“We all do no end of feeling, and we mistake it for thinking. It is held in reverence. Some think it is the voice of God.”
—Mark Twain, Corn-Pone Opinions, 1901
For observers—American or otherwise—concerned about the United States today and not simply in the grip of partisan passion, this should be a time for assessing the overall national mood and considering some form of redress for a clearly dysfunctional climate. Of course it’s both tempting and easy to poke at the other side: for globalists to ponder the ignorance and amoralism of the Trumpers; for Trumpers to blast the condescension and corruption of the tenured elites. But there may be at least one malady affecting both sides of the partisan divide and driving them even further apart: heightened levels of emotionality. As Mark Twain suggested in the passage quoted above, the problem is not new—but there is strong evidence that it has been getting worse.
We already know a good bit about our current dilemma. For example, the decline of trust in American society, beginning in the 1960s and accelerating steadily to the present day, has been well documented, and has eroded confidence in all three branches of government, the media, and in the scientific establishment.1 Digging a bit deeper, the spate of national character studies that emerged in the final decades of the 20th century generally agreed in finding that there have been fundamental changes to the nature of American individualism, which was turning increasingly into a penchant for self-expression and self-presentation—or, as Christopher Lasch dourly put it, a shallow narcissism. (As one interviewee rather grandly put it, “I am my own work of art.”2) Individualism, furthermore, was less often moderated by membership in active associations or neighborhood groups. What had once been a nation of joiners was becoming more isolated, potentially making individualism of any stripe a more destructive force because it was increasingly less socially contained. These findings have more recently been enhanced by additional data on the decline of memberships.3 A recent follow-up study showing that the relative balance between “I” and “we” in national discourse has been shifting steadily toward the former over the past three decades confirms this important shift in how many Americans perceive their world.4
There is obviously room for debate about these propositions. A few scholars have tried to discount the claims about the decline of associations, pointing to new kinds of groupings, including partisan enclaves. Generalizations about national character are always risky in a huge society composed of many subcultures. And academics themselves have disagreed about the evaluation of their findings. Some late 20th-century scholars were relatively optimistic about healthy individualism, while others, like Lasch, saw the national culture losing contact with vital social values and heading toward perdition. Nevertheless, the judgment that the United States has been experiencing a changing menu of character traits over the past several decades must be taken seriously, confirmed not only by the data on trust but by other findings as well, such as the rise of loneliness in the age of social media and, for many, the growing fragility of the family itself.
This evolution has been further complicated by important shifts in overall patterns of emotionality—surely springing in part from the new preoccupation with asserting the individual self. Americans on average have been paying more attention to emotions as a guide for their judgments, and the result has been to make the national discourse even more fraught with complexity. Admittedly, at one level, to speak of an excess of emotionality might seem like a no-brainer, as we note the easily derided emotional sensitivities of the “snowflakes” on the Left or the intriguing mixture of fear and anger in Trumpland. But the issue deserves more careful attention. We need to sort out the trends with greater precision, and to note some revealing selectivity in the emotions most commonly indulged.5
My overall contention here is this: that growing individualism, with its increasing focus on self-expression, is facilitating the expression of a widening array of emotions, creating a sense that emotional construction is becoming a genuine reality in its own right; and that this impulse is affecting both sides of the political spectrum. Other developments have shaped this trend as well—from increasingly emotional newscasts to a growing acceptance of the language of therapy in everyday discourse.
The idea that emotional signals can change within a given society is admittedly not a commonplace.6 Yet the proposition is easy enough to demonstrate in specific cases. For example, Americans in the 1990s were clearly becoming more fearful, independent of objective realities and well before the terrorism threat fully manifested.7 Claims of anxiety have become increasingly common on college campuses, and constitute a serious mental health issue. Various groups and individuals, again over the past several decades, have increased the use of shame; a number of courts have imposed shaming punishments rather than conventional imprisonment, and on both ends of the political spectrum individuals have attempted to shame their opponents, however fruitlessly.8 References to maternal guilt skyrocketed in the 1980s, and, while they have since stabilized, overall guilt claims have continued to mount.9 All of these developments contrast with the prior preference (from, roughly, the 1920s to 1970s) for emphasizing emotional control and guarding against undue intensity of feeling.10 Grief has surged too, after several decades earlier in the 20th century, when experts of various stripes urged against this kind of emotional indulgence.11 In an intriguing innovation, over the past 30 years we have borne witness to recurrent outpourings of public grief at the death of certain kinds of celebrities or victims of collective violence, and there has also been a revealing insistence that memorials and monuments should reflect the emotional wounds involved. Shifts in individual emotional expression have simply accumulated over the years, pushing many Americans toward increasingly open emotionality and a heightened acceptance of emotional reactions as a central component of social reality.
