UC Merced Connect: Study shows link between attitude and word choices

March 11, 2014 

Attitudes could affect the amount of information people share, said UC Merced researchers who studied Yelp business review data.

Doctoral student David Vinson and professor Rick Dale discovered people use richer language in Yelp reviews when they are giving businesses extreme ratings, either one or five stars. Patrons giving businesses three-star ratings tend to use plainer language that doesn’t convey as much information, Vinson said.

“It makes sense,” said Vinson, who is interested in information and information theory. “If I’m trying to communicate rich information, I’m going to use uncommon language.”

The paper “Valence Constrains the Information Density of Messages” was selected by Yelp as a Round 2 winner for the Yelp Dataset Challenge, which asks researchers to use a dataset in an innovative way. Vinson and Dale received a $5,000 prize, though it was the complex and well-organized data that attracted them to the contest.

The free, 300-megabyte dataset – roughly 330,000 reviews of more than 15,000 Phoenix businesses – has been downloaded by thousands of students around the world, the company said.

“A team of our data mining engineers selected David’s paper from many qualified submissions based on its rigor, applicability and novelty,” said Scott Clark, Yelp software engineer and Dataset Challenge director. “We are excited to research applications of the technique within our infrastructure.”

Vinson and Dale used a computer script to crunch the data. The script looked at the variety of words used in each review, a complex task that’s possible only with a big dataset and fast processors. The dataset had 33 million words, 243,240 of them unique. The researchers then contrasted the word selection with the nature of the review – one through five stars.

Although the finding is interesting, the researchers want to know if people’s emotional states change how much information they communicate in other situations. If so, the finding could be important for understanding how people organize and share information.

“People’s attitudes may change the amount of information they encode,” Dale said.

Vinson and Dale plan to conduct more research with the dataset and submit the paper to academic journals for publication.

Acclaimed author to visit

Author and medieval literature professor Bruce Holsinger will read from his acclaimed debut novel, “A Burnable Book,” at 6 p.m. Thursday

in the Leo and Dottie Kolligian Library, Room 355. There will be a book signing afterward. The event is free and open to the public.

The book is a historical novel, set in London in 1385, and features a political mystery involving writers John Gower and Geoffrey Chaucer. The novel has received positive reviews from The New York Times, NPR and the Washington Post, as well as a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly.

Holsinger is a leading medieval scholar at University of Virginia, and is the author of several academic books. His books have won prizes from the Modern Language Association and the Medieval Academy of America. He is a Guggenheim fellow.

UC Merced Connect is a collection of news items written by the University Communications staff. To contact them, email communications@ucmerced.edu.

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