Are popular songs today happier or sadder than they were 50 years ago? In recent years, the availability of large digital datasets online and the relative ease of processing them means that we can now give precise and informed answers to questions such as this. A straightforward way to measure the emotional content of a text is just to count how many emotion words are present. How many times are negative-emotion words – ‘pain’, ‘hate’ or ‘sorrow’ – used? How many times are words associated with positive emotions – ‘love’, ‘joy’ or ‘happy’ – used? As simple as it sounds, this method works pretty well, given certain conditions (eg, the longer the available text is, the better the estimate of mood). This is a possible technique for what is called ‘sentiment analysis’. Sentiment analysis is often applied to social media posts, or contemporary political messages, but it can also be applied to longer timescales, such as decades of newspaper articles or centuries of literary works.
Imagine you’re a lecturer teaching a celebrated novel that features violent scenes – say, F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925). It transpires that one of your students has themselves been a victim of violence and now, thanks to your words, they are reliving their trauma. Could you, should you, have done more to protect this person?
In The Second Sex (1949), Simone de Beauvoir argued that women were at a disadvantage in a society where they grew up under ‘a multiplicity of incompatible myths’ about women. Instead of being encouraged to dream their own dreams and pursue meaningful projects for their lives, Beauvoir argued that the ‘myths’ proposed to women, whether in literature or history, science or psychoanalysis, encouraged them to believe that to be a woman was to be for others – and especially for men. Throughout childhood, girls were fed a steady diet of stories that led them to believe that to succeed as a woman was to succeed at love – and that to succeed at other things would make them less lovable.
By Neel Burton
Ice Age Europe, approximately 20,000-13,500 years ago; a period known as the Magdalenian. The climate is gradually ameliorating after glaciers and cold temperatures reached their height in the Last Glacial Maximum. Despite this, the landscape is frozen, arid and unforgiving for all who live within it. Dispersed and highly mobile hunter-gatherers populate this harsh environment. These Magdalenian people adapted to the landscape by using all available resources to create a rich and diverse material culture, which included tools, highly efficient hunting projectile weapons, tailored clothing, cave art, portable art, beads and much more. All aspects of this culture depended on relationships with other human groups, and an intimate knowledge of animals that were a crucial resource during this period, enabling the Magdalenian people to survive. It is these relationships, how they were maintained by these people, and how they shaped past identities and social behaviours, that are the key to better understanding our ancestors’ social lives and behaviours.
It’s a question that’s reverberated through the ages – are humans, though imperfect, essentially kind, sensible, good-natured creatures? Or are we, deep down, wired to be bad, blinkered, idle, vain, vengeful and selfish? There are no easy answers, and there’s clearly a lot of variation between individuals, but here we shine some evidence-based light on the matter through 10 dispiriting findings that reveal the darker and less impressive aspects of human nature:
A recent study of users of novel psychedelic substances found, probably to no-one’s surprise, that they are more likely than average to be male, white and college-educated. This has been the public face of psychedelic culture ever since it emerged more than half a century ago. All of its figureheads, from Aldous Huxley to Timothy Leary, Terence McKenna and Hamilton Morris have been drawn from this limited demographic. But as the use of psychedelics expands, evolves and becomes more diverse, its longstanding biases of gender and ethnicity are becoming more conspicuous. If these substances are a portal to ultimate reality, as their advocates claim, why do they appear to be the preserve of such a narrow segment of humanity?
People like to fight over Adam Smith. To some, the Scottish philosopher is the patron saint of capitalism who wrote that great bible of economics, The Wealth of Nations (1776). Its doctrine, his followers claim, is that unfettered markets lead to economic growth, making everyone better off. In Smith’s now-iconic phrase, it’s the ‘invisible hand’ of the market, not the heavy hand of government, that provides us with freedom, security and prosperity.
‘Rape fantasies,’ says M, an American kink educator, ‘are one of the most common fantasies for women.’ Studies attempting to quantify just how common yield wildly different results, likely thanks to their limited sample sizes, varied methodologies, and the risk of response bias when answering questions about taboo subjects such as sex and desire. But the research suggests that up to 62 per cent of women experience fantasies about some sort of non-consensual sexual encounter at least once in their lives, 14 per cent of them have these fantasies at least weekly, and 9 to 14 per cent consider them their most frequent or favourite fantasies. Some women, such as M, play out these fantasies with their partners; part of M’s work is teaching people how to do so in negotiated, safe and comfortable scenarios.
Though he died before his grandson Charles was even born, Erasmus Darwin anticipated the theory of evolution through natural selection, albeit in poetic form. In his posthumously published The Temple of Nature (1803), he writes of how:
In 1966, just over 50 years ago, the distinguished Canadian-born anthropologist Anthony Wallace confidently predicted the global demise of religion at the hands of an advancing science: ‘belief in supernatural powers is doomed to die out, all over the world, as a result of the increasing adequacy and diffusion of scientific knowledge’. Wallace’s vision was not exceptional. On the contrary, the modern social sciences, which took shape in 19th-century western Europe, took their own recent historical experience of secularisation as a universal model. An assumption lay at the core of the social sciences, either presuming or sometimes predicting that all cultures would eventually converge on something roughly approximating secular, Western, liberal democracy. Then something closer to the opposite happened.
Most people remember the emperor: a vain ruler, swindled into paying for a nonexistent magical garment, parades in public, only to be embarrassed by a little boy. To me, the story is really about the swindling tailors. Audacious, imaginative, their true product is a persuasive illusion, one keyed to the vulnerabilities of their target audience. In contemporary terms, the story is about marketing; and as such, the tale is tailor-made for an examination of genetic ancestry tests, because these too are sold with expert persuasion, with promises woven from our hopes, our fears, and the golden thread of DNA.
Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is an international mutual-aid fellowship with more than 2 million members worldwide. It strives to help members ‘stay sober and other alcoholics achieve sobriety’. Despite the fact that studies of its efficacy have been inconsistent, AA has had a significant and long-term effect on the culture of the United States and one of its founders was among Time magazine’s most important people of the 20th century.
You might find your car dying on the freeway while other vehicles around you lose control and crash. You might see the lights going out in your city, or glimpse an airplane falling out of the sky. You’ve been in a blackout before but this one is different.
‘The theory produces a good deal but hardly brings us closer to the secret of the Old One,’ wrote Albert Einstein in December 1926. ‘I am at all events convinced that He does not play dice.’
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