The most important point beyond specific trajectories, however, is the overall outpouring of emotional demands, when the patterns in specific categories are juxtaposed and combined. This larger claim rests in turn on an easily accessible body of evidence indicative of the national emotional climate—strongly suggestive, though not definitive—that joins with the more familiar findings of the national character studies to paint a plausible if somewhat discouraging picture of change.12
The data are clear-cut: Google’s Ngram Viewer (which, I hasten to add, has its limitations as a tool)13 show changes in the relative frequency of key words over time based on the digitization of large numbers of books in (for our purposes) American English. With a few revealing exceptions, the data demonstrate a striking increase in emotions categories, mainly since the 1960s but also in a few cases a bit more recently—all again in contrast to the second quarter of the 20th century, which stands out as a low point in emotional referencing. Changes in frequency do not, of course, prove that emotionality is rising; they might simply reflect new evaluations of existing levels. Even here, when growing dismay (for example, in ongoing attacks on shaming by mainstream psychologists) contributes to the overall trends along with heightened expression of the emotion itself, the combination adds to heightened sensitivity in its own way. But the main point is the simple fact that emotions are on the rise.
Here’s a quick summary. References to all the so-called basic emotions have climbed considerably—sadness, anger, and surprise particularly, but also fear and, intriguingly, disgust, which had declined steadily since the early 19th century.14 Only happiness has remained flat, though joy is up, after a previous nosedive during the Depression and World War II. Self-conscious emotions have surged as well; this involves the dramatically rising claims about guilt, but also embarrassment (and shyness), as well as shame, with pride making smaller gains and only humility—predictably in an age of assertive individualism—holding fairly stable. Experts urge a distinction between shame and guilt—and any cultural anthropologist will insist on an inner-directed/outer-directed difference—but the fact is the two emotions have tended to move in tandem in American history, plummeting after the mid-19th century until the recent joint revival. Love and grief are up, though they have not reached late 19th-century levels. Not only has grief been embellished by the new public manifestations, but even love has found unexpected new targets, as in the rise of the quest for “soulmates” in evidence since the 1980s. Nostalgia, predictably, has surged,15 as has anxiety.
Obviously, each of the specific changes offers a particular profile, depending on the emotion involved. The rise of the need to express or discuss key basic emotions, like anger, surely reflects a more assertive sense of self. Heightened reference to social emotions like embarrassment is intriguing, calling attention to individual sensitivity in confronting a wider audience.16 Again, however, the overall trend is particularly noteworthy. Capping the pattern, more general references to emotionality, passion, and feelings all moved up rapidly from the 1970s onward: Emotions were looming larger in American life and in social interactions, or at least so the dramatic increase in references would suggest, helping to explain, among other things, the increasing disdain for objective facts over subjective fulfillment.
These trends have been prompted by several factors, beyond the general invocation of heightened and altered individualism—possibly beginning with the intense emotionality of the 1960s decade. Growing acceptance of psychological therapy, and its language, has encouraged greater attention to emotional expression and a quest for “healthy” emotionality.17 Parenting and schooling have also encouraged emotional adjustments. It is no accident that the rise of emotionality coincides with increasing attention to self-esteem for children (from the 1960s onward), easily translated into validation of emotional expression. Parents, urged to keep a careful eye on their children’s emotions, helped generate additional sensitivities as well.18
The rise of television has its role to play, important to recall even as we turn our attention today to the impact of social media. Most obviously, from the 1970s onward, exposure to large doses of television affected emotional experience in a number of important ways.19 Along with other developments (like the rise of air conditioning), it promoted greater isolation of children, from each other and from other members of the family. It exposed adults to high levels of emotion-laden drama. The discovery, in the 1990s, that most Americans continued fearfully to believe that crime rates were rising (when in fact they were falling) owed much to exposure to the multitude of police dramas, which blurred the lines between fiction and reality.
Newscasts changed, too.20 Expansion of local news segments (to many hours a day, from an initial thirty minutes at most); growing competition for ratings; additional innovations such as the capacity to send crews to accident or crimes scenes, rather than simply relaying developments from the studio—all contributed to heightened emotional perceptions.21 A story about a snatched child in Long Beach, complete with in-your-face interviews with the grief-stricken mother, easily had emotional resonance in New Jersey, where it now had a next-door feel to it. One result, again by the 1980s, was a perception of rates of stranger abductions completely out of proportion with the facts (55,000 a year, in one poll, against a reality of 200-300 a year).22
Still other factors contributed. Advertisers, long eager to exploit emotionality, became more adept, using fear as a stimulus for certain kinds of purchases. Politicians joined the parade: Beginning with the famous LBJ Daisy ad juxtaposing an innocent child with a nuclear explosion, campaigns recurrently sought to exacerbate fears not only of international threats but also domestic crime (often, of course, with racial overtones as well).
And of course, for many people, reading declined, in favor of more purely visual stimuli—another framework shift that could discourage a more careful balance between reflection and emotionality.
Current findings strongly suggest that social media have further extended the pattern. These new media promote both loneliness and envy. They contribute to snap emotional judgments. Twitter, particularly, but also texting and emojis, feature short bursts of language punctuated with suggestive labels, like “disgusting” or “sad” designed to encourage an appropriate and vigorous emotional response, unburdened by significant (or any) reflection. Social media, with their wide reach and potential for anonymity, have also encouraged the exceptionally unpleasant rise of personal shaming.23
Emotions, of course, are an inescapable part of real life—no historian of emotions is going to urge some sterile rationality, which is unachievable in any event. And a number of recent developments—like the rise of public grief—surely have constructive aspects in terms of individual release as well as social communion. It is also easy to argue that we need more shaming, and acceptance of shaming, not less, in contemporary American life. But some elements of the expansion of emotionality are clearly questionable, like the demonstrable surge of unnecessary fear and anxiety, and others—like the intriguing rise of disgust—at the least beg further interpretation. And again: The main point is not the individual patterns, but the larger trend of increased authorization for emotional expressions and the growing confusion of emotional impressions with a larger reality.
There is one final point that must be made about the wider trends. It turns out that the overall increase in emotionality is not unselective—though it does embrace both “good” and “bad”, or positive and negative emotions—hence joy but also disgust, nostalgia but also anger. A small category of emotions has defied the larger trend save for the past half-decade. Pity, for example, dropped way down, and while compassion has risen slightly it remains well below 19th-century levels. Sympathy and gratitude have dropped rapidly, arguably complementing the more familiar decline of trust.24 Only an uptick in empathy, not widely used as a term before the 1940s, relieves what is arguably a rather bleak picture for selflessness. The tight link between a narrow interest in individual expressiveness and the larger emotional arsenal is at least strongly suggested. Attention to others is not excluded—hence the attention to shame—but mainly when it involves reactions to oneself. Emotions that transcend the self, in harmony with others, have not experienced the same wide popularity.
Some features of the new attachment to individual emotionality may not be American alone. British observers have noted an increase in emotionality in their notoriously buttoned-up culture, perhaps since the extraordinary release of passion around the death of Princess Diana.25 But many of the trends in British English, though parallel, are not as marked as our own—a comparative issue that deserves more exploration.
Finally, there is little sign that the trends toward growing emotionality are abating. The fabled millennial generation, though perhaps evincing a bit more interest toward voluntarism than its predecessors, seems firmly committed to the idea that emotions are a very serious part of overall reality.26 Thus they are more likely than Americans overall to report overspending due to emotional urges. The sense that many Americans feel a need to express emotion and to expect (whether realistically or not) appropriate audience response remains an important contemporary national quality.
Claims of rising emotionality, like the related findings about narrowing individualism, are inherently general, clearly warranting critical assessment particularly in a complex and diverse cultural climate. Not every group, much less every individual, moves in the same direction. But the central trends warrant serious attention, all the more as they connect to a number of plausible causes over the past half-century even beyond their linkages to the national character studies.
