• Updated
14 December 2020

The psychological origins of the first modern revolutions

In their research published in the scientific journal PNAS, Mauricio Martins and Nicolas Baumard highlight the likely role of long-term psychological and economic changes in explaining the rise of the first modern democracies. Meeting with Mauricio Martins.


The two researchers studied the content of about two thousand theatre plays from the early modern period in England and in France, over three hundred years, and tracked the dynamics of words related to cooperation and domination. Assuming that the content of these texts reflects the preferences of the authors and the audience, they assessed trends in preferences for cooperation over time, their relationship to democratic revolutions and how these trends coexisted with economic development. The main goal was to test whether cooperation preferences preceded or followed the first modern democratic revolutions, and whether the rise in these preferences preceded or followed economic development.

Exploring the environmental and psychological determinants of support for democratic institutions

Studies of democratic transitions in 20th century show that these co-occur with changing cultural attitudes. "For instance, the establishment and maintenance of democracy is more likely in societies with higher openness, political tolerance and trust". However, there has been a long debate as to whether cultural shifts are mostly a cause or a consequence of changing institutions, as democratic institutions might also generate new preferences and increase the sense of liberty, trust and cooperation.  Mauricio Martins and Nicolas Baumard have decided to test the directionality of this causal relation in the early modern period, where new forms of democratic institutions were being developed in England and France. "This period is particular interesting, because at the time these countries could not base their reformist impulse on the desire to copy the economic and cultural success of existing liberal democracies" says Mauricio Martins.

The use of automatic natural language processing

The researchers chose to analyze plays (tragedies and comedies) from the early modern period in England and France. "We used theatre plays in our study because this genre is present very early on in the pre-industrial era, unlike novels. We restricted our sample to theatre plays in order to keep the raw material as similar as possible throughout the 300 year period included in our research" says Mauricio Martins.  They used the methods of natural language processing to automatically compute the frequency of bags-of-words related to ‘cooperation’, ‘dominance’ and built a cooperation-to-dominance ratio. Then they analysed how the cooperation-to-dominance ratio changes through time and in relation to democratic revolutions. They found an increase in words related to cooperation over time compared to words related to domination in both countries. "We document a slow rise of preferences towards cooperation, such as empathetic emotions, prosocial attitudes and trustworthy characters leading to democratic revolutions" says Mauricio Martins. They also note that the accelerated increase in words related to cooperation preceded both the English Civil War (1642) and the French Revolution (1789).

Historical analysis. (Upper) England. Variation of cooperation-to-dominance ratios (red solid line) across three periods: Pre-English Civil War (<1643), Restoration (1660–1688, dark gray), Post-Glorious Revolution (>1688). English Civil War is depicted with light gray. Since theater was banned from the beginningof Civil War until the beginning of Restoration, we excluded this period from the analysis. (Lower) France. Variation of cooperation-to-dominance ratios (blue solid line) across four periods: pre-French Revolution, French Revolution (1789–1799, light gray), Empires and Restoration (1804-1870, dark gray), and Third Republic (>1870). Solid lines connect the means for each year. Dotted lines depict growth rate within each period.

The psychology of cooperation is more likely to be expressed in periods of affluence

The two researchers also found that rising per capital gross domestic product generally led to an increase in cooperation-related words. Mauricio Martins explains that the underlying theory, called Life History Theory (LHT), surmises that environmental conditions affect our behaviour and preferences. Individuals in contexts of deprivation are often preoccupied with short-term subsistence and develop a set of strategies optimized to reap immediate rewards. "This is rational because in uncertain environments long-term rewards might not be available" says Mauricio. The rising living standards free the individual from the prison of immediate subsistence. When the environment is more stable it is possible to withhold immediate reward and invest in the future. In this context, cooperation is seen as an investment in the future. This is the reason why the psychology of cooperation is more likely to be expressed in periods of affluence than in periods of deprivation.

The study of dominant psychological states, a tool for predicting historical movements

The overarching goal of our research program is to develop a model of social change that takes into account the evolution of psychological states, including attitudes, preferences, dominant emotions and topics of concern.  "We believe that this model is reasonable because there is often a lag between the kind of content we find in fiction (novels, movies, theatre, etc.) and the societies in which the related concepts are enacted. This is true for technical concepts such as those present in science fiction, but also for moral values and norms." En d’autres termes, les changements psychologiques précéderaient les changements culturels qui eux-mêmes précéderaient les changements politiques. "In Portugal, where I come from, says Mauricio, sensitive topics such as abortion, homosexuality and drugs were common in TV shows in the early 90s, more than a decade before legislation was passed to legalize drugs, abortion and gay marriage. The fall of the influence of Catholic morality in the law could have been predicted by looking at these cultural shifts."

At the heart of the next studies : the Industrial Revolution and Romantic Love

To follow : two studies involving the same sample and techniques. In the first, the reesearchers will analyse whether there were prominent psychological shifts leading to the Industrial Revolution, particular in relation to the kinds of virtues might be relevant such as ‘creativity’, ‘industriousness’, etc. In the second study they will analyse the relationship between the evolution of Romantic Love in fiction and environmental conditions. In particular, they hypothesize that Romantic Love is more likely to be expressed in periods with rising living standards.

* A multidisciplinary field involving linguistics, computer science and artificial intelligence, which aims to create natural language processing tools for various applications.

Martins, M. & Baumard, N. (2020). The rise of prosociality in fiction preceded democratic revolutions in Early Modern EuropePNAS, doi:10.1073/pnas.2009571117

About Mauricio Martins

Mauricio Martins is a postdoc at the Institut Jean Nicod and a member of the Evolution and Social Cognition team. He is a medical doctor with a PhD in neuroscience from the Lisbon Faculty of Medicine. During his PhD and first postdoc at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, he investigated the cognitive and neural mechanisms underlying the representation of hierarchies. Currently, his work focuses on the socio-economic and environmental determinants of trust, sympathy and prosociality and how these psychological tendencies impact the stability of (democratic and autocratic) political systems. 

About Nicolas Baumard

Nicolas Baumard is a CNRS researcher at the Institut Jean Nicod and a member of the Evolution and Social Cognition team.  It combines evolutionary biology with the social sciences (cultural history, social anthropology, moral philosophy, economic history, literary theory) to study the nature and dynamics of cultural phenomena such as moral judgments, religious beliefs, political revolutions, and works of art. His research focuses on cultural revolutions in history, the structure of human morality.

About the Evolution and Social Cognition team

The Evolution and Social Cognition team studies social cognition in a broad sense (e.g. morality, communication, argumentation, social influence) in light of evolutionary biology, in order to better understand a variety of social and cultural phenomena such as religion, mass communication, policy, art, institutions, or social norms.