Language proves we’re all optimists at heart

From ABC News in Science, 10 February 2015:

A study of the most frequently used words across 10 different languages proves that we do always look on the bright side of life.

Researchers from the Hedonometer Project, which aims to measure the real-time happiness of populations, used native speakers to rate their emotional response to the most frequently used words in their language.

The analysis of more than five million individual human assessments, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reveals that the so-called ‘Pollyanna principle’ is true; we do have a subconscious bias towards positivity.

“The way we think, the way that we form our ideas is inherently, intrinsically positive,” says co-author and applied mathematician Dr Lewis Mitchell, a lecturer in applied mathematics at the University of Adelaide.

“We just don’t have as many ways of putting together negative thoughts or negative ideas as we do have for positive ones.”

The project is a staggering exercise in data crunching. The team built up ‘corpora’, or sets of texts in different languages, drawing from resources such as Twitter, The New York Times, Google Books, and even movie titles and subtitles in languages including English, French, Indonesian and Arabic.

They then analysed each of these sets of text to find the top 10,000 most frequently used words in each language, and native speakers then had to rate each word on a scale of 1-9, with 1 being ‘extremely negative’, and 9 being ‘extremely positive’.

“So your ‘and’s and ‘the’s all ended up, as you might hope, getting scores that were perfectly neutral, exactly 5 or so, and the more emotive words, the more useful words, got larger and smaller scores,” Mitchell says.

For example, words such as ‘death’, ‘war’, ‘cancer’ and ‘depression’ received low scores, while ‘happiness’, ‘laughter’, ‘love’ and ‘sun’ scored very high. Read more.

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