Thursday, January 7, 2021

The Psychology, Geography, and Architecture of Horror: How Places Creep Us Out

The Psychology, Geography, and Architecture of Horror: How Places Creep Us Out. Francis T. McAndrew. Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture, Vol. 4, No. 2 (Fall 2020), pp. 47-62 (15 pages). https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.26613/esic.4.2.189

Rolf Degen's take: https://twitter.com/DegenRolf/status/1347223531902431239

Abstract: Why do some types of settings and some combinations of sensory information induce a sense of dread in humans? This article brings empirical evidence from psychological research to bear on the experience of horror, and explains why the tried-and-true horror devices intuitively employed by writers and filmmakers work so well. Natural selection has favored individuals who gravitated toward environments containing the “right” physical and psychological features and avoided those which posed a threat. Places that contain a bad mix of these features induce unpleasant feelings of dread and fear, and therefore have become important ingredients of the settings for horror fiction and films. This article applies McAndrew and Koehnke's (2016) theory of creepiness to the study of classic horror settings and explores the role played by architecture, isolation, association with death, and other environmental qualities in the experience of creepiness and dread.

Keywords: horror, architecture, ghosts, haunted houses, paranormal experiences, environmental psychology, evolutionary psychology


We are Programmed to Respond Emotionally to Our Physical Surroundings

It is well established that the environmental preferences of animals are under genetic control (Alcock 1993), and to some extent this appears to be true for humans as well. Research by environmental psychologists has confirmed that the most attractive natural environments contain things such as running water and open meadows surrounded by woods, the very features that would have been beneficial for the survival of early humans (Kaplan 1987). In other words, people who were drawn to the “right” places did better than those who were not, and over time their genes were favored over those of individuals who spent too much time in sparser, more barren landscapes.

But places exhibit more abstract evolutionarily relevant features as well, and it turns out that being drawn to the “right” abstract features of places may have been just as important for our ancestors’ survival. McAndrew (1993) has referred to such environmental features as psychological features, and places that lack the right psychological features set off our creep detectors.

British geographer Jay Appleton (1975) was the first to describe two qualities of physical space that determine whether a place is attractive or frightening to humans: “Prospect” and “Refuge.” Refuge means having a secure, protected place to hide where one can be sheltered from danger, while prospect refers to one’s clear, unobstructed view of the landscape. Attractive places offer us a lot of prospect and a lot of refuge, or what landscape architect Randolph Hester (1979) refers to as a “Womb with a View.”  

Our love of such spaces shows up everywhere. Universally, children love playing in enclosed spaces such as cardboard boxes, tree houses, and in bushes or other dense vegetation where they feel hidden; the concepts of prospect and refuge may help explain the almost magical quality of the feelings evoked by memories of favorite childhood hiding places and the richness of detail that can often be recalled about them decades later. Similarly, diners in restaurants usually prefer to occupy tables in corners or nooks, especially when these locations allow them to sit with their backs against a wall, and they will usually only settle for tables in the center of the room when all of the more desirable seats have been taken (McAndrew 1993).

In the words of Appleton, we love the feel of these spaces because they are, evolutionarily speaking, places where “you can see without being seen, and eat without being eaten” (Greenbie, 1982, 2).

The optimal environment for human comfort is one that offers a lot of prospect and refuge for the individual; the worst combination is very little prospect or refuge for the individual. Research has confirmed that places that offer bad combinations of prospect and refuge for us are perceived as unsafe and dangerous (Fisher and Nasar 1992), also because they may offer a lot of hiding places for people or things that may intend to do us harm.

Scary places may also lack what environmental psychologists refer to as “legibility.” Legibility reflects the ease with which a place can be recognized, organized into a pattern and recalled—in other words, a place that we can wander around in without getting lost (McAndrew 1993).

