Language analysis reveals recent and unusual 'moral polarisation' in Anglophone world


After many decades, use of moral signifiers in books underwent a sharp increase from 1980 onwards, with perhaps worrying implications. Andrew Masterson reports.


Going with the Gipper. A conservative swing in 1980 is tied to an uptick in moral language in books.

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After a long period of decline, the use of language expressing moral concepts underwent a sharp rebound in 1980, reflecting what researchers term “the re-moralisation and moral polarisation of the last three decades”.

To make the finding, Nick Haslam, Melanie McGrath, and Melissa Wheeler of the University of Melbourne in Australia used a program known as the Google NGram Viewer to search for 304 morally-loaded terms in the vast English language Google Books database. The search covered books published between 1900 and 2007.

The results, published in the journal PLOS One, reveal an overall decline in the use of words conveying general morality – for instance, good, bad, moral, and evil – until 1980, after which their use rapidly became more common.

Words conveying moral values in more specific domains, however, did not always accord to a similar pattern – revealing, say the researchers, the changing prominence of differing sets of concerns surrounding concepts such as loyalty and betrayal, individualism, and notions of authority.

Remarkably, perhaps, the study is only the second in the academic literature that uses big data to examine shifts in moral values over time. The first, by psychologists Pelin and Selin Kesibir, and published in The Journal of Positive Psychology in 2012, used two approaches to track the frequency of morally-loaded words in a corpus of US books across the twentieth century.

The results revealed a “decline in the use of general moral terms”, and significant downturns in the use of words such as honesty, patience, and compassion.

Haslam and colleagues found that at headline level their results, using a larger dataset, reflected the earlier findings. However, fine-grain investigations revealed a more complex picture. Nevertheless, they say, the changes in the frequency of use for particular types of moral terms is sufficient to allow the twentieth century to be divided into five distinct historical periods.

The words used in the search were taken from lists collated under what is known as Moral Foundations Theory (MFT), a generally supported framework that rejects the idea that morality is monolithic. Instead, the researchers explain, MFT aims to “categorise the automatic and intuitive emotional reactions that commonly occur in moral evaluation across cultures, and [identifies] five psychological systems (or foundations): Harm, Fairness, Ingroup, Authority, and Purity.”

The Harm foundation covers ideas of suffering, cruelty and compassion, while Fairness centres on injustice, equality, cheating and individual rights. Together, the two domains focus on the rights of the individual.

Ingroup, Authority and Purity, in contrast, focus on the wellbeing of groups. The first includes considerations of loyalty and betrayal, the second is all about social obligation and tradition, and the last concerns itself with physical and spiritual contagion.

Tracking the use of words related to each of the five domains revealed very different patterns. Only Purity mirrored the trajectory of general morality, declining more or less steadily from the turn of the century before experiencing a sharp uptick around 1980.

Ingroup signifiers, after dropping to negligible levels briefly early in the century, underwent a steady increase. Fairness and Authority measures showed no clear sustained trend up and down across the whole period but usage levels remained solid throughout.

Words related to the moral values around the Harm domain, after a gentle decline for most of the century, also increased in prominence from the 1980s on. Haslam and colleagues suggest that this may reflect another process at work, one dubbed “concept creep”.

“This work argues that the meanings of harm-related psychological concepts such as abuse, bullying, and trauma have broadened in response to rising cultural sensitivity to harm over the past half-century,” they write.

Whatever the underlying reasons, it is clear that in terms of general morality and at least three of the five standard moral domains, something happened around 1980 to trigger a sizeable – and continuing – increase in the use of language expressing values related to them.

Haslam and colleagues make a solid suggestion about cause, and identify it as the catalyst for the last discernible period in the century.

“The fifth period, from around 1980 to the end of the study period in 2007, involves a relatively sudden shift in the salience of moral concepts,” they write.

“The inflection point corresponds roughly to the beginning of more than a decade of uninterrupted conservative rule in the Anglophone heartlands of the USA and the UK.”

From that point, they note, “moral content increasingly saturates the database”. The moral domains emphasising group welfare all turn upwards, some more strongly than others, but so too do the individualising domains of Harm and Fairness.

And in that pattern lies possible cause for concern.

The researchers point to the observable dominance of particular moral domains in the preceding four periods they identify in the twentieth century – roughly correlating to the prevailing liberal or conservative character of the times.

The years between 1980 and 2007, however, present something not seen before.

“Both individualist and social order and cohesion-based moralities rise in parallel, suggesting a broader re-moralisation,” they write.

“This positively correlated increase of normally antagonistic moralities of the political left and right may point to increasing moral polarisation and conflict.”

  1. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0212267#pone.0212267.ref026
  2. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/17439760.2012.715182
  3. https://moralfoundations.org
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