Throughout history, no two societies have shared identical mindsets. The evolving psyche of a society over time offers valuable insights into psychological shifts, like changes in social trust and openness.
In a recent study published on November 2 in the journal “Trends in Cognitive Sciences,” researchers highlight the power of modern computational techniques. Text mining, facial recognition algorithms, and melodic analysis programs now empower us to analyze cultural artifacts, such as art, literature, and clothing, on a large scale, unveiling valuable psychological data.
The authors, led by Nicholas Baumard from Paris Sciences et Lettres (PSL) University, acknowledge the impossibility of surveying long-deceased individuals. They emphasize that these innovative methods, combined with the growing availability of digitized cultural datasets, enhance our ability to quantify various psychological dimensions across different documents and historical eras.
Cognitive scientists can now draw insights into the psychology of past societies based on their media consumption. For example, changes in the popularity of sad music over time can illuminate a culture’s long-term empathy trends. Likewise, shifts in the prevalence of cute baby portraits may reflect changes in parental trends. Additionally, portraits of historical rulers can provide clues about the importance ascribed to power or trustworthiness in political leaders.
The authors point out that in 2023, a leader like Charles III is expected to convey sympathy and trustworthiness, quite different from the physical dominance sought by Henry VIII. Hence, these portraits indirectly reveal societal attitudes toward dominance and authoritarianism.
Advancements in computational methods now enable the study of cultural artifacts on a larger scale. Text mining quantifies the personality traits found in historic literature, facial recognition algorithms unveil emotional expressions in art, and melodic analysis measures the emotional impact of music from audio recordings or written scores.
However, the authors caution thatwhile these computational methods have been mainly validated using modern content, further development is necessary to make robust conclusions about the past. They also note that many surviving cultural artifacts catered to the upper classes, limiting the applicability of resulting psychological data to the broader population of a given era.