Using Scanned Books to Track Ideas and Culture

Google Books NGram Viewer is a cool new online system. Enter in a word or phrase, and you can see how its usage has changed over the past few centuries, based on how often it was used in books. (An “n-gram” is a sequence of words. So, a 1-gram is a single word like “banana,” while a 2-gram is a two-word phrase, like “stock market,” and a 5-gram is a phrase like “the United States of America.”)

What happens if you put science and religion into the viewer? TIME tried it first and found that science started to overtake religion around 1930. (Click on image for larger view.)

It’s a cool tool on its own, but it can also be used for a new type of science called “culturomics,” say a team of researchers (including Steven Pinker and Martin Nowak). They believe we can use digitized books to quantitatively analyze cultural trends, by tracking the frequency with which words appear in the English language. As they explain in a new paper, there are:

two central factors that contribute to culturomic trends. Cultural change guides the concepts we discuss (such as “slavery”). Linguistic change—which, of course, has cultural roots—affects the words we use for those concepts (“the Great War” vs. “World War I”). In this paper, we will examine both linguistic changes, such as changes in the lexicon and grammar; and cultural phenomena, such as how we remember people and events.

To track the frequency of certain words and phrases in the English language between 1800 and 2000, the researchers used a database of about 5.2 million books scanned by Google, containing more than 500 billion words. Here’s some of what they found:

• “We are forgetting our past faster with each passing year.”

• “The cultural adoption of technology has become more rapid.”

• “Science is a poor route to fame. Physicists and biologists eventually reached a similar level of fame as actors …, but it took them far longer. Alas, even at their peak, mathematicians tend not to be appreciated by the public.”

• “‘Galileo,’ ‘Darwin,’ and ‘Einstein’ may be well-known scientists, but ‘Freud’ is more deeply ingrained in our collective subconscious.”

• “Interest in ‘evolution’ was waning when ‘DNA’ came along.”

• “‘God’ is not dead; but needs a new publicist.”

Let Someone Else Make Your Hard Decisions

Actually, something else. Behavioral economist Dan Ariely has created an app called Procrastinator for the iPhone. It’s simple: You set a deadline for your tough decision and if you haven’t made a choice when the time it up, Procrastinator makes it for you.
The reason for the app, Ariely explains, is that:

when we are choosing between two or more very similar options, we tend NOT to take into account the consequences of not deciding. … a friend of mine spent three months choosing between two different cameras, only to miss countless photo opportunities that he will never get back. And given how similar the two cameras were, he might have been better off simply flipping a coin.

Ariely has also created the “At a boy!” app, which pays you a compliment every time you tap the screen. To help him figure out which comments make people feel best, he asks users to rate them using the thumbs up/thumbs down feature. You can also submit compliments that will be given to other people. According to Ariely, “not only are we sensitive to rude remarks from strangers, but we are also very excited when we get kind words, even if they are just random; they just make us feel much better, even if these strangers don’t know us very well.”

Our Collective Mood—According to Our Tweets

This is kind of cool: A team of researchers have created a video that shows a 24-hour mood cycle of the country based on our public tweets.
Before you watch, Sune Lehmann, who studies complex networks, explains how to read the mood map:

Green corresponds to a happy mood and red corresponds to a grumpier state of mind. The area of each state is scaled according to the number of tweets originating in that state. Note how the East Coast is consistently 3 hours ahead of the West Coast, so when we’re sleeping in Boston, the Californians are tweeting away. It’s also interesting that better weather seems to make you happier (or rather, that better weather is correlated with happier tweets): Florida and California seems to be consistently in a better mood than the remaining US. Also note how New Mexico and Delaware behave very differently from their neighbors.

Lehmann and his colleagues also found a few other interesting trends. We seem to be happiest on Sunday mornings and the least happy on Thursday evenings, and we’re happier on weekends than during the week (no surprise there). Our happiest times of day are early morning and late evening, and people on the West Coast appear to be significantly happier than people on the East Coast.

How Do We Decide Which Strangers to Trust?

That’s what a group of researchers is hoping to figure out—and to do so, they’re using a pretty cute humanoid robot named Nexi.
Specifically, they wonder whether our judgments about trust are based on nonverbal gestures and cues, and which ones. So they’ve programmed Nexi to make certain subtle gestures while speaking to volunteers. As you can see, Nexi can create a range of facial expressions by moving her eyes, eyebrows, and mouth:

She can also move her lower arm, wrists, thumb, and fingers. The researchers can control Nexi’s every movement, allowing them to test and identify which signals might lead a person to trust her (or distrust her). As researcher David DeSteno, a psychologist at Northeastern University, predicts:

People tend to mimic each other’s body language, which might help them develop intuitions about what other people are feeling—intuitions about whether they’ll treat them fairly.

After the volunteers chit chat with the robot for 10 minutes, they’re asked to play an economic game in which they have to predict how much money Nexi will give them at her own expense—and, at the same time, decide how much they will give the robot. How the volunteers ultimately decide to treat Nexi might not depend on one particular gesture, DeSteno says in an early description of the research, but more likely results from “a ‘dance’ that happens between the strangers, which leads them to trust or not trust the other.”

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