Rudyard Kipling – author of The Jungle Book and winner of the Nobel Price for Literature in 1907 – once said that „Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind“. This statement emphasizes the inherent power of language and words. It was this power that allowed human beings to cooperate and to build initimate relationships with others. And it is to this day one of the most remarkable and at the same time complex characteristics of humanity. We can communicate our visions and goals to others, but we can also use words to manipulate other people. We can negotiate our salary or make a fervent speech. But people do not only use words when they talk to other people. They also use words, when they are by themselves and think about the next day or the tasks they still have to accomplish.
In 1969, the two researchers Boucher and Osgood invented the Pollyanna hypothesis suggesting that humans have a universal positivity bias in their communication. By conducting some small-scale studies, Boucher and Osgood found that people seem to use positive words, such as happiness, love or discovery more often than negative words such as death, depression or disease. But their sample size back then was very small and thus it was impossible to confirm the hypothesis empirically... until now.
Almost 50 years later, thanks to the technological progress, researchers were able to gather enough data in order take a second look at the Pollyanna hypothesis. In a very ambitious project, a team of 14 researchers was looking at the frequency of use of 100.000 words from ten languages. For every language, they selected 10.000 words that are used with a high frequency. After selecting these words, a gigantic search operation was looking at how often every single word was used in a variety of different sources: books, webpages, social media platforms, television shows, newspapers and even music lyrics. By looking at these sources with appropriate search alogrithms, they counted how often love was written on twitter or how often books talked about sickness.
By analyzing all this data, the researchers found that in all ten languages that they were investigating, the use of positive words was more prevalent than the use of negative words. Thus, it does not matter whether you come from the US, Saudia Arabia or China, you are likely to use more positive words than negative ones – human language has indeed a universal positivity bias!
Peter Sheridan Doods, Eric M. Clark, Suma Desu & colleagues (2015): “Human language reveals a universal positivity bias.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences