Boston Strong for How Long?

A psychologist talks about why we respond positively in a crisis, and whether those feelings can last

In the immediate aftermath of the marathon bombing, Bostonians united to mourn the victims and praise the first responders and ordinary citizens who helped the injured. That pride and sense of community continues, as people donate money, bring gifts to police officers or simply talk about the events with friends and co-workers. But how long will those feeling last?

Sam Sommers, an associate professor of psychology, has written about how people think, communicate and behave in diverse situations. He is the author of Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World (Riverhead Books). He says the Boston Marathon experience offers several examples of how we react to unexpected circumstances.

Tufts Now: What is it about a disaster that engenders community?

Sam Sommers: If there’s one word to answer the question it is “threat.” We know that threat makes us circle the wagons, psychologically, and it helps us overcome some of the boundaries that stand between us on a day-to-day basis. It’s the old idea that there are few ways to boost a sense of community and patriotism like a war or a perceived threat from the outside, which tends to have us overlook some of the distinctions that otherwise govern the way we act toward each other.

Why does this happen?

It’s for practical as well as psychological reasons. On the practical side, it’s to our adaptive advantage to work together to fend off a threat or repair the damage from one. And psychologically, we seek affiliation during times of threat; we seek support and the company of others. It’s why when we were getting updates about what was happening, so many of us called a friend or went out to the front yard and talked to a neighbor.

What are other characteristics of this behavior?

There is also an uglier side to the effects of threat. Some of the bonding and affiliation we feel may come from targeting the outside group we think to be the source of the threat, whether an ethnic or religious group or a political faction. Think about the post-9/11 attacks on Arabs (or people who looked like many Americans’ stereotype of Arabs). Some of that kind of sentiment is emerging now online and elsewhere, as we are seeing derogatory things about Muslims in general.

Why has the country related more to this incident than, for example, the recent industrial accident in Texas that killed and injured more people?

It’s probably easier for people to picture themselves as victims at a public race than at a factory explosion. This is not the first time we’ve seen this kind of disparity. The Virginia Tech massacre in April 2007 was a tragedy of wide-scale proportion, yet I believe that more U.S. service people lost their lives abroad in the same month that happened. But Iraq is far away, and the violence incremental, and the tragedy at Virginia Tech happened all at once and in a place where it was unexpected. This leads to a feeling that we could all be vulnerable.

In your book, Situations Matter, you write that people may not be helpful when they are part of a crowd, yet the opposite took place at the Boston Marathon.

It is one of the more uplifting aspects of a terrible series of events: the images of people running toward the explosions and helping complete strangers. What I talk about in the book is the diffusion of responsibility that often happens in crowds. The book focuses on research that makes the point that emergencies are often ambiguous. An example is witnessing a heated argument in the parking lot outside a bar, and you don’t know if it’s private and you should mind your own business, or if you should intervene. Or you see a subway passenger sprawled out, but you don’t know if he needs medical attention or he’s drunk and no one’s helping. Both are situations where you’re looking to other people, not only to see how they’re reacting but also to determine whether assistance is even needed to begin with.

What happened at the marathon was incredibly chaotic and uncertain and scary, but it was clear people needed help after the explosions. That cuts through some of the obstacles to people helping each other.

Can we sustain this sense of community?

It’s possible, but it becomes harder. The default tendency will be to return to things as they were, to focus on our own well-being. We all differ in the extent that we do that. We can certainly maintain a sense of civic engagement and connection to fellow citizens: you can force yourself to introduce yourself to a new neighbor or the people you’re standing in line with. You can choose to not be so involved in your iPhone and operating as an independent contractor in society. Maybe some of the pride we are seeing in the city having come together and cooperated—from agreeing to be confined at home while the suspects were being sought to other acts of support and help—will be a reminder that this can be a legacy of the city.


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