Humans are an Optimistic Species: Lessons from Google’s NGram Viewer

Matthew Oldridge
3 min readApr 6, 2016

Love/hate, day/night, peace, war, vampire/zombie- of each pair, which one appears most commonly in English writing of various kinds?

Google’s N-gram viewer has the answer. I first came across the N-gram in Google’s Computational Thinking course for educators, as an example of computational thinking in the humanities.

Consider this: when I took my English literature degree, we did not have the tools of computer science to aid our thinking. Now, we can answer with reasonable certainty, questions like, “did Shakespeare write all his plays?”, or analyze the punctuation styles of various writers. Here is one example, comparing McCarthy’s punctuation usage to Faulkner’s. McCarthy is perhaps not as Faulknerian as we would have thought, is what the data shows. Or: perhaps you read the data differently than I do.

We can use Google’s N-gram at home, and explore the corpus of Google Books, and draw our own conclusions. Machines are better at dealing with large amounts of data; humans are better at making inferences about data. Here are some interesting ngrams from xkcd. Draw your own conclusions. Quora has more.

Here is one: dracula vs. frankenstein.

You would probably notice right away that Frankenstein was written first. But what accounts for the big spikes for dracula? Pop cultural events, like big movies, or related books?

My big inference here is that “frankenstein” has generally been referenced more, as it has come to be used commonly, as in, “a frankenstein creation”. Dracula is still a name, whereas “’vampire” is the common usage. references to the name, “Dracula” and the name “Frankenstein”, would be a far different graph.

Here is another one, love vs. hate.

We should take heart- we write about love, much more than we write about hate. Humans are an optimistic, empathetic species.

But what accounts for that large spike around 1830? An increase in “love” in the world? Romantic poetry?

Now, “war” and “peace”.

I am pretty sure you can figure out what the two huge spikes mean. One interesting thing to notice is that spikes in one seem to correspond to spikes in the other. When we write about war, we also write about peace. Unfortunately, mentions of peace seem to be near a 200 year low!

Now for “life” and “death”.

Based on this data, we think and write about life, far more than we think and write about death. That’s a good thing.

Last, and this one connects to the title of this piece, “optimism” and “pessimism”.

We write about optimism far more than we write about pessimism these days. That’s a good thing. Humans are an optimistic species.



Matthew Oldridge

Writing about creativity, books, productivity, education, particularly mathematics, music, and whatever else “catches my mind”. ~Thinking about things~