The trends, interesting in themselves, surely contribute strongly to the American political climate. Putting the case simply, and granting that substantive discussions are always difficult to fix properly, we have become far better at emoting than at examining policy. The primacy of protecting emotional sensitivities, so puzzling to many, has become a staple on some college campuses, ahead of more specific policy goals and obviously well ahead of more conventional willingness to authorize diverse expression. The extent to which many supporters seem to value Trump as an expression of emotion and resentment, almost independent of any specific platform, seriously roils the national political process. The startling prompts from the most recent Republican National Convention, at which speaker after speaker explicitly urged Americans to “be afraid, be very afraid,” and to see “carnage” everywhere they looked, reflected clever awareness of the nation’s emotional mood, while also contributing to that mood in turn. Impulses on both Right and Left, despite sharp partisan division, celebrate the growing priority of emotion in public life—including the vigorous if fruitless effort, again by each side, to seek the shame the other. Displays of emotion and the search for emotional validation severely complicate any constructive discourse, adding to the other changes in American character, including the key decline of trust.
The same trends also jeopardize tolerance. One of the virtues of the redefinition of American individualism, according to many late 20th-century studies, was a greater support for tolerance: I as an individual will indulge my impulses, but I will also respect the indulgences of others. And this has clearly played out in a number of important if incomplete values changes in areas such as interracial marriage and sexual orientation. But more fervent emotionality now threatens this trend, as it further underwrites partisanship: My group’s emotions are just fine, but your group’s need to be brought under control, for I reject their validity.
Diagnosing the significant changes in American emotionality—the greater reliance but also the accompanying downgrading of many of the more altruistic passions—hardly assures remedy, but it is at least a step toward recognizing the need for explicit discussion of constructive alternatives. Our challenges go beyond simple polarization, even beyond greater individualism. They include a need to encourage more restraint in favor of greater rationality and constructive interaction. We need to figure out ways to manage emotional reactions in the larger conversation about a healthier national dialogue.
At the same time, the realization that collective emotional levels change over time offers hope, in principle, for possible remediation: What has gone up, in recent decades, might also be brought under greater control in decades to come. There are a few promising signs that warrant encouragement. The wellbeing movement, which began explicitly in 1999, though focused on the individual, has come to promote greater altruism, for example in urging more regular expressions of gratitude:27 The specific goal is greater personal contentment, but there are potential social effects as well. And, indeed, promotion of gratitude is quickly spreading to school programs and childrearing manuals, even prompting “gratitude apps” for the ubiquitous smartphones.28
On another front, a major charitable institution, the Templeton Foundation, is explicitly promoting inquiries into humility.29 And even the revival of shaming, though often misplaced, carries the potential for organizing emotional support for wider collective standards: The current effort to use shaming to discipline sexual harassment, though complicated by efforts to gain partisan advantage, could turn out to be a unifying emotional force. Growing emotionality is an unexpected but significant contributor to the national climate, but, recognized and addressed, it is open to modification—whenever we really feel like it.
1Pew Research Center, “Public Trust in Government: 1958-2017,” May 3, 2017.
2David Riesman, The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character (Yale University Press, 1989); Joseph Veroff, The Inner American: A Self-Portrait from 1957 to 1976 (Basic Books, 1981); Daniel Yankelovich, New Rules: Searching for Self-Fulfillment in a World Turned Upside Down (Random House, 1981); Robert Neelly Bellah, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Harper and Row, 1985); Peter N. Stearns, “American Selfie: Studying the National Character,” Journal of Social History 51 (3) (2018): 1-26.
3Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (Simon and Schuster, 2000)
4Harold Pollack, “This election isn’t about right vs. left. It’s about ‘we’ vs. ‘I:’ A discussion with the author of Bowling Alone,” Vox, August 8, 2016.
