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How Threatening Are Threats?

While threat-related language naturally becomes more pervasive during wars and natural disasters, it can also spread as a result of misinformation campaigns, “engagement” algorithms, and social contagion effects. Improving our understanding of the threat environment thus has become an urgent imperative.

PALO ALTO – From climate-change alarms and “tripledemic” concerns to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock, we are awash in dire warnings. News and social media alert us daily to the dangers of everything from nefarious politicians to natural disasters. All of these warnings – some sincere, some manufactured – are lighting up not only our smartphones but also our brains, prompting us to ask how all the “threat talk” might be affecting us psychologically and socially.

To cut through the hysteria and improve our understanding of credible threats, we and our colleagues have created a “threat dictionary” that uses natural language processing to index threat levels from mass communication channels. In research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, we demonstrate the tool’s use both in identifying invisible historical threat patterns and in potentially predicting future behavior. (The tool is publicly available to anyone who wants to measure the degree of threat language present in any English-language text.)

The threat dictionary builds on past survey research into how chronic threats lead societies to “tighten up” culturally, by imposing strict rules and strong punishments for those who violate them. We have found evidence of a tight/loose divide in all forms of cultures – including between countries (think Singapore versus Brazil), subnational states (Alabama versus New York), organizations (accounting firms versus startups), and social classes (lower versus upper). Yet we previously lacked a reliable linguistic measure for tracking threat-related talk over time, and for evaluating its relationship to cultural, political, and economic trends.