More legible places are usually preferred over less legible ones, but if we feel assured that a place is not dangerous, a dose of illegibility can actually enhance the attractiveness of a place to us; this property has been referred to as “Mystery.” Mystery implies that the place contains more information than can be seen at the moment, and that one could learn much about it by walking through it and exploring. The strategic use of mystery has been used to great effect by landscape architects in settings such as Japanese gardens (Eliovson 1978). Many studies have confirmed that people do in fact perceive mystery as a distinct quality of landscapes and that a sense of mystery can increase the attractiveness of natural environments (Kaplan and Kaplan 1989). However, when a heightened sense of mystery is accompanied by a sense of potential danger, as it is in deep narrow canyons, dark urban alleys, and houses thought to be haunted, mystery decreases the attractiveness of the place (Herzog 1987; Herzog and Smith 1988).

It is not only the psychological features of places that can make them good settings for horror. Physical features that posed a threat to our ancestors can easily become creepy, even if they have other qualities that make them beneficial to us; water is a perfect example of an indispensable and usually attractive element of a natural setting that is frequently associated with horror. Rivers, lakes, and ponds often provide the setting for horror stories about ghosts. This makes sense in that deep water has always posed a hazard to humans and drowning is a common cause of human death, both accidental and intentional. It is therefore not very surprising to find that bodies of water are frequently linked with paranormal experiences, as in the stories of haunted highways, ponds, wells, ships, and bridges detailed by Davies (2007) and Nickell (2012).

The kinds of places described above can evoke feelings of fear, horror, and being creeped out. It may be useful to think of these three related emotions as different stages of the same experience. Getting creeped out is an unpleasant state of heightened vigilance in which we grapple with ambiguity in our immediate situation. We are not sure if there is an actual danger or threat to be wary of, but the lack of clarity focuses our attention as we deal with the felt urgency of resolving the ambiguity so that we know how to proceed. Horror, on the other hand, is the growing awareness that we are indeed facing some sort of danger, although we may not yet exactly understand the nature of the threat or how best to deal with it. Fear is the clearest of the three emotions. It occurs when we clearly recognize the nature of the danger that we face and we concoct a strategy for dealing with it.

Throughout this paper, the focus will remain firmly fixed on the frightening, negative experience of horror, but it must be acknowledged that under some circumstances creepiness and horror can be seductive (Clasen, 2017), as evidenced by the sums of money we spend each year on horror movies and commercial haunted houses. Clearly, for many people, the creepy can have a peculiar “allure.”

How could such things possibly be entertaining to us?

I propose that our enjoyment of haunted houses and horror movies taps into the same evolved psychological mechanisms that exist to help us learn from the experiences of others (De Backer, Nelissen, Vyncke, Braeckman and McAndrew 2007). In the safety of a movie theater or amusement park, watching other individuals deal with serial killers, zombies, or other paranormal threats gives us the chance to mentally rehearse strategies that we might use if we would ever find ourselves in a similar situation (Clasen, Kjeldgaard-Christiansen and Johnson 2018). 

So yes, horror can be fun if it is not the real thing. Having said this, the rest of this article will concern itself with the less fun stuff.


Women: Of factors like sexual orientation/shame/pride/assertiveness/& attitudes (permissiveness, birth control &c), and endorsement of traditional gender roles & of the double standard, assertiveness better predicts more orgasms

The Big “O”: Sociocultural Influences on Orgasm Frequency and Sexual Satisfaction in Women. Anna Maree Lentz & Yuliana Zaikman. Sexuality & Culture, Jan 6 2021. https://rd.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12119-020-09811-8

Rolf Degen's take: https://twitter.com/DegenRolf/status/1347070227088089090

Abstract: Previous research revealed a gap in orgasm frequency between men and women, with women orgasming less frequently than men. Because female orgasms are rooted partially in psychological origins, this gap may be partly explained by sociocultural factors. Utilizing sexual satisfaction as an outcome measure and orgasm frequency as a mediator, we surveyed 1043 women about a multitude of factors to determine the relationship between sociocultural factors, orgasm frequency and sexual satisfaction. Because women may orgasm in different frequencies depending on context, we measured four different orgasm variables: orgasm with self (masturbation), orgasm with a familiar partner, orgasm with a new partner, and multiple orgasm frequency. Factors such as sexual orientation, sexual shame, sexual pride, sexual assertiveness, sexual attitudes (related to permissiveness, birth control and communion), endorsement of traditional gender roles, and endorsement of the sexual double standard were correlated with female orgasm frequency within different contexts. The only orgasm variable that predicted sexual satisfaction was orgasm with a familiar partner, indicating that not all orgasms can predict sexual satisfaction. Overall, sexual assertiveness was the variable that positively correlated with and predicted orgasm frequency in almost all contexts as well as sexual satisfaction. This indicates that socializing women to be more sexually assertive could potentially lead to more frequent orgasms and greater sexual satisfaction. The findings of this study can be used to bridge the orgasm gap between men and women, and in general help women in curating better and more positive sexual encounters.


