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Unearthing the Psychology of History: “Cognitive Fossils” in Cultural Artifacts

Newswise — No two companies in history think exactly the same way. In fact, the mindset of a given society throughout history can help historians uncover important clues about the effects of psychological changes, such as greater social trust or more openness. In a review published on November 2 in the journal Trends in cognitive scienceresearchers explain how modern computational methods such as text mining, face detection algorithms and melodic extraction programs can enable large-scale analysis of cultural artifacts such as paintings, stories or clothing to discover 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 Nicolas Baumard of the University of Paris Sciences et Lettres (PSL). “These new methods, along with the increasing availability of digitized cultural datasets, have improved our ability to characterize and quantify multiple psychological dimensions across a variety of documents and historical periods.”

Cognitive scientists can draw conclusions about the psychology of past people based on their consumption of specific types of media. For example, changes in sad music consumption over time could explain long-term trends in a culture’s empathy. We can also gain insight into a civilization’s parenting trends based on the popularity of cute baby portraits over time. Additionally, portraits of older leaders can reveal whether power or trustworthiness was considered more important in a political leader.

“In 2023, it would be difficult to imagine Charles III presenting himself as Henry VIII, focusing on physical domination,” the authors write. “Charles III is expected to show signs of sympathy and reliability. Thus, the portrait of Charles III and that of Henry VIII indirectly tell us about the degree of domination and authoritarianism that their subjects considered acceptable.

These cultural artifacts can be studied on a larger scale than ever before using new computational methods. According to the review, text mining has been used to quantify personality traits in historical literature, face detection algorithms have been used to determine 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 require further development before strong conclusions can be drawn about the past. Furthermore, many of the cultural objects that have survived to this day were intended for the upper classes of society. This means that the resulting psychological data may not apply to the majority of people in a given era.

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