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17th Century Authorship Mystery Tackled by New Psychological Profiling Technique

A new mental-profiling technique, developed at UT Austin, could be applied broadly, from forensic work to identifying critical mental health events on social media.

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Aphra Behn was one of the first female English playwrights. Photo by John Riley, WikiCommons.

AUSTIN, Texas — Using a new mental-profiling technique, psychology researchers at The University of Texas at Austin shed light on five questioned plays of 17th century playwright Aphra Behn, determining that only two were actually written by the prolific English dramatist. The method, they say, could be applied broadly, from forensic work to identifying critical mental health events on social media.

In the past, debates about who wrote a piece of literature have been settled through chemical analysis, stylometry and even subjective impressions. And most recently, research using machine learning has placed “blind trust in cold opaque probability scores generated by a computer” to end such debates, researchers have argued.

“Until now, most authorship attribution methods are either wholly computational or wholly intuition-based in nature,” said UT Austin psychology postdoctoral fellow Ryan Boyd.

So Boyd, along with UT Austin psychology professor Jamie Pennebaker and Loughborough University scholars Claire Bowditch and Elaine Hobby, developed a compromise — a technique they call “mental-profile mapping” — that would go beyond the cold logic of an algorithm to include psychological insights about the author. Their work, published in PLOS ONE, takes a closer look at five contested plays attributed to Aphra Behn: “The Debauchee,” “The Woman Turned Bully,” “The Counterfeit Bridegroom,” “The Revenge” and “The Younger Brother.”

“What’s different is that we can look deeper. When making a map of someone’s mental profile, we can also extract more information about them,” Boyd said. “Our research shows that a person’s words – their emails, social media, and even professional writing such as plays or novels – have deeply embedded signals of a person’s core motives, values and thinking styles. This extra layer of psychological information can be critical for verifying authorship claims.”

To determine Behn’s psychological profile and identify which plays conform to it, Boyd input Behn’s collection of published work into the program LIWC (Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count software), developed by Pennebaker, which considers nearly 80 language dimensions of emotion and social and attentional processes all based on patterns found and language used in the words written.

Researchers found Behn’s profile “quite interesting,” noting that she was a natural storyteller with a great understanding for people and behavior around her, as well as a motivated person who was somewhat concerned with money.

Over time, her psychological profile and, thus, the psychological signature of her written work evolved, researchers found. Although her early works showed signs of depression — “a rather high degree of negative emotionality and self-focus” — the pattern faded over the years. Behn became more formal and analytic and more confident and status-secure.

In comparing Behn’s psychological profile with the psychological signatures of the contested plays, researchers determined that only two of the five plays fell in line with Behn’s mental profile: “The Revenge” and “The Younger Brother.” The other three were probably written by someone else, researchers said. For example, the play “The Woman Turned Bully” shows a psychological signature of someone who was highly impulsive and low in self-monitoring – not at all like Behn, who was more deliberate and controlled in her work and life in general, researchers said.

“The technique itself is primarily psychological in nature, and this is the area where it likely has the most potential to help people,” Boyd said. “As a lot of research is moving towards helping people identify mental illness from their social media activity, methods like this can help people understand their own day-to-day mental changes.”

The method, Boyd said, also has direct implications for legal and forensic settings, where investigators may need to determine the author of a ransom note or suspicious writings. And there are many more literary authorship disputes that could benefit, Boyd said, suggesting the “Bixby Letter” or Jack the Ripper letters.

“I remember that there have been speculations about whether Mary Shelley wrote ‘Frankenstein’ or if, instead, it was her husband,” Boyd said. “I don’t think that most people take these speculations very seriously, but I’d be happy to see someone put that speculation to bed.”