Publications

Historical language records reveal a surge of cognitive distortions in recent decades

Bollen, Johan; Thij, Marijn ten; Breithaupt, Fritz; Barron, Alexander T.J.; Rutter, Lauren A.; Lorenzo-Luaces, Lorenzo; Scheffer, Marten

Summary

Individuals with depression are prone to maladaptive patterns of thinking, known as cognitive distortions, whereby they think about themselves, the world, and the future in overly negative and inaccurate ways. These distortions are associated with marked changes in an individual’s mood, behavior, and language. We hypothesize that societies can undergo similar changes in their collective psychology that are reflected in historical records of language use. Here, we investigate the prevalence of textual markers of cognitive distortions in over 14 million books for the past 125 y and observe a surge of their prevalence since the 1980s, to levels exceeding those of the Great Depression and both World Wars. This pattern does not seem to be driven by changes in word meaning, publishing and writing standards, or the Google Books sample. Our results suggest a recent societal shift toward language associated with cognitive distortions and internalizing disorders.