A new study from the University of Bristol stands to add some scientific substance to the discipline that needs it the most and wants it the least: literary criticism. By conducting a large-scale textual analysis of books published over the past century, researchers have determined that the economic climate of an era is reflected in the fiction it produces. Aside from broadening the discussion in classrooms around the world, the findings may help validate literature as an indicator of human psychology and well-being.

A stock observation in comp lit classes is that poets, playwrights, and novelists hold a mirror up to their society. However, such comments rarely break free from the cushy realm of theory, as most academics would rather burn their library than invoke empirical data and statistics. The new study, which is published in the journal PLoS One, represents one of the first purely scientific analyses of this theory.

For the study, the researchers designed an algorithm capable of measuring the frequency of words expressing misery and unhappiness in a given text. This was used to scan millions of digitalized books published between 1929 and 2000. With the results, the team was able to derive a so-called “literary misery index” for each decade.

This index was subsequently compared to U.K. and US economic misery index — an economic indicator found by adding the unemployment rate to the inflation rate. Intriguingly, the two indices appeared to follow the same pattern. "When we looked at millions of books published in English every year and looked for a specific category of words denoting unhappiness, we found that those words in aggregate averaged the authors' economic experiences over the past decade,” lead author Alex Bentley, a professor of anthropology at the University of Bristol, said in a press release.

"Economic misery coincides with WW I, the aftermath of the Great Depression and the energy crisis,” co-author Alberto Acerbi added. “But in each case, the literary response lags by about a decade, such that authors are averaging experiences over that decade."

What’s more, this effect does not appear to be limited to the US and the U.K. When the team performed the same analysis on German literature and compared it to the German economic misery index, the results were virtually identical. From this, the team concluded that the link may be true for all literature. “Global economics is part of the shared emotional experience of the 20th century,” Bentley explained.

Reading and Psychology

The current study adds to the growing body of evidence that acts like reading and writing are forever entangled with human psychology and social wellbeing. Another example is "Short- and Long-Term Effects of a Novel on Connectivity in the Brain" — an 2013 Emory University study in which neuroscientists show that brain activity associated with reading remains detectable several days after you’ve put the book down.

This “delay” dovetails with the so-called decade effect observed by the authors of the current study. According to Bentley, the significant economic events of an era may mature in the young mind of the budding novelist, only to emerge years later as a cohesive narrative. "Perhaps this 'decade effect' reflects the gap between childhood when strong memories are formed, and early adulthood, when authors may begin writing books,” he said. “Consider for example, the dramatic increase of literary misery in the 1980s, which follows the 'stagflation' of the 1970s. Children from this generation who became authors would have begun writing in the 1980s."

Source: Bentley RA, Acerbi A, Ormerod P, Lampos V. "Books Average Previous Decade of Economic Misery." PLoS ONE. 2014.