Observations

Driving Under the Influence (of Stress): Regional Effects of 9/11 Attacks on Driving

A number of studies have shown that people who lived closest to the sites of the 9/11 terrorist attacks experienced heightened levels of stress and anxiety in the months following the attacks. Research has also indicated that elevated levels of stress can greatly impact day-to-day behaviors such as driving. Alexander J. Rothman and his colleagues at the University of Minnesota analyzed records obtained from the U.S. Department of Transportation to see if there was any relation between geographic location and the rate of fatal traffic accidents that occurred in the three months immediately following the attacks. Statistical analysis of the data yielded a number of interesting findings, reported in the January issue of Psychological Science. The authors found that there was an increase in the rate of traffic fatalities in the three months following the 9/11 attacks, but only in the Northeast, the region closest to the attacks. A follow-up analysis showed that there was a significant increase in the rate of traffic fatalities in the months following September 11 in the state of New York. The findings suggest that being close to the location of a traumatic event may increase psychological stress, which may, in turn, impair one’s driving ability and thus lead to an increase in fatal accidents. The authors note that in this study, they “demonstrated the importance of considering various potential causes of behavioral changes after terrorist events occur.” They conclude that “in general, thinking more theoretically about factors that shape people’s responses to stressful events should help researchers anticipate behavioral reactions to terrorism.”

Marching to the Beat of the Same Drum Improves Teamwork

Armies train by marching in step. Religions around the world incorporate many forms of singing and chanting into their rituals. Citizens sing the National Anthem before sporting events. Why do we participate in these various synchronized activities? A new study in Psychological Science suggests that when people engage in synchronous activity together, they become more likely to cooperate with other group members. The results of the study, conducted by Stanford University psychologists Scott S. Wiltermuth and Chip Heath, showed that synchrony fosters cooperation. Even when all of the volunteers had financial incentives to cooperate, the volunteers from the synchronized groups tended to be more cooperative during the games (and ended up earning more money) than did volunteers from groups who had moved asynchronously. And even more interesting, in the last economics game, participants from the synchronized groups were more willing to contribute tokens to the public account, sacrificing their own money to help their group. In addition, volunteers from the synchronous groups reported greater feelings of being on the same team. Societies rely on cooperation among their members to thrive and be successful. These findings suggest that cultural practices involving synchrony (such as dancing, singing or marching) may enable groups to produce members who are cooperative and willing to make personal sacrifices, for the benefit of the group. The authors conclude that “synchrony rituals may have therefore endowed some cultural groups with an advantage in societal evolution, leading some groups to survive where others have failed.”

The Irony of Harmony

History abounds with examples of dramatic social change occurring when a disadvantaged group finally stands up and says “Enough!” Awareness of inequalities galvanizes members of disadvantaged groups to mobilize and attempt to bring about change. Traditional methods of improving relations between different racial and ethnic groups have focused on creating harmony between those groups. However, research has shown that positive contact not only changes attitudes, but can also make disadvantaged group members less aware of the inequality in power and resources between the groups. Is it possible that there can be too much of a good thing? Psychologist Tamar Saguy from Yale University, along with her colleagues Nicole Tausch (Cardiff University), John Dovidio (Yale University), and APS Fellow and Charter Member Felicia Pratto (University of Connecticut) identified negative effects of positive contact between groups, first in the laboratory and then in the real world. The results of their experiments suggest that positive contact with majority groups may result in disadvantaged groups being less likely to support social change; with improved attitudes towards the advantaged groups and reduced attention to social inequality, the disadvantaged groups may become less motivated to promote change. These findings have important implications, not just for global diplomacy but also in our everyday encounters. The authors note that positive contact between groups does not necessarily have to undermine efforts towards equality. Rather, they suggest that “encounters that emphasize both common connections and the problem of unjust group inequalities may promote intergroup understanding as well as recognition of the need for change.”

Observer Vol.22, No.3 March, 2009

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