Presidential Column

Sense-Making Before and After September 11

John Darley

Very little seems to have changed in the little college town in which I live. The weather has turned cool, and the maples are turning red along the street that I travel to work. Tiny girls and tiny boys bicycle to elementary school, lost under their safety helmets, watched from a tactful distance at street crossings by their mothers and fathers. Farther down the street the buildings of the college appear, surrounded with the flurry of construction activity that never seems to quite get finished by beginning of term.

Ordinary times. This is what my world is telling me, and I suspect it is what the regularities of your world is telling you also. But in fact a great deal has changed in all of our worlds since the morning of September 11th, and it seems worthwhile to try to say what some of these changes are. To do so, I will draw on the concept of sense-making, a concept used by our organizational psychologists to understand the actions of individuals in organizations as they confront the unexpected in their worlds.

At all times, people are seeking to make sense of the meanings of changes in their social or physical environment. Ordinarily this is such a non-problematic task that it can be done in the background of one’s mind, requiring only minor adjustments to one’s action patterns. The environment goes on, unchanged in other than these minor ways, and we automatically make adjustments for these changes. Metaphorically, we drive down familiar streets, making adjustments for slight changes in the driving environment, thinking of other things.

But occasionally an event occurs that challenges our perceptions that the world is understandable on the usual routine terms. Borrowing a phrase that now seems woefully inadequate from work that Bibb Latane and I did some years ago, an “ambiguous event” happens. We don’t know what the event means, but we recognize the event can have many possible meanings. Further, at least some ways of reading the event can mean danger for us. It is, in an older vocabulary, “an alarm bell in the night,” signaling possible danger. That is, some of the potential meanings of the event, if true, can require us to take rapid coping action, but we don’t know which coping actions to take until we figure out the meaning of the event – and we better do that quickly.

When this occurs, we have three sources of information that help us read the meaning of the event. First we have the “objective evidence” that apparently emanates from the event and flows in through our own perceptual-interpretative processes. The smell of smoke of what then must be a fire, or the house-jarring crashes of what then must be a thunderstorm. Second, and an underestimated source of sense-making, our interpretations of the reactions of other people to the event may help us understand the event. Do others stand and watch the event? Then perhaps it is safe for us to stand and watch also. Do they flee? Then they may know something that we don’t, and we had better flee as well. Third, we have available a list of possible interpretations that we have generated from our own past experiences and the often media-provided stories of possible events in the world around us.

How does sense-making illuminate the events of September 11th? One question that seemed to be terribly puzzling to reporters and commentators was why, when the first tower was hit, those in the other tower did not immediately evacuate their tower and save their lives. I can only make sense of their puzzlement if I realize that those who asked that question were thinking back over the series of events with the cold clarity provided by which Baruch Fischoff has taught us to think of as the wisdom of hindsight. Let us apply sense-making to the actions of those who stayed, before the series of events unfolded and see how, based on what they knew and what they could conceive of, their reactions were reasonable.

The first tower showed smoke billowing out from a few of the higher floors. That could be observed. Those in the other tower became aware of this, perhaps became aware that the first tower had been “crashed into” by an airplane. What could this mean for what they should do? Before that could be answered, they needed to know what the event meant. How I should react to a potentially dangerous situation requires the analysis of the sources of the danger and how they impinge on me in my current location. Should I run or stay?

What did they have available to them on their interpretative list of possibilities? The construal of the situation as an accident was possible; planes had crashed into towers before (and towers had withstood this). A fire on a floor or two was also possible. What was not on the list, and thus was not a possible interpretation, at least for most of the people, was that this was an attack of a sort that Americans had not seen before, in which an fuel-laden plane, full of innocent travelers, had been commandeered by persons who were willing to take their own lives as well as those of their passengers, to ram this flying bomb into a target full of innocent people, who worked in towers chosen as targets only for their symbolic value. This was, for the twenty minutes before the second tower was struck, inconceivable.

Given the accident reading of the incident, it then made sense to stay put rather than exit the unhurt tower. An accident to one tower did not put the other at risk, and perhaps it was better not to clutter up the ground areas shared between the towers, because rescue workers would be staging fire fighting equipment in those areas? For at least some of those who stayed, the “safe to stay” interpretation was strengthened by message from loudspeakers on several floors, explicitly telling people that it was safe to stay. Some who had begun to exit, actually returned to their home floors.

So, many stayed not because they were certain that it was the right thing to do, but because they were not contemplating what proved to be the true explanation, which would have suggested that they were in danger. And this behavior seemed to be supported by what they could see of the actions of others. The others also stayed, didn’t exit. In these situations, we have found that people often display Dale Miller’s concept of “pluralistic ignorance;” they know that they are not sure of the meaning of the incident, but they tend to assume that other people, perhaps because they have extra information, or a clearer vantage point to see what was happening in the other tower, know that it is safe to stay put, since that is what they are doing. In general it is wise to learn about the meaning of events from the actions of others toward those events – children learn to do this in order to navigate the confusing world of adults and we approvingly call it socialization. But in this case, a generally sensible practice led many to stay in what proved to be a horribly dangerous situation.

But some did start to leave the second tower before it was struck Why? Many possible reasons. One woman, who had lived in California, had available to her a story that, even though it was not the right story, gave her an interpretation that made exiting sensible. She thought it was an earthquake. Others, who had similar interpretations or for whom feelings of fear and panic were too great, fled. Seeing this, others around those persons were led to flee also, although perhaps they were part of the set of people who, once assurances of safety were broadcast, actually climbed back up the stairs to their home floors.

Then the second building was struck, and the ambiguity about the meaning of what was happening began to dissipate. Those of us who were observing this on television, if we can cast our minds back to the few moments after the second tower was struck, can recover the process that also went on for those in the second tower: a slowly dawning realization that this was a planned event. In fact, it is likely that we watching on television had a better vantage point to see what happened than the persons in the tower did and we also had access to the comments of the reporters as they came to the realization that this was a deliberately planned event.

Since then, all Americans have come to the realization that yes, even in America, those events can happen. No reader needs to be told about the pained cognitive reorganizations that we need to make to accommodate this, nor the resulting loss of security that the reorganizations entail. Deliberate terrorism is now not only just on our interpretative list – it is at the top of the list. And when we hear a police car siren, planes overhead, or a thunderstorm in the night, or see smoke on a distant horizon, this is the interpretation that will immediately spring to mind.

The mental effects will spread farther: the loom of skyscrapers will provoke fear, and our exquisitely tuned reasoning abilities will take the fear farther. One of my daughters reports she is hesitant to place herself in situations in which crowds gather and from which egress would be time-consuming. A friend reports that a sudden traffic jam of cars on a bridge was unsettling. All of those generalizations of places to fear seem right to me and I too find myself avoiding those places. But of course we will be driven to return to those places. Sadly, this causes me to fear some future disasters. Panic-stricken mobs will jam the exits when some ambiguous incident occurs in the future in some enclosed space like a theater or a stadium, a high-rise building or a bridge.

Are there ways that we can look forward and anticipate where our thinking will take us? By doing this, could we avoid some of the negative consequences that will otherwise occur? We might begin by examining the experiences of the people in England, who have been under threat of bombings from those seeking to have Britain exit Northern Ireland. The parallel isn’t exact; the incidents the English fear have been smaller and more localized, but again and again, the bombers have targeted places crowded with people, from which exit is difficult. This is where we might turn to learn what our lives will be like, and what will inhabit our fears, after September 11, 2001.

Observer Vol.14, No.9 November, 2001

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