5Emotions are most commonly discussed in terms of individual experience, particularly in psychological research but also in popularizations, as in a recent issue of Time magazine that concentrates almost exclusively on personal impacts and strategies. But emotions are also a means of mutual communication between society and individual, and the social implications of a surge in emotionality warrants serious attention. “The Science of Emotions: Love. Laughter. Fear. Grief. Joy,” Time (October 27, 2017)
6Susan J. Matt and Peter N. Stearns, Doing Emotions History (University of Illinois Press, 2014)
7Barry Glassner, The Culture of Fear: Why Americans are Afraid of the Wrong Things (Basic Books, 2010
8Peter N. Stearns, Shame: A Brief History (University of Illinois Press, 2017); Toni M. Massaro, “Shame, Culture, and American Criminal Law,” Michigan Law Review 89 (1991): 1880-2301
9Peter N. Stearns and Ruthann Clay, “American Guilt: A Challenge for Contemporary Emotions History,” Journal of Social and Education History 6 (3) (2017): 314-341
10Stephanie A. Shields and Beth A. Koster, “Emotional Stereotyping of Parents in Child Rearing Manuals, 1915-1980,” Social Psychology Quarterly 52 (1) (1989): 44-55
11Peter N. Stearns, Revolutions in Sorrow: the American Experience of Death in Global Perspective (Routledge, 2007)
12The Google Ngram Viewer is an online search engine that charts the frequency of specified terms in sources printed between 1500 and 2008.
13Sarah Zhang, “The Pitfalls of Using Google Ngram to Study Language,” Wired, December 10, 2015.
14Alain Corbin, The Foul and the Fragrant: Odor and the French Social Imagination (Berg, 1986)
15Susan J. Matt, Homesickness: An American History (Oxford University Press, 2011)
16This aspect strongly recalls Riesman’s Lonely Crowd study, which warrants renewed attention: Americans, though individualistic, become more sensitive to audience, carefully checking to see how their emotions are being evaluated. This feature also stands out in contemporary American expressions of jealousy. Peter Salovey, The Psychology of Jealousy and Envy (Guilford Press, 1991)
17Karen Horney, The Therapeutic Process: Essays and Lectures (Yale University Press, 1999)
18Peter N. Stearns, Anxious Parents: A History of Modern Childrearing in America (New York University Press, 2003)
19Kristyn Gorton, Media Audiences: Television, Meaning, and Emotion (Edinburgh University Press, 2009); Alberto N. Garcia, Emotions in Contemporary TV Series (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016); Stearns and Clay, “American Guilt.” For an early comment on the role of television in generating hostility and anxiety, see George Gerbner’s work on the “mean world syndrome”: G.L. Gerbner, L. Gross, M. Morgan and N. Signorielli, “Some Additional Comments on Cultivation Analysis” Public Opinion Research 44 (30): 10-29.
20Even weather reports became more emotional after the 1980s, as they also loomed larger in local newscasts and drew more advertising revenue: normal temperature fluctuations, for example, were now embellished with adjectives like “brutal”, and new labels sought to highlight risk. Personal communication from a professional requesting anonymity.
21Brendan Maguire, Diane Sandage and Georgie Ann Weatherby, “Crime Stories as Television News: A Content Analysis of National, Big City, and Small Town Newscasts,” Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture 7(1) (1999): 1-14; Jack Katz, “What makes crime ‘news’?” Media, Culture and Society 9 (1987): 47-75
22Paula S. Fass, Kidnapped: Child Abduction in America (Oxford University Press, 1999)
23Jean M. Twenge, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” The Atlantic (September 2017).
24Peter J. Leithart, Gratitude: An Intellectual History (Baylor University Press, 2014)
25Leanne Franklin and John Cromby, “Everyday Fear: Parenting and Childhood in a Culture of Fear.”
26Michele Paulin, Ronald J. Ferguson, Kaspar Schattke, and Nina Jost, “Millennials, Social Media, Prosocial Emotions, and Charitable Causes: The Paradox of Gender Differences,” Journal of Nonprofit and Public Sector Marketing 26 (4) (2014): 335-353
27Todd B. Kashdan, “How Does Gratitude Enhance Trust? New Research on the Influence of Gratitude,” Psychology Today, February 7, 2017.
28Randy A. Sansone and Lori A. Sansone, “Gratitude and Well Being: The Benefits of Appreciation,” Psychiatry 7 (11) (2010): 18-22; Jeffery J. Froh, William J. Sefick, and Robert A. Emmons, “Counting Blessings in Early Adolescents: An Experimental Study of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being,” Journal of School Psychology 46 (2) (2008): 213-233
29Intellectual Humility Study, John Templeton Foundation.