By which he means classical liberalism, as represented by Adam Smith.)
    Prior to The Wealth of Nations, Smith published The Theory of Moral Sentiments. The later book builds on the moral foundation laid by the earlier. And in the earlier, there is a wealth of 'bleeding heart' stuff about the community (and church) binding social unity. Could someone run an ngram on that earlier book?
    [Sorry for having to get that off my chest; I know this isn't Political Philosophy Log.]

  12. Jonathan said,

    May 22, 2013 @ 6:45 pm

    Individualism could be Lasch's "culture of narcissism," Hoover's "rugged individualism" or Emerson's "self-reliance." There are just too many variables in what ideological value is given to the individual vs. collective dichotomy. Counting the words seems the worst way of settling the question.

    "These are the voices which we hear in solitude, but they grow faint and inaudible as we enter into the world. Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs."

  13. Dan Lufkin said,

    May 22, 2013 @ 9:11 pm

    I took Brooks mildly to task for not taking into account that the population of books has changed greatly in the past century. The editors of the NYT seem to agree with me for, lo, my humble contribution to good language thinking leads all the rest in the editors'-choice class.

  14. Andy Averill said,

    May 22, 2013 @ 10:26 pm

    On a positive note, there's been a sharp decline in the number of scoundrels, rascals, and fiends.

    [(myl) Also rogue(s), villain(s), blackguard(s), dastard(s), wretch(es), and reprobate(s). And cad(s) peaked around 1928.]

  15. Bill W said,

    May 23, 2013 @ 7:28 am

    "On a positive note, there's been a sharp decline in the number of scoundrels, rascals, and fiends."

    What's even more interesting than their decline over the last century — and cries out for explanation in Brooksian terms — is the sharp peaking of "scoundrel" and "rascal" at the turn of the century (around 1900, that is) and of "fiend" just after1830.

    Maybe the trajectory of "fiend" actually does have something to do with the waxing and waning of the Second Great Awakening.

    But "rascal" and "scoundrel"?

  16. EndlessWaves said,

    May 23, 2013 @ 1:45 pm

    We have the rise in police sarcasm to thank for that.

  17. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 23, 2013 @ 3:47 pm

    John McWhorter apparently has a Brooks-debunking piece in The New Republic which I haven't actually read because my browser and the TNR website are not playing nicely together and I can't be bothered right now to fiddle around enough to make McWhorter's text legible on my screen. But on the basis that McWhorter often has sensible things to say I commend it to those of you who may not have the same technical difficulties.

  18. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 23, 2013 @ 3:55 pm

    Bill W.: "Fiend" is still in quite active use here and now in the 21st century by the staff of the New York Post (both in headlines and in the text of crime/terrorism stories), but perhaps they are lexical outliers.

  19. Mr Punch said,

    May 23, 2013 @ 4:18 pm

    Isn't Klein wrong about "ought"? I believe it involves the concept of "owing," presumably to someone (society, say, or the community) – as opposed to "should," which implies a more autonomous morality.

  20. Jason said,

    May 23, 2013 @ 8:59 pm

    @JW Brewer
    But on the basis that McWhorter often has sensible things to say

    On linguistics. On his newfound career in political punditry I find he can be as hackish as Brooks, but at least he doesn't use bad linguistics evidence to back it up.

  21. Tom said,

    May 24, 2013 @ 5:36 am

    Nevermind the fact that argument from this kind of language is ridiculous and prone to confirmation bias, as already noted, Brooks (and the Times) doesn't even bother to check the trends for the words he discusses in the article, so he is actually wrong much of the time.

    Here's "common good" and "band together" for example and here are share and community. They're all supposed to "recede" according to Mr. Brooks, but in fact they all rise.

    Here's "I come first" (which I searched alongside other phrases to show that "family comes first" has in fact risen quite a bit, contrary to Brooks' claim.

    I touched on some more of this in my own blog entry on this madness earlier. I for one was excited to see punditry being driven by ngrams, just because I love ngrams, but disappointed to see the NYT couldn't bother doing a few searches before publishing those long lists of words.

    [(myl) I believe that the words come from Jean Twenge's work, discussed in the earlier posts linked above — certainly the ideas about rising narcissism do. Brooks may be guilty of inadequate skepticism, but in this case I believe that he just took his source at her word(s).]

  22. chh said,

    May 26, 2013 @ 10:03 pm

    Adding something a bit late to this comments section… I was curious about the claim about 'preferences' in the Brooks article, specifically why 'preferences' and not 'preference'? This is kind of interesting: 'Preference' in the singular doesn't show anything like a climbing frequency over the time that 'preferences' climbs.

    Looking quickly at a few examples, it seems like the one sense of 'preference' that's not too likely to be pluralized (the state or action of preference) existed for some time before the sense that is likely occur as a plural (a thing that someone prefers).

    I don't really see how the first sense is less individualistic that the second (although maybe someone can come up with that argument), so the point seems like a pretty bad one, but also I think that's kind of a neat relative distribution for the two forms that I'm not finding for some similar words like 'interest' or 'concern'.

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