Words describing feelings about death: A comparison of sentiment for self and others and changes over time

Lauren R. Miller-Lewis, Trent W. Lewis, Jennifer Tieman, Deb Rawlings, Deborah Parker, Christine R. Sanderson

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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.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0242848
Number of pages25
JournalPLoS One
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 6 Jan 2021

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 Miller-Lewis et al. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

Copyright 2021 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.


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