In January 2018, Hawaii residents received an alert from the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency over radio, television and smartphones warning that a ballistic missile was headed toward the state, that people should seek shelter and that the alert was “NOT A DRILL.”
A second message was sent out 38 minutes later stating that there was no missile threat and that the original message had been a false alarm.
Now a new study of more than a million Twitter posts found an interesting phenomenon: Local Twitter users who appeared to have more anxious personalities tended to calm down much more quickly after hearing the warning was false than did users with less anxious personalities.
Specifically, the findings show that local Twitter users who had exhibited the least anxiety in their tweets before the alert took the longest to stabilize, at approximately 41 hours; those with medium-level anxiety took around 23 hours; those with the highest levels of pre-warning anxiety stabilized almost immediately, said Nickolas Jones, Ph.D., of the University of California, Irvine, and lead author of the study.
The researchers suggest that the quick decrease in anxiety levels for the high-anxiety group may have been because the threat of imminent death put their day-to-day stressors into perspective.
“Anxious individuals may have more to appreciate when they experience a near-miss and thus express less anxiety on social media after having ‘survived’ what would have undoubtedly been construed as a deadly situation,” said Roxane Cohen Silver, Ph.D., of the University of California, Irvine.
For the study, researchers collected more than 1.2 million posts on Twitter from more than 14,000 users who followed local Twitter accounts across the state of Hawaii from six weeks before to 18 days after the event.
Tweets were scanned for 114 words associated with anxiety (e.g., afraid, scared, worried). Each tweet that contained an anxiety-related word was given a score of one and all others scored zero.
Based on tweets posted before the false alarm, the researchers grouped users as having “low,” “medium,” or “high” anxiety.
During the false alarm, anxiety expressed on Twitter rose approximately 3.4% every 15 minutes. It then decreased after the all-clear. What the researchers found interesting was how long it took anxiety levels to stabilize in the various groups after the event and what those new baseline levels were.
While the group that exhibited low anxiety before the alert showed a new baseline anxiety level 2.5% higher after the event, the group who exhibited high anxiety prior to the alert had a baseline that was 10.5% lower afterward.
“We were surprised about our findings for the high pre-alert anxiety group,” said Silver. “The literature suggests that people who experience negative psychological states, like anxiety, before a large-scale trauma, are at an increased risk for negative psychological consequences afterwards.”
“However, those individuals who before the alert generally expressed much more anxiety on a daily basis than anyone else in the sample seem to have benefited from the false missile alert instead.”
The findings are published in the journal American Psychologist.
“Free and open access to public Twitter data, coupled with Hawaii’s false missile alert, provided us with an opportunity to study, for the first time, how several thousand people responded psychologically to the threat of an inescapable, impending tragedy,” said Jones.
“Although it is fortunate we were able to study this phenomenon without loss of life, we show that, for many users, the anxiety elicited by this false alarm lingered well beyond the assurance that the threat was not real, which may have health consequences over time for some individuals.
“Our findings also highlight how important it is for emergency management agencies to communicate with the public they serve about potential threats and mishaps in emergency communications.”