Drosophila brain: The systems that mediate the pleasure component of reward in mammals, including those involving the endogenous opioid & endocannabinoid systems, are unlikely to be present in insects

Drosophila reward system - A summary of current knowledge. Jiri Dvoracek, Dalibor KodrIk. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, January 6 2021. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2020.12.032

Rolf Degen's take: https://twitter.com/DegenRolf/status/1347063544802635778

Highlights

• Drosophila has a very well-developed brain enabling the associative learning.

• Reward functions of Drosophila represent a complex network system.

• Drosophila has activity-enhancing systems associated with wanting component of reward.

• Hedonic component of reward system is unlikely to be present in Drosophila.

Abstract: The fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster brain is the most extensively investigated model of a reward system in insects. Drosophila can discriminate between rewarding and punishing environmental stimuli and consequently undergo associative learning. Functional models, especially those modelling mushroom bodies, are constantly being developed using newly discovered information, adding to the complexity of creating a simple model of the reward system. This review aims to clarify whether its reward system also includes a hedonic component. Neurochemical systems that mediate the ´wanting´ component of reward in the Drosophila brain are well documented, however, the systems that mediate the pleasure component of reward in mammals, including those involving the endogenous opioid and endocannabinoid systems, are unlikely to be present in insects. The mushroom body components exhibit differential developmental age and different functional processes. We propose a hypothetical hierarchy of the levels of reinforcement processing in response to particular stimuli, and the parallel processes that take place concurrently. The possible presence of activity-silencing and meta-satiety inducing levels in Drosophila should be further investigated.

Keywords: Reward systemDopamineEndogenous opioidsMushroom bodyDrosophila


Comparison of the Hadza hunter-gatherers & non-human primates: The sexual division of labour likely co-evolved with increased sex differences in spatial behaviour and landscape use

Gendered movement ecology and landscape use in Hadza hunter-gatherers. Brian M. Wood, Jacob A. Harris, David A. Raichlen, Herman Pontzer, Katherine Sayre, Amelia Sancilio, Colette Berbesque, Alyssa N. Crittenden, Audax Mabulla, Richard McElreath, Elizabeth Cashdan & James Holland Jones. Nature Human Behaviour, Jan 4 2021. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41562-020-01002-7

Abstract: Understanding how gendered economic roles structure space use is critical to evolutionary models of foraging behaviour, social organization and cognition. Here, we examine hunter-gatherer spatial behaviour on a very large scale, using GPS devices worn by Hadza foragers to record 2,078 person-days of movement. Theory in movement ecology suggests that the density and mobility of targeted foods should predict spatial behaviour and that strong gender differences should arise in a hunter-gatherer context. As predicted, we find that men walked further per day, explored more land, followed more sinuous paths and were more likely to be alone. These data are consistent with the ecology of male- and female-targeted foods and suggest that male landscape use is more navigationally challenging in this hunter-gatherer context. Comparisons of Hadza space use with space use data available for non-human primates suggest that the sexual division of labour likely co-evolved with increased sex differences in spatial behaviour and landscape use.

