July 25, 2009
Automated Blog Tracking Measures Happiness?

Can the emotional state of the populace be tracked by measuring phrase frequencies in blog postings?

Their methods show that Election Day, November 4, 2008, was the happiest day in four years. The day of Michael Jackson's death, one of the unhappiest.

A methodology that reports the day of Michael Jackson's death as one of the most unhappy seems suspect. I do not know anyone who seemed unhappy over his passing. Mostly people were indifferent. I suspect that people who emote on blogs are not typical of the population as a whole. Not all people are bloggers and not all bloggers spend much time expressing emotions.

Their results are reported this week in the Journal of Happiness Studies.

"The proliferation of personal online writing such as blogs gives us the opportunity to measure emotional levels in real time," they write in their study, "Measuring the Happiness of Large-Scale Written Expression: Songs, Blogs, and Presidents,3" now available in an early online edition of the journal.

Okay, they search for people saying "I feel". Well, I've written about 3000 FuturePundit posts and I just did a search on the entry text for "I feel" in all those posts. Turns out that "I feel" occurs only 14 times. I'm obviously not a big emoter. In one of those cases I was quoting Sting singing "I feel lonely". In another case I was quoting the president of China who said "I feel worried" due to the SARS disease threat. All told, about 5 of my 14 uses of "I feel" were quotes of other people. In another case I used "feel" when I should have used "think" to refer to a belief I had. In another case I said "I feel compelled" (and I'm probably always compelled since I doubt free will exists - and I'm probably compelled to doubt and to write this long run-on sentence). Does a compelled person feel happy or unhappy? I guess it depends on what they feel compelled to do. Those of us who feel compelled to eat chocolate no doubt are happier.

My guess is that my own pattern of rare usage of "I feel" makes my own emotional state pretty hard to read using the methodology of these researchers. Am I happy? What do you think?

My take on this methodology: Us stoics remain invisible to these researchers. Their methodology probably gets more feelings measured from women since women express their emotions more. They also probably get more feelings measured from less rational people who place more value on their feelings as indicators for telling them what is true.

Their answer to Edgeworth's daydream begins with a website, www.wefeelfine.org4 that mines through some 2.3 million blogs, looking for sentences beginning with "I feel" or "I am feeling."

"We gathered nearly 10 million sentences from their site," Dodds says. Then, drawing on a standardized "psychological valence" of words established by the Affective Norms for English Words (ANEW) study, each sentence receives a happiness score. In the ANEW study, a large pool of participants graded their reaction to 1,034 words, forming a kind of "happy-unhappy" scale from 1 to 9. For example, "triumphant" averaged 8.87, "paradise" 8.72, "pancakes" 6.08, "vanity" 4.30, "hostage" 2.20, and "suicide" 1.25.

The sentence "I feel lazy" would receive a score of 4.38. "Our method is only reasonable for large-scale texts, like what's available on the Web," Dodds says. "Any one sentence might not show much. There's too much variability in individual expression." But that's the beauty of big data sets and statistics.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2009 July 25 11:14 AM  Comm Tech Society

James Bowery said at July 25, 2009 12:55 PM:

Hey, they're social scientists. If they're good enough for the Supreme Court to override the consent of millions of parents regarding the eduation of their school-age children, I feel they're good enough for me! Don't you?

Vince said at July 25, 2009 11:23 PM:

I dunno about all that. I'll tell you who was unhappy over Michael Jackson's death. I was unhappy. Pretty fucking sad. Maybe you personally don't understand the effect Michael had on the nation, but me and most of my friends were pretty sad. Don't project your own myopia on the rest of the nation.

Lono said at July 27, 2009 9:11 AM:


I'd have to agree with Vince - I felt like a bunch of celebrity worshipers were uncharacteristically sad at my workplace also.

So perhaps it was just you and I who could give a care...

Though I felt sad as I do for any waste of potential in a Human life - I'm not an inferior like those phenotypes who lack empathy for members of their own species!



Randall Parker said at July 27, 2009 7:17 PM:


My own myopia? I know lots of people. None of them complained or voiced any sadness at Michael Jackson's passing. I heard them complain about other things.

Have you considered the possibility that you need to put more value on the lives of people who create more value for you and the rest of humanity? I'm thinking cancer researchers, stem cell researchers, engineers who design new photovoltaics assembly lines, and others who make really big contributions to our quality of life.


You work with celebrity worshippers? I work with people who worry about their kids, discuss where to go on vacation, what car to buy, whether to tile their bathrooms, problems with sick dogs, problems with sick kids, the need to go to a parent-teacher conference, and lots of other nuts and bolts of living. They rarely mention celebrities.

Any waste of potential in a human life: The world death rate per year is about 8.23/1000. So we are talking about 50 million per year.

Lono said at July 28, 2009 9:22 AM:


In all seriousness most average Americans (that I know and know of) were affected by the loss of Michael Jackson. Most Humans are emotional creatures and a number of emotions go through the average American when a popular culture idol passes away - particularly before their time.

The Discovery channel had an excellent documentary on the origins of celebrity worship - and how people are genetically programmed to accept specific types of social heirarchies - and how popular culture has confused this normal societal organizing instinct to make people create false and deceptive connections between entertainers and their personal lives.

You and I are clearly minority phenotypes when it comes to this behavior - and I in particular have always been naturally anti-authoritarian - part of the natural and useful genomic diversity that sexual reproduction maintains.

I can't speak to the group you work with - but if they are - in general - of a higher IQ than the general populous - it could be that they are simply embarrassed about their emotional feelings concerning the death of a pop star and are covering up their true feelings for greater social conformity at your office.

As far as Human potential - the commonality of death for our species does not lessen the loss of anyone's potential contribution to civilization - althoug odds are MJ had little more to contribute even as an "artist".

I think in the future - if we are to progress as a civilization - men of integrity and intelligence are going to need to exploit man's inherrent social nature to build more progressive and advanced societies.

Unfortunately what we see now is people like yourself and I who try to educate from a bottom up approach - an approach I fear which will never have much impact on the overall social structures (and thus advancement) of mankind.

Perhaps it is time to overcome our primitive Tribal strategies - that our genetic programming has instilled in us for millions of years - and to set a new course for Humanities future.

Randall Parker said at July 28, 2009 8:50 PM:


About Michael Jackson I'm closer to the mainstream than is Vince above. Jackson had a low Q score for likability as a celebrity

According to Q Scores, the company that polls the public on celebrities' likability, along with their recognizability, Jackson was rating just a 9 on the favorable scale in the most recent survey before his June 25 death.

"On the scale of 0-100, 9 is pretty low," Henry Schafer, executive vice president of Marketing Evaluations, which runs Q Scores, told E! News today.

Stars with similar paltry scores, per Schafer: Tori Spelling, David Beckham and Lindsay Lohan.

Jackson's negative Q Score, meanwhile, was 67—an "extremely high" number, per Schafer, that put the entertainer up, or down, there with polarizing figures such as Don Imus, Rosie O'Donnell and the Kobe Bryant of 2003-2004, circa his (ultimately dismissed) sexual-assault charge.

That is very telling.

80% of the American people oppose a Congressional resolution honoring Jackson as a humanitarian. Also, 64% of the American population found the media coverage of Jackson's death as excessive.

Lono said at July 29, 2009 10:19 AM:

Well - I won't discount - that my sample size was perhaps small and overly vocal...

Most of the people I spoke with - were younger than 30 and perhaps less educated than the average American worker.

So I'll accept your data set as superior in this instance.

(Did I pass the test?)

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