Monday, May 11, 2015

Healey's "Study finds a disputed Shakespeare play bears the master's mark"

This story describes how psychologists used content analysis to provide evidence that Shakespeare indeed authored the play Double Falsehood.

The play in question has been the subject of literary dispute for hundreds of years. It was originally published by Lewis Theobold in 1727. Theobold claimed it was based on unpublished works by Shakespeare. And literary scholars have been debating this claim ever since.

Enter two psychology professors, Boyd and Pennebaker. They decided to tackle this debate via statistics. They conducted a content analysis Double Falsehood as well as confirmed work by Shakespeare. What they tested for:

"Under the supervision of University of Texas psychology professors Ryan L. Boyd and James W. Pennebaker, machines churned through 54 plays -- 33 by Shakespeare, nine by Fletcher and 12 by Theobold -- and tirelessly computed each play's average sentence-length, quantified the complexity and psychological valence of its language, and sussed out the frequent use of unusual words."
Boyd and Pennebaker's work ended up in Psychological Science (as their research used content analysis to seek "psychological signatures" in the text). I think this is an interesting example of  a) content analysis, b) statistics and literature coming together, and c) using the rigors of the scientific method to inform a debate and help solve a mystery that exist outside of the realm of science.