The Cultural Salience of Moral Character and Virtue Declined in Twentieth Century America
Journal of Positive Psychology, Forthcoming
25 Pages Posted: 31 Jul 2012 Last revised: 15 Aug 2012
Date Written: 2012
In a large corpus of American books, we tracked how frequently words related to moral excellence and virtue appeared over the 20th century. Considering the well-established cultural trend in the United States toward greater individualism and its implications for the moral domain, we predicted that morality and virtue terms would appear with diminishing frequency in American books. Two studies supported our predictions: Study 1 showed a decline in the use of general moral terms such as virtue, decency, and conscience throughout the 20th century. In Study 2, we examined the appearance frequency of 50 virtue words (e.g., honesty, patience, compassion) and found a significant decline for 74% of them. Overall, our findings suggest that during the 20th century, moral ideals and virtues have largely waned from the public conversation.
Keywords: virtue, morality, moral character, values, culture, culturomics
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