Beyond doubt in a dangerous world: The effect of existential threats on the certitude of societal discourse

Almog Simchon, Chaya Turkin, Tal Svoray, Itai Kloog, Michael Dorman, Michael Gilead

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


What happens when entire populations are exposed to news of impending existential threats? In the current study, we address this question by investigating the association between existential threats and the certitude of societal discourse. According to appraisal theory, threats give rise to anxiety and perceptions of uncertainty; as such, it predicts that exposure to life-threatening events will increase expressions of uncertainty. An alternative possibility is that people will respond to threats by utilizing psychological compensation mechanisms that will give rise to greater expressions of certainty. Across two studies, we measured linguistic certainty in more than 3.2 million tweets, covering different psychological contexts: (i) the 15 major terrorist and school shooting events that took place between 2016 and 2018; (ii) the COVID-19 pandemic. Consistent with the idea of compensatory processing, the results show that levels of expressed certainty increased following intentional and natural existential threats. We discuss the implications of our findings to theories of psychological compensation and to our understanding of collective response in the age of global threats.

Original languageAmerican English
Article number104221
JournalJournal of Experimental Social Psychology
StatePublished - 1 Nov 2021


  • Big data
  • Emotion
  • Motivated reasoning
  • Social discourse
  • Terror management theory

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Social Psychology
  • Sociology and Political Science


Dive into the research topics of 'Beyond doubt in a dangerous world: The effect of existential threats on the certitude of societal discourse'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this