Discussion

Our study demonstrates that substantial gender differences in spatial behaviour were present across the life course in this hunter-gatherer society. Among the Hadza, men travelled further, visited more areas of the landscape, followed more sinuous routes and were more solitary while foraging. These patterns are consistent with the gendered ecology of hunting and gathering, in which men search for rarer, more energy-dense and more mobile resources than women23,26,27,46. These metrics of spatial behaviour also suggest that male-typical travel is more navigationally challenging. An earlier study3 showed that Hadza men scored higher on average than Hadza women in measures of spatial cognition and performance, a result that is consistent with the gender difference in spatial behaviour seen here. Gender differences in Hadza spatial behaviour emerge early; by the age of 6 years, boys are travelling slightly further on a daily basis (Cohen’s d = 0.1, 95% CI = 0.02–0.18; Supplementary Table 5). This means that the developmental environments that boys and girls experience are spatially distinct from an early age, and they continue to be so across the life course. It is important to note the following limitation of this study: as with most studies of gender differences, there is no way for our study to disentangle whether gender differences in spatial cognition or performance emerge solely from differences in developmental environments or are also impacted by innate physiological differences. Future work that examines changes in Hadza spatial behaviour and cognition in those areas where the traditional hunting and gathering economy has declined may provide useful insights into the consequences of different developmental environments.

The emergence of a gender difference in Hadza spatial behaviour around 6 years of age is broadly similar in timing to meta-analysis results7 showing that gender differences in spatial cognition emerge in the years 7–14 in Western samples. A study of children in the UK reported that gender differences in both exploratory behaviour and spatial cognition are detectable in the age range of 6 to 11 years47.

The Hadza’s highly mobile lifestyle is readily apparent in our data. Adult Hadza women walked an average of 7.6 km per day and logged 10,888 steps, while men walked 12.9 km and logged 18,476 steps. For comparison, a GPS study in Pretoria, South Africa48 found that urban women and men walked much less (2.9 and 3.9 km per day, respectively). Mbendjele women in the Republic of Congo, who practise a mixed farming and foraging lifestyle, also appear to have walked less than Hadza women (median of 4.35 km per day), but the Mbendjele study18 differed from ours in recording only travel out of camp, for 5.2 hours per day on average, while our study records all travel, for an average of 11.49 hours per day. Hadza women’s step counts were about twice as high as average smartphone-using subjects enrolled in a 111-nation study45, and Hadza men’s about three times higher than men in this global sample from middle- and high-income countries. Other rural, non-industrial societies may walk even more than the Hadza: a study of an Old Order Amish49 community in Ontario, Canada reported that adult women and men logged 14,196 and 18,425 steps per day, respectively.

It is interesting that we did not find clear statistical evidence that young children limited how far their mothers walked each day. Perhaps because Hadza plant foods are so abundant, there was little foraging incentive for a woman without young children to travel faster or further than another woman in her party carrying a small child. It seems equally plausible that women with small children are incentivized to keep up with the group. A recent study among the Twe of Namibia also found no difference in daily distances travelled between nursing and non-nursing reproductively aged women19. A limitation of this study is that subadults were not sampled as frequently as adults, for reasons discussed in Methods. In a future study, we hope to examine more fully the coupled patterns of movement by women and their children.

A limitation of our study is that we identified two features of socioecology that are likely to limit Hadza women’s travel relative to men’s: the fact that plant foods are immobile and found in much greater abundance than men’s foods, and the fact that women appear more fearful of encountering Datoga pastoralists while foraging out of camp. Our sense, based on many years of ethnographic research, is that the Datoga threat is kept in check by armed Hadza men and older boys who accompany parties of foraging women, and that the gender differences in spatial behaviour we identify here are by and large owing to the foraging ecology. A future study that examines movement patterns in areas with more or less Datoga presence should shed light on this issue.

The strong gender differences in space use observed here have implications for disease ecology and health measures. Our data show that men travelled more expansively (Fig. 3, Table 1 and Fig. 5), so one could reasonably assume that they were exposed to more diverse pathogens. Men are also more likely to be exposed to zoonotic pathogens because of interacting with and butchering animals. Sex differences in host immune responses are reported for many species, including humans50. Spatial data like those presented here should factor into causal modelling of such differences.

