Catch up on stories from the past week (and beyond) at the Slashdot story archive


Forgot your password?
Social Networks

Human Language Is Biased Towards Happiness, Say Computational Linguists 86

KentuckyFC (1144503) writes The idea that people tend to use positive words more often the negative ones is now known as the Pollyanna hypothesis, after a 1913 novel by Eleanor Porter about a girl who tries to find something to be glad about in every situation. But although widely known, attempts to confirm the hypothesis have all been relatively small studies and so have never been thought conclusive.

Now a group of researchers at Computational Story Lab at the University of Vermont have repeated this work on a corpus of 100,000 words from 24 languages representing different cultures around the world. They first measured the frequency of words in each language and then paid native speakers to rate how they felt about each word on a scale ranging from the most negative or sad to the most positive or happy. The results reveal that all the languages show a clear bias towards positive words with Spanish topping the list, followed by Portuguese and then English. Chinese props up the rankings as the least happy. They go on to use these findings as a 'lens' through which to evaluate how the emotional polarity changes in novels in various languages and have set up a website where anybody can explore novels in this way. The finding that human language has universal positive bias could have a significant impact on the relatively new science of sentiment analysis on social media sites such as Twitter. If there is a strong bias towards positive language in the first place, and this changes from one language to another, then that is obviously an important factor to take into account.
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

Human Language Is Biased Towards Happiness, Say Computational Linguists

Comments Filter:
  • Hang on a minute, that didn't end too well for that guy did it?
  • Isn't that just wounderfull. Ice cream and cake for everyone.

    Context is everything.

  • Makes sense (Score:4, Insightful)

    by kruach aum ( 1934852 ) on Thursday June 26, 2014 @01:30PM (#47326035)

    Overuse of negative language is positively correlated with lack of reproductive success. No one sleeps with sad-sacks.

    • And, then they use even more negative language.

      Maybe what we're seeing is that people prefer to read happy things, instead of human language being biased towards saying them.

    • How come the hacker's jargon contains so many negative words for misbehaving hard- and software?

      • Objective reality.

        I don't think that changes the GPs point, merely reinforces it. ;-)

      • by Sowelu ( 713889 )

        Actually I think you have that wrong. To me, the jargon file had /positive/ words for misbehaving things. They were a pain to deal with, but they were fun to talk about.

      • Frustration vented for not getting laid as much as they want ... ? :-)

        I.e. this fucking POS {hardware/software/UI/language} ...

    • Re:Makes sense (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Jeff Flanagan ( 2981883 ) on Thursday June 26, 2014 @01:53PM (#47326269)
      Correct. When I was clinically depressed and had a negative attitude toward life it was impossible to find a girl. Now that I feel great all the time and have joy to share instead of negativity, that situation has changed completely.
      • by Cloud K ( 125581 )

        Is it possible to get better, then?

        When I've pointed out this uncomfortable truth of "people are attracted to positive, happy people" and that finding some way - be it therapy, meds, determination, some combination whatever - to stop being negative, then people would react to them better and they'd have a happier life and less to feel miserable about, I have tended to get shouted at and told that clinical depression is a lifetime battle and that suggesting a depressed person at least *try* and adjust their

        • by dave420 ( 699308 )
          Trying to tell depressed people that it won't always be like this is never going to work. It's grating to hear, because all you can think is "yeah, but that doesn't help me now". It's like telling a starving person that there is cake in a year. They're starving *now*, and they might be convinced they'll never see a year. So yeah, it is kind of like telling a disabled person to start foxtrotting about - it will have the same effect, and produce the same level of annoyance in those being preached at.
          • by Cloud K ( 125581 )

            I see. I don't mean to be rude, I'm genuinely curious (and don't want to annoy people, so avoid saying anything). I think from an observer point of view it can be frustrating to watch someone in a rut of having a defeatist attitude (even knowing they can't necessarily help it) where they won't get help for themselves because of this belief that it's pointless because life sucks, but the reason it sucks so much is because of the lack of help.. you sort of want to try and guide them out of the self defeatin

        • by rdnetto ( 955205 )

          You can't tell people how to feel - how often does telling an angry person to calm down work?

          I have some personal experience in this, and the trick seems to be to break the cycle. You're depressed because your situation sucks, and your situation sucks because you're depressed. Working at overcoming the symptoms of depression is a rational solution because it breaks the loop, but it's not an emotional one because they still feel like crap (at least until things pick up, but even then there'll be depressive b

          • by Cloud K ( 125581 )

            I see, thanks for your input on it. I feel terribly ignorant and no doubt come across as such, but hey, better to learn and get ideas and inputs. Being of the internet sort I come across depressed folks quite a bit, and every little helps.
            There's probably not a huge amount that someone like me can do, but want to help somehow.

    • That jives with the negative correlation of fecundity with intelligence and the negative correlation of attractiveness with high intelligence. Goodthink's attractive since sexuality heavily biases bellyfeel. Targeted reversal of this causality's also a prime propaganda tactic thus sexualized politics a la selling women by solidarity (AKA chauvinism) then leaving the resulting cockblocking to drag the men along. Ironic that "universal positivity" is so massively negative in implications.
      • the negative correlation of attractiveness with high intelligence.

