There have been a spate of interesting research studies using the power and scope of the 5.2-million-strong Google Books archive to track the way we use language. A recent paper published in the Journal of Positive Psychology from identical twin researchers Pelin and Selin Kesebir of, respectively, the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and London Business School, analyzes the appearance and frequency of words "related to moral excellence and virtue" in American books from 1901 to 2000. If the books are to be believed, we may be in a moral decline.
The Kesebirs undertook two studies for the paper. In the first, they looked at 10 words denoting the general moral worth of a person: character, conscience, decency, dignity, ethics, morality, rectitude, righteousness, uprightness, and virtue. In the second, they looked at 50 "virtue words," like "honesty, patience, honor, kindness, sincerity, courage, generosity, mercy, wisdom, humility," and so on. Obtaining word frequency data from Google Ngram Viewer, the Kesebirs found in both studies overwhelming declines in the use of the selected words. In the first study, "the frequency of 8 words (character, conscience, decency, dignity, rectitude, righteousness, uprightness, virtue) showed a significant negative correlation with time," they write in their paper. Words related to care and concern for others declined the most. "Of the ten words, six had already reached their peak frequency by 1904 and seven had their nadir after 1980," they explain.
Some words did show an increased use—ethics increased significantly, for instance—but the Kesebirs believe those upswings to be related to non-virtuous associations: "The increase in the word reliability possibly is due to its use as a statistical term, the increase in hospitality is due to the increase in the use of terms such as hospitality industry." With ethics, they believe the increase is related to the study of philosophy and not with regard to human moral qualities.
Overall, in the second study, there was a statistically significant decline in 74 percent of the words they studied, including honesty, patience, honor, truthfulness, kindness, sincerity, courage, generosity, mercy, wisdom, humility, faithfulness, charity, humbleness, bravery, thoughtfulness, grace, helpfulness, courtesy, love, perseverance, modesty, politeness, fidelity, justice, gratitude, diligence, thankfulness, gentleness, sacrifice, benevolence, fortitude, purity, temperance, faith, hospitality, and appreciation. A few words showed increased use: compassion, integrity, fairness, tolerance, selflessness, discipline, dependability, reliability.
Analyzing these words as used in books is a way to highlight a culture's consciousness, they told The Atlantic Wire: "The words in a book reflect what is salient in the minds of a culture’s members, and simultaneously make these words even more salient. It’s a feedback cycle whereby people make cultural products and the cultural products make people," they wrote by email. This doesn't mean we're in an immoral spiral, yet: "It would be a stretch from data to say that our findings reflect an actual moral decline in the U.S.—that people are less moral now. But we believe that even if not outright moral decline, a moral confusion would be an unsurprising consequence of this downward trend in the cultural salience of morality concepts."
Simply, fewer virtue words in books means that the concepts those words stand for are less a part of the individual and societal consciousness. "People simply do not think/talk/write about morality and virtue as much anymore," the Kesebirs write. "The vocabulary for talking about issues of good and bad, right and wrong thus seems to be shrinking." They relate this to Christian Smith's work for his book Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood, in which Smith and researchers found that the ways in which “emergent adults" thought about moral issues was not particularly consistent, coherent, or articulate—and instead, extremely individualistic. "These young people said, for example, that they would refrain from judging anyone who has cheated in an exam or stolen something, because everyone is entitled to their own moral opinion," they wrote. "We think that this extreme moral individualism and relativism can be partly explained by our findings—these young people have not been socialized into a shared moral framework, and they simply lack the vocabulary for it."
If we aren't using moral words in our vocabularies, what are we using? They told me that while they couldn't answer empirically the question of what words were "replacing" once-common virtue words, theoretically they believe that individualism is the driving factor. Words like unique, personalize, self, and phrases like all about me, I am special, and I'm the best have found an increased frequency in American books between the years of 1960 and 2008, they say, citing the work of Jean M. Twenge. "We may say that the downward trend in the cultural salience of morality terms is accompanied by an upward trend in the salience of terms related to the self," they add. "One might as well say that words about technology (e.g., Internet, blue-ray, plastic) have replaced [those virtue words]."
The Kesebirs believe that their findings are "somewhat disconcerting," and connect to an overall decline in how we feel about morality in America, as well as to the "narcissism epidemic" Twenge has explored previously. "Our findings fit in this broad cultural picture in which individual achievement and fulfillment are valued above almost everything else, and definitely above communal values. We should not forget that religion’s impact on the public consciousness has also long been fading, which doubtlessly contributed to the fading of a shared moral vocabulary," they explain. "Virtues are vital to both individual and societal flourishing. As stated in the conclusion of our article, 'a virtue-salient culture would provide a more fertile ground for individual and societal flourishing than one where concepts of moral excellence are at the fringes of public conversation.'”
On the bright, moral-positive side: Knowing what we do and why we do it is necessary in order to improve ... or so we'd hope. Hope, that's a good word, right?
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.