As evolutionary anthropologists, we are compelled to ask how these data can inform reconstructions of the past. Patterns of behaviour observed in diverse samples of contemporary hunter-gatherers are more likely to have been a part of our species’ evolutionary history than are patterns of daily life observed among university students or citizens of rich nation-states, who today make up most research subjects in social science51. The broad gender differences in spatial behaviour that we observed among the Hadza are likely to have been a regular feature of hunter-gatherer societies in the past and to also be present today where gendered foraging persists. Cross-cultural analyses show that hunting is a male-typical activity, and that when women do hunt, they tend to focus on smaller and less mobile prey46,52,53. The male hunting specialization is not a function of contemporary gender roles per se, as it is also consistent with signs of lower limb morphology and wear seen in prehistoric skeletal samples54. Interestingly, among non-human primates that occasionally hunt vertebrates, including chimpanzees, baboons and capuchins, males hunt more frequently than females55,56,57.

Over the last 2.5 million years, diets in the genus Homo shifted to include more hunting and pursuit of mobile foods53,55,56,58. These shifts undoubtedly increased home range sizes and are likely to have increased sex differences in spatial behaviour. Among living apes, sex differences in ranging are comparatively modest and reflect sex differences in reproductive ecology and territory defence. Male orangutans maintain larger home ranges than females despite similar diets, as males apparently seek increased access to females59. In chimpanzees, males travel an average of ~20% farther than females each day (3.6 versus 3.0 km per day), reflecting males’ larger foraging group sizes and territory defence60. Mountain gorilla males, whether solitary or in groups, have similar daily travel distances to females61. Studies of non-human primate ranging using GPS devices are rare, but GPS data from a recent study of olive baboons62 show little to no evidence for a sex difference. By contrast, the day ranges of Hazda men are 14.3 km per day at age 25 years and are 62% higher than those of Hazda women (Supplementary Table 3). An increase in gender-differentiated foraging over the last 2.5 million years may have increased sex differences in spatial cognition. More studies of spatial behaviour and cognition among non-human primates—especially apes—would be very helpful for constructing maximally plausible models of hominin cognitive evolution. At present, this interspecies analysis is limited to only a few studies in which precise spatial measures have been collected.

Our study has demonstrated a high degree of gender segregation in Hadza landscape use. It is worth remembering that this segregation out of camp is bookended with intense sociality and co-operation in camp among all co-residents24. Like other hunter-gatherer societies, the Hadza practise central place foraging, which anchors people’s movements to a camp and socially embeds them into a co-operative network of neighbours. Over evolutionary time, central place foraging and language would have fundamentally changed our genus’s spatial strategies. Among much else, it would have permitted early humans to form much vaster and dynamic mental models of landscapes by incorporating others’ spatial knowledge and their own experiences. It is routine for Hadza to exchange information at the end of the day, detailing their daily travels and experiences, and men and women often relay to one another any promising signs of plant or animal life they encounter. These derived features of human sociality mean that our spatial strategies are likely to differ strongly from those of other primates, above and beyond the role played by gender-differentiated foraging.

Research in movement ecology is examining space use with sophisticated methods and theory from diverse fields18,62,63,64,65,66, and these tools are increasingly being used to examine human behaviour. Such studies, carried out across diverse cultural contexts, will allow researchers to identify regular features of human spatial behaviour and shed light on spatial adaptations to varying climatic, economic and epidemiological conditions.

Sadness pervades affective responses to death; words chosen to represent perceptions of others’ feelings towards death suggest that we perceived others as feeling more negative about death than they we do ourselves

Miller-Lewis LR, Lewis TW, Tieman J, Rawlings D, Parker D, Sanderson CR (2021) Words describing feelings about death: A comparison of sentiment for self and others and changes over time. PLoS ONE 16(1): e0242848, Jan 6 2021. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0242848

