Summary: Modern computing methods like text mining, face detection, and melodic extraction are allowing cognitive scientists to analyze historical cultural artifacts at scale, uncovering psychological data of past societies.
By studying media consumption, such as the prevalence of sad music or the portrayal of leaders in portraits, researchers can infer societal psychological trends.
The review emphasizes how these insights reveal shifts in social trust, power dynamics, and emotional expression throughout history. However, the authors caution that since most surviving artifacts reflect upper-class preferences, the psychological conclusions drawn may not represent the broader society.
Cognitive scientists use text mining to quantify personality traits in historic literature.
Algorithms analyzing emotional expressions in art and the emotional impact of music offer insights into past societal psychology.
The psychological data inferred from these artifacts might be skewed towards the upper-class biases, as their preferences are predominantly represented in surviving historical content.
Source: Cell Press
No two societies in history think exactly alike. In fact, the mindset of a given society throughout history can help historians unpack important clues about the effects of psychological shifts—such as more social trust or more openness.
In a review published on November 2 in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences,researchers explain how modern computing methods like text mining, face detection algorithms, and melodic extraction programs can enable large-scale analysis of cultural artifacts such as paintings, stories, or clothing to uncover this psychological data.
“It is obviously impossible to distribute questionnaires or conduct experiments on individuals who have been dead for decades or centuries,” write the authors, led by Nicholas Baumard of Paris Sciences et Lettres (PSL) University.
“These novel methods, together with the increasing availability of digitized cultural datasets, have improved our ability to characterize and quantify several psychological dimensions across a variety of documents and historical periods.”
Cognitive scientists can draw conclusions about the psychology of past peoples based on their consumption of specific types of media. For example, changes in the consumption of sad music over time could explain a culture’s long-term trends in empathy.
We may also gain insight into a civilization’s parental trends based on the popularity of cute baby portraits over time. In addition, portraits of older rulers can reveal whether power or trustworthiness was seen as more important in a political leader.
“In 2023, it would be difficult to imagine Charles III posing like Henry VIII, focusing on physical dominance,” the authors write. “Charles III is expected to display signs of sympathy and trustworthiness.
“Thus, the portrait of Charles III, and that of Henry VIII, indirectly tell us something about the degree of dominance and authoritarianism that their subjects considered acceptable.”
These cultural artifacts can be studied on a larger scale than ever before thanks to new computational methods.
According to the review, text mining has been used to quantify the personality traits of historic literature, face detection algorithms have been used to determine the emotional expressions in works of art, and melodic extraction has been used to measure the emotional impact of music based on audio recordings or a written musical score.
However, the authors note that, because computational methods have mostly been validated based on their analysis of modern content, they may need more development before being able to make robust conclusions about the past.
In addition, many of the cultural artifacts that survived up to today were intended for the upper classes of society. This means that resulting psychological data may not have applied to the majority of a given era’s inhabitants.
Cognitive fossils: Using cultural artifacts to reconstruct psychological changes throughout history
Psychology is crucial for understanding human history. When aggregated, changes in the psychology of individuals – in the intensity of social trust, parental care, or intellectual curiosity – can lead to important changes in institutions, social norms, and cultures.
However, studying the role of psychology in shaping human history has been hindered by the difficulty of documenting the psychological traits of people who are no longer alive. Recent developments in psychology suggest that cultural artifacts reflect in part the psychological traits of the individuals who produced or consumed them.
Cultural artifacts can thus serve as ‘cognitive fossils’ – physical imprints of the psychological traits of long-dead people.
We review the range of materials available to cognitive and behavioral scientists, and discuss the methods that can be used to recover and quantify changes in psychological traits throughout history.