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'Give' Gives Way as Word Usage Reflects Shift in Values

New research suggests our drift toward a more individualistic mindset can be traced back two centuries, as we began the transition from rural to urban living.
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Remember those studies showing that books in recent decades have increasingly used words and phrases connoting self-absorption? Well, newly published research puts that troubling trend into a more comforting context.

An analysis by psychologist Patricia Greenfield of the University of California-Los Angeles finds this trend can be traced back at least 200 years. And rather than suggesting our moral failings, it reflects a changing set of attitudes and priorities as Americans (and Brits) left the farm for the city.

“The currently discussed rise in individualism is not something recent, but has been going on for centuries as we moved from a predominantly rural, low-tech society to a predominantly urban, high-tech society,” she said. “This research shows that there has been a two-century-long historical shift toward individualistic psychological functioning adapted to an urban environment.”

Where obligation, duty, and respect for authority serve people well in traditional rural environments, education, individualism, and materialism are better fits for urban living.

Greenfield’s basic theory is that the social environments of urban and rural areas are fundamentally different, and humans adapt to them by adopting different values. Where obligation, duty, and respect for authority serve people well in traditional rural environments, education, individualism, and materialism are better fits for urban living.

To discover whether our change in values moved in tandem with our change in environment, Greenfield analyzed the use of language in more than 1.1 million books published in the U.S. (and another 350,000 published in the U.K.) between the years 1800 and 2000. She used the Google Books Ngram viewer, the largest database of digitized books.

Greenfield searched for the frequency of certain tell-tale words, such as “obliged” (a key concept of interdependent societies) and “choose” (since the power to make personal choices is “a defining attribute of individualism”). She also tracked near-synonyms of the words to ensure their usage reflected “underlying concepts” rather than idiosyncratic meanings.

Writing in the journal Psychological Science, she reports usage of these words did indeed rise or fall “as urban population increased and rural population declined.” The use of the word “obliged” steadily declined from 1800 to 2000, as use of the word “choose” gradually increased. (“Choose” passed “obliged” in the early 1920s.)

She found a similar pattern for the words “give” and “get.” While “give” began the 19th century with a huge head start, “get” caught up around World War II, and the two were neck and neck until the 1970s, when “get” forged ahead, never to look back.

Use of the words “individual,” “self,” and “unique” all steadily rose over the course of the two centuries, while “obedience,” “authority,” “belong,” and “pray” all gradually declined. The use of the words “feel” and “emotion” also increased, reflecting “the growing importance of psychological expression,” she writes.

Greenfield does not see this as evidence of our ethical decline, but rather an entirely logical shift that reflected the realities of our new environments. In her view, a mindset that values “choice, obtaining things for oneself, child-centeredness, psychological mindedness, and the unique, individual self” is one that is more likely to thrive in an urban area.

So, yes, the language we use (at least in our books) suggests we’ve become more self-oriented. But let’s put the scolding on hold. Greenfield’s analysis suggests this shift has been going on a long, long time, and reflects a practical reorienting of our priorities to fit our environment.