Is we are what we read as good a truism as we are what we eat?

Is we are what we read as good a truism as we are what we eat the question of the moment. We have a tendency to read or watch stuff that is familiar and leaves us in our comfort zone. From reading we naturally take to writing stuff that reflects our views – how could we expect any less?

Twenge et al in this past weeks issue of the Public Library of Science have analyzed American book published in the past 50 years to see if we have become more self centered (1). They used the crowd out there in the form of Amazon Mechanical Turk with Google Books Ngram phrase service to measure the changes in words and phrases over their half century.

The big question was what words and phrases needed measuring? These were determined by consensus as words that represent individualism or communal concepts. A similar task was done with the identification of the most popular individualistic phrases.

Millions of books and a great deal of data mining later, the results are in. On tenterhooks? Well, not to beat about the bush and hang this out unnecessarily, the books have it, the books in American English show an increasing use of words and phrases indicating self interest over the past fifty years.

This hasn’t been a huge change, but the stats indicate a significant one. We should note right off that 87% of the books were works of non-fiction. One could expect self-help books to have a lot of “self” in them and a lot of autobiographies to have a lot of “I.”

Another factor that the authors explore is the possibility of the phraseology of current speech being different, but of course, if we are more about “me” today we would say me and I more.

I am still not sure if we are what we read? The question of which came first – the reader or the book – is a big chicken and egg problem.

Leave a Reply