The Psychological Fallout of 9/11

The consequences linger to this day, though not in the way many people expected

Ground Zero in the days after Sept. 11, 2001

As the attacks of Sept. 11 unfolded, people instinctively reached out to one another as they generally do in a crisis, says Sam Sommers, an associate professor of psychology in the School of Arts and Sciences. But as time passed, many people resumed their day-to-day lives, he says, and the recent death of Osama bin Laden may have helped bring closure, providing a narrative in which the culprits pay for their deeds.

Sommers is a social psychologist who blogs about the science of everyday behavior for Psychology Today. His first book, Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World, will be published by Riverhead Books in December. He recently spoke with Tufts Now about the psychology of Sept. 11.

Tufts Now: Did 9/11 bring us together as a nation?

Sam Sommers: Research has made the case that having an outside threat can bring together groups of people who might otherwise experience conflict. It’s fair to suggest that after the attacks of Sept. 11, some of the traditionally entrenched divisions in our country didn’t seem so strong for awhile. Whether it’s World War II or an alien invasion in a science fiction movie, you see the effects of an outside threat uniting people who otherwise might be in conflict.

Psychologists often talk about our need for social support. We’re social beings, and some would argue we have a need for social bonding the way we have a need to eat and breathe. Research suggests that when we’re threatened and fearful, that need can be particularly acute.

Do people long for that sense of camaraderie that arose after Sept. 11?

I can see that people might be nostalgic for that sense of unity. At the same time, it’s important to step back and take an objective look and make sure we’re not viewing that time with rose-colored glasses. I’m sure many Muslim Americans didn’t feel that cohesiveness—there were reports of people being assaulted because of the perception they were foreigners.

“This anniversary will feel different because of the death of Osama bin Laden,” says Sam Sommers. Photo: Melody Ko“This anniversary will feel different because of the death of Osama bin Laden,” says Sam Sommers. Photo: Melody Ko

How have we made sense psychologically of the events of 9/11?

A lot of people have the belief that the world is a just place, and that’s one of the many things that makes 9/11 challenging. Those who died were innocent people—how do we make sense of that? The world starts to seem like an arbitrary place, and that’s threatening to all of us.

You hear people blaming victims in a variety of situations: “It’s sad that person suffered in a storm, but he should have heeded the evacuation warning.” Or,  “Unlike her, I wouldn’t have been out walking in a park alone so late at night.” Even when we should know better, being able to blame people makes a negative event less threatening—like this wouldn’t have happened to me.

But here’s an event where there’s no way to rationalize and say the victims did something they shouldn’t have. It’s not only sad, but also threatening to us as a reminder of the randomness of our existence.

Some people thought their lives would never be the same after 9/11—did that really happen?

There are ways in which life is different—think of air travel. But in fact, if we step back, we’d have to say much of life as we know it looks like it did 10 years ago. A lot of peoples’ lives are in a familiar routine, even if they thought they would never be the same.

There is interesting research on affective forecasting, which is about predicting your mood. The idea is that we’re really not that good at predicting how we’re going to feel about something after it’s happened. We put blinders on, we lose sight of all the other things that will be happening, and we tend to exaggerate how much of an impact one particular event will have. I’m not suggesting that people who lost loved ones don’t think about it regularly—of course it has an impact on their daily functioning. Overall, though, it’s not unreasonable to expect that most of us have returned to some sort of baseline normalcy.

What impact does the death of Osama bin Laden have on the anniversary?

This anniversary will feel different because of it. I think bin Laden’s death, for a lot people, puts an end to the story in a narrative fashion: the bad guy was brought to justice, and on some level that makes it seem like a chapter in the past, as opposed to the ongoing saga of not capturing the person who did this.

Does his death provide a sense of closure?

For those of us who feel connected to the attacks but didn’t lose someone directly, I think his killing provided a sense of closure. But I’ve seen a lot of interviews with family members who said they were glad they got bin Laden, but they still wake up without their loved ones. We saw images on TV of people celebrating when he was killed, but my guess is that most of them were not family members.

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