Rolf Degen's take: https://twitter.com/DegenRolf/status/1347045740305133572

Abstract: Understanding public attitudes towards death is needed to inform health policies to foster community death awareness and preparedness. Linguistic sentiment analysis of how people describe their feelings about death can add to knowledge gained from traditional self-reports. This study provided the first description of emotive attitudes expressed towards death utilising textual sentiment analysis for the dimensions of valence, arousal and dominance. A linguistic lexicon of sentiment norms was applied to activities conducted in an online course for the general-public designed to generate discussion about death. We analysed the sentiment of words people chose to describe feelings about death, for themselves, for perceptions of the feelings of ‘others’, and for longitudinal changes over the time-period of exposure to a course about death (n = 1491). The results demonstrated that sadness pervades affective responses to death, and that inevitability, peace, and fear were also frequent reactions. However, words chosen to represent perceptions of others’ feelings towards death suggested that participants perceived others as feeling more negative about death than they do themselves. Analysis of valence, arousal and dominance dimensions of sentiment pre-to-post course participation demonstrated that participants chose significantly happier (more positive) valence words, less arousing (calmer) words, and more dominant (in-control) words to express their feelings about death by the course end. This suggests that the course may have been helpful in participants becoming more emotionally accepting in their feelings and attitude towards death. Furthermore, the change over time appeared greater for younger participants, who showed more increase in the dominance (power/control) and pleasantness (valence) in words chosen at course completion. Sentiment analysis of words to describe death usefully extended our understanding of community death attitudes and emotions. Future application of sentiment analysis to other related areas of health policy interest such as attitudes towards Advance Care Planning and palliative care may prove fruitful.

Discussion

Summary of findings

Understanding public attitudes and feelings towards death is needed in order to inform health policies [3]. This study provided the first description of emotive attitudes of people asked to consider death utilising sentiment analysis. Applying multidisciplinary methodologies to a novel activity gave a deeper understanding of affective death attitudes in a community sample. We analysed the emotional sentiment of words people chose to describe feelings about death, for themselves, for perceptions of others, and for changes over the time-period during exposure to a course about death. The results demonstrated that text-sentiment analyses can provide a meaningful approach to death attitude research, consistent with previous linguistic investigations [202229]. ‘Sad’ was a word that was prevalent throughout, regardless of whether referring to feelings for oneself or for others, or feelings captured at the beginning or ending of a course about death and dying. Thus ‘sad’ feelings were universally linked to death. Nonetheless, the MOOC participants commonly chose words to express their perception of other’s feelings towards death that were considerably more emotionally negative (‘fear’, ‘scary’, ‘loss’) than the words chosen to express their own feelings towards death (‘inevitable’, ‘peace’, ‘natural’). When we moved beyond the self-report of words themselves and applied numeric sentiment scores to the words chosen, we found that the sentiment expressed to represent one’s own perspective was significantly more positive compared to those representing the perceived perspective of others. The words chosen to represent the feelings of others indicated sentiment that was more unhappy/unpleasant, more arousing/excitable, and more submissive/dominated by external forces. This aligns with findings from other studies [55960]. Our findings leave us with the question of why the MOOC participants think that others feel so differently about death than they do themselves? Part of the explanation is likely to lay in the self-selected nature of our sample of people who chose to participate in a course about death, a considerable proportion of whom identified as health professionals and may have seen themselves as more informed and conditioned to death. But, the sentiment of the words chosen to represent the perceived feelings of others does demonstrate the assumptions people make about other peoples’ negative reactions regarding death. It is possible that these assumptions have implications for the willingness of people to start conversations about death and dying with the people around them. If we perceive that others will become distressed by bringing up the topic of death, are we less likely to attempt raising the topic? Does this avoidance then leave important things unsaid?

When we compared the types of words participants chose to describe their personal feelings about death at the beginning and the end of the MOOC, we found that the most frequently mentioned words were quite similar at both time points (e.g., inevitable, peaceful, peace, natural, sad), but that mentions of more negative words like ‘sad’ reduced considerably in frequency over time, along with a corresponding increase in mentions of words related to acceptance and comfort. The specific words chosen by individuals at each time point showed more changes over time than stability. When the sentiment of the words chosen to express personal feelings about death at both time-points was analysed, we found that participants chose happier valence words, less arousing words, and more dominant words at the end of the course about death than they did at the beginning. This finding suggests that participating in an online course about death and dying may have had a positive effect on the type of language people chose to express their feelings about death, with the emotional sentiment of the language used by the end of the course subsequently becoming more pleasant/positive, calmer, and more internally controlled. Given that the sentiment of words deals with emotion in relation to an issue, this suggests that over time the course may has assisted participants in becoming more emotionally accepting in their feelings and attitude towards death. It is also important to note therefore that spending time thinking and learning about death over a five-week period did not appear to have a negative emotional impact on course participants. This finding is consistent with our findings from research with our 2016 cohort using formal scale measures [6] and evaluation questionnaires [5] geared more towards behavioural indicators. The findings of the present study indicate that participation in the MOOC potentially had a positive emotional influence on the participants, in addition to the behavioural and cognitive influence demonstrated in earlier studies [56]. This offers valuable triangulating evidence validating the potentially beneficial effects of participating in an online course about death.

