Popular music is doing more than entertaining society, it’s giving a University of Kentucky researcher a window into how society is changing and apparently becoming more self-loving.
The current research “Tuning in to psychological change: Linguistic markers of psychological traits and emotions over time in popular U.S. song lyrics” by DeWall, C. Nathan; Pond, Richard S., Jr.; Campbell, W. Keith; Twenge, Jean M. tested the hypothesis that one cultural product—word use in popular song lyrics—changes over time in harmony with cultural changes in individualistic traits.
Linguistic analyses of the most popular songs from 1980–2007 demonstrated changes in word use that mirror psychological change. Over time, use of words related to self-focus and antisocial behavior increased, whereas words related to other-focus, social interactions, and positive emotion decreased.
Using the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count program, which “counts the percentage of words in a body of text that correspond to various categories,” they analyzed the content of the lyrics in several related ways.
The researchers found the use of first-person plural pronouns (we, us, our) declined over the years, while the use of first-person singular pronouns (I, me, mine) increased. Words reflecting anger or antisocial behavior (hate, kill, damn) became more prevalent over the 28-year period.
Conversely, terms depicting social interactions (talking, sharing) became less common, as did the use of words conveying positive emotions (love, nice, sweet). These findings mirror “recent evidence showing increases in U.S. loneliness and psychopathology over time,” the researchers write.
This is troubling in the light of other recent research that found songs conveying antisocial messages tend to promote aggressive thoughts and hostile feelings, while those with lyrics promoting peace and love can increase empathy and encourage selflessness.
DeWall said the finding that narcissism in society is increasing, along with anxiety, is widely known in many psychological studies. He said liking yourself and being confident is one thing, but loving yourself to the point of not being able to take criticism is something totally different.
“People don’t understand why this is a problem. Promoting this type of overconfidence where criticism is the enemy is unhealthy. The question is: where does this end? Movies, sitcoms, TV — a lot of this is self-focused. What does this say about us?”