An analysis of words and phrases in more than 750,000 American books published in the past 50 years finds an emphasis on "I" before "we" - showing growing attention to the individual over the group.
The study, published today in the online journal PLoS One, analyzes how often certain words and phrases appear in written language from year to year. Researchers say it is yet another indication that U.S. society since 1960 has become increasingly focused on the self.
"These trends reflect a sea change in American culture toward more individualism," says psychologist Jean Twenge of San Diego State University. "That can be both good and bad. Some people have argued that individualism has been on the rise in Western cultures for centuries, but that the increase accelerated after the late 1960s. These results suggest that's indeed the case."
Findings show nuances in different aspects of individualism, Twenge adds. "There's an emphasis on uniqueness and greatness, and things being personalized for the individual. But it's not about being independent and standing on your own two feet," she says.
"We got changes we expected in words like 'unique' or phrases like 'I love me.' We didn't get them in words and phrases more about independence. It shows the type of individualism that has increased."
Twenge and her co-authors did two studies using 20 words and 20 phrases describing both individualism and community. Examples: "independent" and "solo" for individualism, "communal" and "team" for groups. Phrases include "I am special" and "me against the world," "community spirit" and "it takes a village." Words and phrases used in the studies were chosen by an online panel.
Researchers used the Google Books Ngram Viewer, an online database released by Google in 2010 that contains the full texts of more than 5 million books scanned in from the 1500s through 2008, the most recent year completed.
The tool lets researchers compare usage trends in words and phrases over time, and shows their frequency for each year, compared with all words and phrases in the database.
Twenge's team analyzed all the books in the database in "American" English published between 1960 and 2008 - 766,513 books, says Google research manager Jon Orwant. Findings point to a progressive increase in words and phrases associated with individualism from 1960 on.
Not everyone buys the study's conclusions, however.
The words and phrases that were analyzed "are subjective choices. It's a little bit hazardous to make a leap from that to say this is a direction that American society is going," says linguistics professor Dennis Baron of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who has seen the study and has used Google Ngram.
"People refer to themselves in the singular more than they do the plural, and it doesn't necessarily mean we're all individualists or egotists," he says. "It just means we have more occasions to refer to one form than the other."
Twenge says researchers began with 1960 because it was before the civil rights and women's movements would have affected language. It's possible the increase in some words may be the result of those social forces, she says, but it's clear the new focus on the self is not on "just being equal, but being better, and the best."