        Nope. Attractiveness and intelligence are positively correlated []. Many attributes of attractiveness, such as facial symmetry, clear complexion, etc., are indicators of good health and good nutrition, which also lead to healthy brain development.

        • Another study in Gene Expression Magazine entitled "Intercourse and Intelligence" confirms this data, citing research that shows a bell-shaped relationship between IQ scores and sex.

          According to the research, an adolescent with an IQ score of 100 was 1.5 to 5 times more likely to have had intercourse than an adolescent with an above average score of about 120 to 130.


          We could assume they're more likely to be asexual, but I'd doubt that. Fluff sells, not brains.

          The study at Wellesley also broke the research down by majors. It found that no studio art majors were virgins while 72% of biology majors and 83% of biochemistry and math majors were virgins.

    • Unless they get the brooding down properly, or manage to couch it in humor, or draw on it for artistic influence, or they have lots of money, or they are significantly physically attractive, or they are female.
    • Yes, sad-sacks are plus un-good.

    • Overuse of negative language is positively correlated with lack of reproductive success. No one sleeps with sad-sacks.

      China's population is over 1.355 billion, you wanna say they don't have reproductive success?!

  • Now ... (Score:4, Funny)

    by gstoddart ( 321705 ) on Thursday June 26, 2014 @01:38PM (#47326129) Homepage

    Feed it Hemmingway, and watch the computer melt into a puddle of despair.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    "... then paid native speakers to rate how they felt about each word on a scale ranging from the most negative or sad to the most positive or happy."

    It couldn't have anything to do with the state of mind of said speakers being paid, right?

    • oh man, you actually **looked up** their methodology in TFA?!?!

      it's hilarious isnt it?

      it really is insane how they structure their test methodology

  • However a follow-up study indicates that human existance is biased towards sadness. Scientists are still trying to determine whether there is a causal relationship between the two.

  • Crazy, would have guessed that German would be the least tendency towards happy words. Imagine them as a very serious, dour people. (who get shit done, unlike the Spanish or Portuguese.)

  • Context would mean a lot here. More than just simple double negatives.

    I see "good" and I flag a plus. You'd probably filter for "not good" easily enough. How about "it seemed very good at the time, but..."

    Positive words are a long way from positive sentiment, and vice versa.

    China, huh? Doesn't Mandarin have this thing where the word isn't conclusive without others. "Hao" is good. But you kind of need "hao hao" to be sure. "Bu hao" isn't good, but "hao bu hao" is rather open to interpretation.

    • by iNaya ( 1049686 )
      "Hao bu hao" means "good or bad". "Hao bu hao ma?" means "good or bad?", and could be translated as "Is that good for you?"
  • by Anonymous Coward
    • I guess I might actually fuck them, depending on how my pattern recognition circuits feel about their appearance.
  • Everything is angry and depressing in the german language.

    Disclaimer, I have heavy german ancestory and my Grandma was right off the boat. I know when I am being sworn at in german and loved in german, to the outsider they both sound the same.

  • Two questions about this research:

    (1) How did the researchers account for operational language profiles? Language A may have more negative words than positive words, but maybe the one happy word is used 80% of the time. To me, the incidence of positive vs. negative usage is much more important than the histogram of the available vocabulary.

    (2) How did the researchers compare the same word in different languages? Is this comparison possible without the introduction of bias in the selection of words for ea

  • From the article:

    the team paid native speakers to rate how they felt about each word on a scale ranging from the most negative or sad to the most positive or happy

    So all the research was based on the native language speakers interpretation of how happy or sad the words were - and then their relative frequency in the texts. If the speakers of each language had a natural disposition to happiness or sadness, that would skew the whole result. And since there's no objective measure of a word's "happiness", the whole thing comes down to interpretation, rather than science.

    • We are talking about something that is not simple and clear cut to begin with. Welcome to the the edge of science, the "soft" sciences where the boundaries of science are routinely explored and often exceeded. Hey, at least they can be serious, educated and somewhat formal in their attempts rather than just guessing the result like some cable newscaster.

  • she can find the cloud behind every silver lining

    • by neminem ( 561346 )

      I love when I forget I have the cloud-to-butt extension installed, and it surprises me. I especially love it when people use the phrase "the cloud" in context that *don't* have anything to do with web 2.0 bullshittery.

    • Every cloud has a silver lining, except the mushroom shaped ones, which have a lining of iridium and strontium.

      BTW, in my native language version, clouds actually have golden linings -- we either think the diffracting sunlight looks yellowish enough, or that we are worth more for IT investors (Google has set up shop here at a place called Summa, meaning sum, how's that for map-reduce?). I also wonder about the implications for thunderstorms, given the excellent conductivity of silver...

"So why don't you make like a tree, and get outta here." -- Biff in "Back to the Future"