The Good and Bad of Existential Threat: Applying to the Context of Online Social Support For Mental Health

Cornell Social Media Lab
Mar 19 · 5 min read

Written by Carmen Chan

Most of us have used social media one way or another to form different kinds of relationships. And one special kind is those formed in online social support communities. On those sites, users tend to share difficult, and sometimes, traumatic experiences. A host of research has found that online friends can be an important source of social support, which may help manage stress and improve well-being. But we do not know enough about what factors are influencing people’s decisions when they encounter posts soliciting help. And one interesting case is the influence of existential threats.

Existential threats are threats to survival. Most of the time, these threats are perceptual, rather than actual. In life, many things can generate existential anxiety — knowingly and unknowingly. For example, people can feel threatened existentially when they walk past a cemetery, read news about natural disasters, or visit military and war museums. These threats are ubiquitous and unavoidable. For that reason, it is important to understand the extent of their influence, as they shape our cognition and behaviors, both positively and negatively.

To date, terror management theory¹ is the most theoretically elaborate and prominent attempt in studying the impacts of existential threats. From the perspective of terror management theory, people could mitigate existential fears by creating a sense of symbolic immortality, such as through adhering more strongly to their culture and identities or displaying meaningful and valuable behaviors. Studies in this area have found that existential threats can trigger both good and bad actions. After being primed to think about their own death, people showed increased intentions to help the disabled², donate blood³, and support fundraisers for disaster recovery⁴ but, on the negative side, also increased tendency to derogate⁵ and discriminate outgroup members⁶.

The double-sided nature of existential threat makes it unclear under what conditions it could serve as a force for good mobilizing people to prosocial behaviors, e.g., to offer mental health support in online support communities. Wondering about the (un)intended consequences of existential anxiety, I conducted two studies based on terror management theory to elucidate when and how existential threat might act as a negative or positive influence on social behaviors. The first study focused on the ‘bad side’ of existential threat by examining whether it amplified stigma and, consequently, reduced willingness to help members of marginalized communities (in this case, individuals with mental health issues). The second study, on the other hand, focused on its ‘good side’ by looking at whether existential threat could serve as a lever to motivate people to offer online social support when they encounter posts expressing distress.

To activate existential threat, both studies began by asking participants to reflect deeply about their own death, something that most people find jarring, but this kind of death thought activation is commonplace in our daily lives (e.g., through news stories, health campaigns, TV shows). Then, participants in the first study read a story about a person experiencing depression and were asked to evaluate the extent to which they thought the character was responsible for the dysfunctions in his/her daily activities. In the second study, participants were asked to rate their likelihood to provide support to users on a social support forum (by liking the post, commenting under the post, and messaging the users) after viewing mock-up social media screenshots with disclosures related to mental health struggles.

So did the existential threat reduce or, in contrast, increase social support tendencies towards somebody displaying mental health struggles online? The results are encouraging in that we did not see more stigma and negative discrimination as a result of existential threat activation in study 1. In contrast, the results from study 2 suggest that existential threat activation can encourage people to offer social support to others online. Importantly, this only holds true when along with existential threat, people are reminded of the importance of helping others, i.e., when there is a salient prosocial norm. This could be a key to understanding the paradox of existential threat effects: while existential threat could trigger both good and bad actions, its prosocial side appears to be activated and reinforced by communal social norms that impart a sense of social responsibility to online users.

Despite the limitations and a preliminary nature of these findings, the results provide insights into managing existential threat effects in ways that could lead to an increase in online social support. However, we note that the studies have limitations, in that they capture behavioral intentions, and these effects need to be replicated with actual behaviors on social media platforms. While these effects were examined in the context of mental health online support, these results may have implications for understanding people’s behaviors more broadly in other situations when people encounter an existential threat through a natural or man-made calamity, whether it’s climate change or the coronavirus spread as the world is facing today. Given existential threat can be naturally encountered in many ways in the world, it would be fruitful for future research to explore its effects in various contexts , as well as potential mediating factors, such as societal culture (individualism vs. collectivism) and personal relevance (whether the risk is equally shared), in order to guide us to think more critically about how existential threats affect our intentions and reactions in real-world situations.

[1] Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T., & Solomon, S. (1986). The causes and consequences of a need for self-esteem: A terror management theory. In R. F. Baumeister (Ed.), Public self and private self (pp. 189–212). New York, NY: Springer-Verlag.

[2] Gailliot, M. T., Stillman, T. F., Schmeichel, B. J., Maner, J. K., & Plant, E. A. (2008). Mortality salience increases adherence to salient norms and values. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34(7), 993–1003.

[3] Blackie, L. E., & Cozzolino, P. J. (2011). Of blood and death: A test of dual-existential systems in the context of prosocial intentions. Psychological science, 22(8), 998–1000.

[4]Cai, F., & Wyer Jr, R. S. (2015). The impact of mortality salience on the relative effectiveness of donation appeals. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 25(1), 101–112.

[5]Greenberg, J., Landau, M. J., Kosloff, S., Soenke, M., & Solomon, S. (2016). How our means for feeling transcendent of death foster prejudice, stereotyping, and intergroup conflict: Terror management theory. Handbook of prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination, 107–148.

[6] Leippe, M. R., Bergold, A. N., & Eisenstadt, D. (2017). Prejudice and terror management at trial: Effects of defendant race/ethnicity and mortality salience on mock-jurors’ verdict judgments. The Journal of social psychology, 157(3), 279–294.

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Cornell Social Media Lab

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The members of the Social Media Lab at Cornell University study the way people live, behave, think, share, and love online.

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