Our multivariate findings demonstrated that the positive changes in sentiment occurred similarly for participants regardless of education, occupation, and location. However, an interesting influence of age was found on the rate of change in valence and dominance sentiment scores from the beginning to the end of the course. From the outset, younger participants scored lower on death sentiment valence and dominance, and compared to older participants, younger participants experienced greater change during course participation on the sentiment of the language chosen to express personal feelings about death, with greater increases in the pleasantness (valence) and dominance (power and control) in the words they chose at the end of the course. This may be in part due to younger participants having lower valence and dominance scores at baseline, meaning there was more opportunity for improvement in their scores by the end of the course. For older participants, the influence of a course discussing death is perhaps less due to having more personal exposure and proximity to death in their life and thus greater mortality salience. Therefore, it’s possible that participation in an online course about death may be especially beneficial for younger people, potentially assisting them to become less emotionally negative and more accepting of death and its inevitability.

Implications

The results from this study provide further validation of the emotive nature of death and dying. It provided quantification of the strength and direction of affective responses to death and the differential perceptions of death attitudes participants applied to others in the community. Word sentiment analysis was a useful adjunct to traditional self-reports, and is arguably less invasive.

The words and labels used in clinical encounters can have differing effects upon patients and clinicians. For example, Tayler and Ogden [81] reported the tendency of doctors to use euphemisms instead of the direct term ‘heart failure’ due to the dilemma of the latter causing more negative emotional reactions in patients. On the other hand, a study of more benign conditions (gastroenteritis/tonsillitis) found the use of clinical language over lay language can validate the patient’s sick role and can increase confidence in the doctor [82]. The use of euphemisms to avoid the word death is reportedly common, and accompanied by the potential for misunderstandings [202258]. Thus, words are not neutral. They can have an impact on patients and people–they can bring people with us or alienate them, they can be interpreted differently by people, they can be delivered in personal or impersonal ways, and they can sway a person’s actions. There may be implications worth exploring for clinical settings, particularly for awareness of the choice of words verbalised in clinical encounters related to the end-of-life. Understanding the sentiment of words provides valuable insight into the emotional connotations tied to words we use, and could be useful for guiding clinical conversations in palliative care [2022].

The knowledge gained from this study about community death attitudes could potentially inform the creation of dialogue and messaging used in public health campaigns about the end-of-life preparedness. The use of higher valence and dominance words might bolster the persuasiveness of campaigns in a way that potentially leads to more effective emotional engagement and behavioural activation in target populations [3783].

Strengths, limitations, and future directions

Whilst this study was based on a large sample, several potential limitations require consideration. Like most MOOC samples, our sample is unlikely to be representative of the general population [6264]. Participants were a self-selected sample of people in the community who chose to enrol in a course about death, and therefore may have been more likely to feel comfortable with the topic of death from the outset than people in the general population. Our sample also included a considerable proportion of people who identified as health professionals, which may impact on death attitudes given their greater opportunity for exposure and possibility of more desensitised death-related emotions. The sample was also comprised of a vast majority of females, which meant that gender comparisons could not be meaningfully undertaken. Furthermore, the results of the present study may be somewhat less representative of younger people and those residing outside Australia, because enrolees who subsequently went on to participate in the MOOC activities were slightly older and more likely to be located in Australia than those who enrolled but did not participate. Replication of the study with a representative community sample would be a valuable avenue for future research, to garner a stronger understanding of socio-demographic variations in the sentiment of words about death. Comparing death word sentiment for various age cohorts in the community with differing death exposure experiences is particularly needed, as well as direct dyad comparisons of self-other death attitude perceptions. It would also be informative to examine how respondents’ death word sentiment relates to their self-reported fear of death and other emotive death attitudes rated on standardised instruments. This could enable a broader insight into various aspects people associate with death [7].

