Fear and Anxiety

More psychological research on our reaction to terrorism and mass violence:

The researchers collected posts on Twitter made in response to the 2012 shooting attack at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. They looked at tweets about the school shooting over a five-and-a-half-month period to see whether people used different language in connection with the event depending on how geographically close they were to Newtown, or how much time had elapsed since the tragedy. The analysis showed that the further away people were from the tragedy in either space or time, the less they used words related to sadness (loss, grieve, mourn), suggesting that feelings of sorrow waned with growing psychological distance. But words related to anxiety (crazy, fearful, scared) showed the opposite pattern, increasing in frequency as people gained distance in either time or space from the tragic events. For example, within the first week of the shootings, words expressing sadness accounted for 1.69 percent of all words used in tweets about the event; about five months later, these had dwindled to 0.62 percent. In contrast, anxiety-related words went up from 0.27 percent to 0.62 percent over the same time.

Why does psychological distance mute sadness but incubate anxiety? The authors point out that as people feel more remote from an event, they shift from thinking of it in very concrete terms to more abstract ones, a pattern that has been shown in a number of previous studies. Concrete thoughts highlight the individual lives affected and the horrific details of the tragedy. (Images have >particular power to make us feel the loss of individuals in a mass tragedy.) But when people think about the event abstractly, they’re more apt to focus on its underlying causes, which is anxiety inducing if the cause is seen as arising from an unresolved issue.

This is related.

Posted on February 16, 2016 at 6:27 AM9 Comments


Wm February 16, 2016 9:02 AM

There is probably going to be geographical differences that are not being taken into account here. For instance, here in Texas, we have a strong tendency to react by reasoning that allowing concealed carry licensed citizens, or at least allowing teachers to carry guns in schools, is the answer to stopping such violence in such no gun zones. Whereas in the more liberal north eastern U.S., people will be more likely to be overcome with emotional responses, later leading to fears and further emotional demands for gun bans. No one will ever placated or ended anxiety and evil by lying down, disarming all citizens, and/or submitting to it.

Curious February 16, 2016 9:34 AM

“Why does psychological distance mute sadness but incubate anxiety?”

I wonder if maybe the repeated use of this word “tragedy” in news (and elsewhere) can be thought to further alienate people from realities in world events, given how (how I think anyway) that people with first hand experience probably react quite differently to news stories (regardless of where an event happened), compared to those that have no direct experience with terrible events right where they happened.

Hm, I think maybe anxiety could be thought of as an underlying anger or irritation for example, and that I think anger and irritation is an acquired taste so to speak. Who today really cares about the terrible consequences of the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945? I think that any interest in specific world events, no matter how descriptive in the way it is being reported, is doomed to be instances of fleeting issues, unless ofc one has either taken a habit of being opinionated about some specific issue, or unless one has some personal traumatizing experience that in its own right, has made an impression on an individual. I think the “acquired taste” theory of mine, also encompass political ideologies so to speak, in either undermining or bolstering the obvious realities of any one event.

I have for the longest time been annoyed by the word “tragedy”, being a very common word used in the news world.

Presumably, the word ‘tragedy’ never evoke sadness nor anxiety in people, but perhaps an anticipation and/or curiosity, and I think no sadness or anxiety is attempted to be conveyed as such, when media use that word when writing articles and talking on the news. “Tragedy” seem to be this hyped up word, that both catches people’s attention, yet I think so to speak paradoxically desensitizes the gravity of a given situation/event.

I wonder if ‘tragedy’ could be thought of as being a so called ‘dead metaphor’ for a very long time now (compared to the time of the ancient Greeks).

There are imo three uses of this word “tragedy”; one being the word that hype up a news story, the second being a mere reference to something being a serious event, and thirdly, I can only speculate about this, but I’d say that there is a deeper meaning to the word ‘tragedy’ that I think most people perhaps never even considered. Specifically, ‘tragedy’ would be a multi purpose word that can generally speaking signify the loss of either human life (people having died, but more importantly, no longer living), truth and knowledge (unknown circumstances, never to be known), perhaps more importantly, some event that could probably have been avoided (if one had known). I think, this third use of ‘tragedy’
would be the most offensive in terms of risking trivializing the seriousness of an event.

