Although nonverbal features of threats are clearly important, many of the most dangerous threats between people are conveyed using language. Whether among individuals, groups, or entire nations, early threats often involve one or more people using words to warn others. Despite the obvious importance of natural language as the delivery system of threats, very few social scientists have been able to devise simple systems to identify or calibrate language-based threats. Only recently, with the advent of computer technology and the availability of large language-based datasets, have scientists been able to start to identify and understand threatening communications and responses to them through the study of words (Cohn et al., 2001; Pennebaker and Chung, 2005, 2008; Smith, 2004, 2008; Smith et al., 2008).
This paper provides a general overview of computerized language assessment strategies relevant to the detection and assessment of word-based threats. It is important to appreciate that this work is in its infancy. Consequently, there are no agreed-on methods or theories that have defined the field. Indeed, the “field” is currently made up of a small group of laboratories generally working independently with very different backgrounds and research goals. The current review explores threats from a decidedly social-psychological perspective. As such, the emphasis is on the ways in which word use can reveal important features of a threatening message and also the psychological nature of the speaker and the target of the threatening communication.
Whereas traditional language analyses have emphasized the content of a threatening communication (i.e., what the speaker explicitly says), this review focuses on the language style of the message, especially those words that people cannot readily manipulate (for a review, see Chung and Pennebaker, 2007). This is especially helpful in the area of assessing threatening communications and actual behavior because subtle markers of language style (e.g., use of pronouns or articles) can reveal behavioral intent that the speaker may be trying to withhold from the target. Finally, this paper discusses methods that have the goal of automated analyses and largely draws on word count approaches, which are increasingly being used in the social sciences. Computerized tools are especially helpful for establishing a high standard of reliability in any given analysis and for real-time or close to real-time assessment of threatening communications, so that our analyses might one day lead to interventions as opposed to just retrospective case studies.
This paper also briefly describes common automated methods available to study language content and language style. Next, a classification scheme for different types of threats is presented that serves as the organizing principle for this review. The next section summarizes empirical research that has been conducted to assess intent and actual behaviors in