A strength of this study was the inclusion of a longitudinal component that observed changes over time in the sentiment of words chosen to express feelings about death. However, course attrition meant that slightly less than half of participants that provided words at baseline also provided data at the end of the course. It is possible that those participants who were less inclined to complete the Time 2 activity were also less likely to have experienced a positive emotional response to the course. Nonetheless sensitivity analyses using alternative approaches (Multiple Imputation) to account for the missing data obtained similar results and conclusions to those using the complete-case sample. In the final week of the course when participants were asked to provide three death words again, it was possible for them to go back and look at their previous word choices from the beginning of the course. It is not clear how many participants went back and checked their first response, versus those who followed instructions to simply go with their instinctual response. It is not known what effect any comparative check by participants may have had on the words they chose to report at Time 2.

Of further importance is that our longitudinal assessment of change over time did not include a comparison group of people who were not exposed to the MOOC. Without this comparison group, it is impossible to rule out alternative explanations for the reasons word sentiment scores changed from the start to the end of the course. Other factors occurring within lives of participants while completing the MOOC may have caused changes on death sentiment over time that were not related to MOOC completion. Future research including a control group is warranted.

In this study, we applied sentiment analysis to three specifically chosen content words rather than to a written sentence, or a more generalised analysis of written text. However, it is possible that by giving participants explicit instructions we obtained more expressive emotional content words than we would have if a sentence was requested, given that typically only a small proportion of words used are classified as emotive [14]. The results may have differed if the activity used a sentence instead, but it may have reduced the emotive data elements provided, being more likely to have been limited to one core theme/lemma. Alternatively, utilising a much larger textual response may have provided a deeper understanding of emotions, as there is evidence that non-content function words such as prepositions and pronouns can also convey affective content [8485]. It would be worthwhile to explore the use of these different methodologies in future research, such as examining the effect of the online course over time by comparing the sentiment expressed in larger bodies of general comments/posts made at the beginning and at the end of the course.

Another potential limitation is that Warriner and colleagues’ [37] lemma database is based on rating words on an ordinal 1-to-9 scale, rather than a continuous interval scale. There may not be a uniform difference reflected between a rating of 1-to-2 as there is for 8-to-9. Very recently, new slide-rating methods for valence scores have been tested, which may provide a fruitful direction for future studies to utilise, if norms are developed [86].

The current study focussed on words used to describe feelings about death and dying, and has provided valuable insights into the way people feel about this issue. There is considerable potential for applying sentiment analysis to other related constructs, such as words chosen to describe feelings about Palliative Care, Advance Care Planning and Voluntary Assisted Dying. Such future research may help us better understand the nuances in community attitudes towards these important social policy issues. The possibilities of sentiment analysis as a methodology to detect emotional states of respondents also deserves future research attention. Previous studies have successfully used sentiment analysis to detect mental health conditions and level of threat in social media statements [1732]. Future research could pursue word sentiment as a method to detect emotional distress in health settings (e.g., carer bereavement risk), which could activate early intervention efforts.

Born to Shop? Past research indicating that deal-prone consumers are likely to have one or more deal-prone parents has suggested that there may be genetic factors involved in the appeal of retail sales promotions

Born to Shop? A Genetic Component of Deal Proneness. Robert M. Schindler, Vishal Lala, and Jeanette E. Taylor. Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, Jan 5 2021. https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/abs/10.1086/710244

Rolf Degen's take: https://twitter.com/DegenRolf/status/1346844597289410561

Abstract: Past research indicating that deal-prone consumers are likely to have one or more deal-prone parents has suggested that there may be genetic factors involved in the appeal of retail sales promotions. We report the results of a study of monozygotic and dizygotic same-gender twins that indicate a role of hereditary factors in the degree of consumer interest for at least some types of promotional deals.