We're Only Human

Anger trumped terror on 9/11

If a terrorist attack provokes mostly anger instead of fear, does that mean it has failed?

It’s an intriguing question in light of a new study, which tracked Americans’ negative emotions throughout the day of September 11, 2001. The timeline begins at 6:45 a.m., two hours before the attacks on the World Trade Center, and continues until 12:44 a.m. the following day–covering 20 hours in all. It shows that emotions like hate and wrath were present immediately after the first attack–and increased steadily and strongly the more people learned about the nature of the attacks.

These findings come from three psychological scientists at the Johannes Guttenberg University Mainz–Mitja Back, Albrecht Kufner and Boris Egloff. These scientists analyzed the content of thousands of text messages sent on 9/11–more than 6.4 million words in all–published anonymously on the Internet by WikiLeaks last year. They divided the text messages into more than 200 time blocks and analyzed all of the emotional words in the messages. They computed the percentage of words related to three emotional categories: anger, sadness and anxiety.

The findings were clear and surprising. As reported online this week in the journal Psychological Science, the major events of the day–the crashes, the collapse of the towers, the announcements by President Bush and Mayor Giuliani, and Bush’s address to the nation–shaped the emotional responses in different ways. For example, the attacks did not trigger sadness right away, nor did any single event cause a spike in grief. There was a small and gradual increase in sad words over time–perhaps as people learned just how many victims there were.

By contrast, fear and anxiety spiked and subsided with major events of the day. The crashes into the WTC and Pentagon, the tower collapses and the revelations of terrorism–all these events were accompanied by marked increases in anxiety words. However–and this is the interesting part–fear quickly returned to normal after each of these events. The scientists speculate that the anxiety was caused by uncertainty, which lessened as more information became available.

The primary emotion of 9/11 was anger. Text messages expressed indignation and annoyance and outright hatred immediately after the first crash–and it grew strongly and steadily all day long. Both of Bush’s speeches (at 1:04 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.) led to brief interludes in the stream of anger, as citizens acted out their anger through the president; but unlike anxiety, anger never returned to pre-attack levels. Instead, it accumulated all day–reaching a level 10 times what it was in the early morning before the attacks.

This emotional dynamic has important implications for understanding the consequences of 9/11, both for individual citizens and for American society, the scientists say. On the one hand, anger is an expected reaction to being attacked, and indeed is helpful in regaining some sense of personal and social control. On the other hand, however, anger also triggers moral outrage and a desire for vengeance. The scientists conclude: “This might help to explain individual acts of discrimination following the attacks, as well as societal responses such as political intolerance and confrontational policy.”

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