As for seeing images and video, and how one would argue that those make the best impression on people, I think that is mainly a problem of juxtaposition. If you as a reporter were to say something that trivialized an event, seeing dead people might not bring about the terror one perhaps would otherwise experience when seeing dead people.

Curious February 16, 2016 9:36 AM

To add to what I wrote:

I don’t really have a direct answer to the question:
“Why does psychological distance mute sadness but incubate anxiety?”

This because the question is a leading question

P February 16, 2016 9:37 AM

There’s another possible explanation: only the more anxiety-prone are still tweeting about it 5 months later or from a great distance away!!!

Curious February 16, 2016 9:41 AM

I think the juxtaposition aspect of how one perceive things is of special importance, and I guess one could say that there is a fine line between tragedy and comedy for that one reason.

Writing this in turn reminds me of what a local philosopher one said or perhaps wrote somewhere (I don’t remember anymore). I’ll attempt a paraphrase: “I can see how this is humorous, but I don’t think this is funny”.

Curious February 16, 2016 9:44 AM

Hm, or maybe the man said: “I can see how this is funny, but I don’t feel like laughing”.

Anxious America February 16, 2016 10:34 AM

Possible reasons for rise in anxiety with shifting time:

  • A pill-popping nation is buying the blanket media propaganda about statistically insignificant terrorist acts
  • Abuse of pharmaceuticals is related to worsening of longer-term mental health conditions/symptoms, including the millions already classified with anxiety disorders in the US
  • Over-medication of most adults is chronic, with around 70% reportedly using pharamceuticals of some type or other. With anti-anxiety/anti-depressants high on the list & loads of people popping a happy cocktail of pills, the masses are unstable and the trend is worsening
  • Social media correlations with higher rates of reported mental illness (ironically this study used Twitter)
  • Life is harder in the US with worsening economic conditions (the Great Recession never ended), stagnating wages and worsening wealth and income inequality. Combined with an autocratic Police state the people have woken up to, this is a major stressor for perceptions of most life events proximal or distal in nature

  • Americans may be lingering on the possibility of serious blow back for allowing their government to commit heinous war crimes in the ME

  • Americans are generally a paranoid bunch who see Islamic bogeyman everywhere in errie parallels to the Communist propaganda of the 1950s when reds were under every bed

Note anxiety and fear are not the same. Anxiety is normally a negative emotional state where the causes are not identified or perceived to be beyond their control. On the other hand fear is associated with emotional/physiological responses to concrete external threats.

Of course a less eloquent explanation – sans all the Freudian crap – is that the gun-toting, bible-thumping, pill-popping, drug-snorting, obese nation of narcissistic warmongers is finally losing its collective shit.

Clive Robinson February 16, 2016 6:28 PM

I suspect it is to do with the difference between of “past known” and “future unknown”.

A past known event is quantified and involves grieving for those close in space and time. Thus it eases with time for those close to the event. However a potential future unknown is not quantified it is in effect open ended and thus thinking about it without being able to effect a future potential outcome just causes magnification of potential harm and hopelessness in many peoples minds.

Many fear their child being abducted, however statistics suggest that the probability of this happening against the population size is at the lowest it ever has been and is likely to decrease as a threat in the future with time and technology advances.

Similar “Stranger Danger” research indicates that it’s those close that you know that you should fear, not strangers.

From other reasearch it would appear that both child abduction and stranger danger are a much greater fear for many parents than even the lack of road and vehical safety…

P February 16, 2016 8:46 PM

You all aren’t getting it. It’s a flawed usage of statistics.

When a terrible shooting initially happens, most people are afraid. They tweet about fear. A few people are chronically anxious, they tweet about fear and anxiety.

Now… FIVE MONTHS LATER… who do you think is still tweeting about it??? the majority of people who were fearful, but have gotten over their fear by now? Nope! The chronically anxious still! They are the only ones left still tweeting about some shooting that happened 5 months earlier!!

By percentage, people have “gotten more anxious” over time… but they haven’t really. It’s just that mostly only the anxious are left, so they account for a higher percentage of what’s left. It’s not that more people are getting anxious, or that anxiety is increasing.

And that (pointing at the study), folks, is how you abuse statistics to say just about anything you jolly well please.

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