It’s been almost two years since 20-year-old Adam Lanza walked into the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and gunned down 20 children and six adults, before killing himself. It was one of the deadliest shootings in U.S. history—the worst ever in an elementary school. In the wake of this unthinkable tragedy, Americans were enveloped in a national sadness.
The murders took place on December 14th. Psychological theory and common wisdom both say that the intensity of our emotions surrounding Sandy Hook should have diminished by now. But is this true? A team of Columbia University psychological scientists, headed up by Bruce Dore and Kevin Ochsner, are questioning this belief. They are proposing an alternative idea about emotions and psychological distance—one that could have policy implications for the Newtown community and the country.
The fact is, the underlying mechanics of emotional decay are not well understood. One widely held hypothesis is that all emotions diminish at the same rate. That is, if remoteness affects emotional intensity, it should affect sadness and anger and anxiety and so forth, all at the same rate. But what if emotions are not all alike? What if time and distance make us think about tragic events differently—less concretely and more abstractly—and this mental construal affects different emotions differently?
That’s the idea that the Columbia scientists wanted to explore. They thought that over time, our thinking about Sandy Hook might shift from the grisly details to abstract questions, like: Why? In that case, they suspected, sadness might indeed diminish with time and distance, but other emotions—most notably anxiety—might not, and indeed might increase over time.
The scientists found a unique way to test this idea. They gathered Twitter postings—“tweets”—for nearly six months following the Sandy Hook tragedy. The tweets were all time-stamped, so they could analyze changes over time. They collected only tweets that mentioned either “Newtown” or “Sandy Hook”—and only tweets whose users identified their location. That’s because, according to the theory, both time and geographical distance shape our construal of events—and in turn the intensity of emotions.
They analyzed the content of the tweets in several ways. First, they looked at present-tense verbs and first-person pronouns—which were an indicator of the immediacy of events. They also analyzed emotion words in general, and sadness- and anxiety-related words in particular. Finally, they looked at any words that might indicate an interest in the horrific event’s causes. For all of these indicators, they tracked changes over six months’ time.
The findings supported their predictions. As the Sandy Hook shooting became more remote—both in time and distance—sadness words decreased. But as sadness diminished, anxiety showed the opposite pattern, increasing over time. What’s more, the jump in anxiety was associated with an increase in language suggesting a search for explanations and meaning in the tragedy.
The Twitter study was convincing, but the scientists wanted to double-check the results with a different kind of study. They recruited a group of adults, and divided them into two groups. Some were asked to write about why the Sandy Hook murders took place, while others wrote about the concrete details of the shooting. They then rated their feelings of sadness and anxiety and, finally, indicated whether or not they perceived ongoing risk for similar tragedies to occur.
As expected, and as reported in a forthcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science, focusing on abstract causes of the tragedy decreased sadness—but increased anxiety. So, while thinking about the Sandy Hook shooting evokes more sadness than anxiety in general, focusing on explanations leads to a shift in emotional tone from sadness to anxiety. Importantly, it appears that this emotional shift—especially the growing anxiety—is tied to people’s lingering worry that a similar tragedy might occur in the future.
The scientists conclude by citing a 2013 Gallup poll, which shows that a third of American parents fear for their child’s safety at school. That’s an 8 percent jump from 2012. Sadness and anxiety are very different emotions, and lead to different behaviors, so understanding their ebb and flow following a tragedy could lead to more effective interventions. It could also illuminate why citizens support legislation and policy initiatives to prevent more such tragedies in the future. Or, as in the case with Sandy Hook, why they don’t.
Follow Wray Herbert’s reporting on psychological science in The Huffington Post and on Twitter at @wrayherbert.