‘Threat Dictionary’ showcases the power of words and how they are used to spread and combat fear
How tight or loose are you? Do you have a connection with Big Bird or Cookie Monster?
Answers to these questions have helped Stanford University professor Michele J. Gelfand understand how individuals and societies respond to common threats.
Gelfand and a team of computer scientists and psychologists at the University of Maryland have taken this research a step further by creating what they call a threat dictionary – a data tool “designed to diagnose threatening language in any text that interests you”.
This may seem like a strange undertaking. But the words have never been so controversial. Universities are now trying to protect students from “microaggressions”. TV shows open with “trigger language” warnings.
A word is a word, neither more nor less. Its impact, however, depends on the person receiving it.
Whether certain words hit you like a hammer or a pillow – that is, whether or how much they trigger your brain’s “fear circuit” – is based on your experiences, upbringing, and exposure to culture. popular, among other factors, research suggests.
All of this, unsurprisingly, is linked to the hyperpolarization that dominates our politics.
“Adding a single word related to a threat to a tweet about COVID increased the expected retweet rate by 18%,” writes Sara Harrison for the Stanford Graduate School of Business.
How will threat-related words affect you?
Gelfand, professor of organizational behavior, created what she calls the Mindset Quiz to find out.
“The extent to which you adhere to social norms has major implications for your life,” she wrote in the quiz’s introduction. “This level of intensity falls on a spectrum from very loose to very tight. Knowing how tight or loose you are can help you better understand yourself and others.
The quiz asks respondents to agree or disagree (on a scale) with statements such as: “I control my emotions”, “I don’t like uncertain situations”, “I respect the rules and “I talk even when I know I shouldn’t.”
With your answers, you will know if you are a “Muppet of order” or a “Muppet of chaos”. (Uncertainty makes Big Bird anxious. Cookie Monster delights in chaos.)
As for the 240-word threat dictionary – with words ranging from “accidents” and “accusations” to “worry” and “worse” – it can offer individual users subtle information and warnings during their online lives. You can copy and paste news articles and social media posts into the tool to find out their “percentage of threatening language”. (For example: The lead article on the Washington Post’s front page on Thursday morning, “Ukraine braces for assault in east; Russians talk of killing civilians intercepted,” hits 2%.)
But for the academics who created the threat dictionary, the usefulness is broader. The database’s algorithm, powered by information about the perils the United States has faced over the past 100 years (stock market crash, wars, natural disasters, etc.), is designed to measure how our society reacts to various types of threats.
“Overall,” write the researchers in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), “threat language is a powerful tool that can inform researchers and policy makers about exposing the public daily to threatening language and making interesting societal patterns visible throughout American history.