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Psychological Science Call for Editor
Volume 14, Number 8
October 2001

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Reactions from Psychological Scientists

In the aftermath of the devastating attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, psychology researchers have reacted as concerned citizens, as volunteers, and in all the other ways we human beings have been reacting. Not surprisingly, they don't stop being scientists. APS received a number of emails talking about research questions relating to the behavioral aspects of the attacks, from the mind-set of the suicide attackers to the psychological impacts for survivors and families, for rescue workers, and for communities and the nation more generally. Following are some excepts. We invite your ideas about the role of psychological science in coping with the aftermath-and hopefully the prevention-of these kinds of incidents. Email your comments to apsobserver@aps.washington.dc.us.

Condolences from Turkey

Dear Colleagues in the United States,

I wanted to send you this message so as to convey to you my heartfelt feelings and the reactions of my colleagues here at the Turkish Psychological Association - Istanbul Branch. We are appalled and disgusted by the senseless acts of violence in New York City and Washington, D.C. and the intended scale of destruction they caused. We condemn these atrocious attacks - and any such acts of violence and terrorism - and would like to express our sorrow and condolences. We are confident that peace will ultimately prevail in the world.

Emre Konuk
Member, Board of Directors
Projects Coordinator
Turkish Psychological Association,
Istanbul Branch


Research by Neisser indicated that vivid memories of an event could be inaccurate. In reading this research, I always wondered if their event (the Challenger explosion) was sufficiently vivid or traumatic. I have no idea what I was doing when I heard this news, but my memories about where I was, what I was doing, and how I heard about Kennedy's assassination have remained vivid.

The horrifying events of yesterday come closer to Kennedy's assassination than has anything else since then. I hope that some researchers will investigate people's memories for it.

(Neisser, U, & Harsch, N. (1992). Phantom flashbulbs: False recollections of hearing the news about Challenger. In E.Winograd, & U. Neisser (Eds.), Affect and memory in recall: Studies of flashbulb memories (pp. 9-31). New York: Cambridge University Press.)

I was told this morning that one of my colleagues has just received IRB approval to conduct a Neisser-like "flashbulb memory" study concerning the terrorist attacks. As someone pointed out, the subjects are college students, not survivors of the attacks themselves. I would be very, very surprised if this is the only such study being launched regarding memory for the circumstances under which subjects first heard the horrific news on Tuesday.


My recall is that in times of national crisis such as war, the rate of individual mental illness actually goes down (especially the suicide rate). For example, almost all those hospital beds in England set up because people wouldn't possibly be able to deal with death and destruction coming from the air remained empty.

I don't think my message, below, is insensitive or disrespectful, but since it is a research prediction related to current tragedies, I apologize in advance to anyone who feels it is insensitive, and I send my thoughts and hopes to people struggling with the tragedies, and particularly to victims and their loved ones.

Despite the fact that most people are very distressed about the attacks, I predict a decrease in U.S. suicide rates for the two weeks following 9/11, as compared to the two weeks before 9/11. I won't be able to test this prediction for a couple of years or so, when the relevant data become available). Here are the comparable rates before and after the Challenger disaster: before the disaster - 1212 suicides; after the disaster - 1099 suicides.

The basis for this prediction is not complicated. Social support and things related to interpersonal closeness tend to buffer against suicide; at times of distress, people tend to come together, and support and closeness may go up somewhat. Probably there are many other mechanisms at work too. (U.S. suicides decrease with time from August through the Fall, so I'd predict a decrease that is more than what would be expected by this usual monthly decrease.)


I was wondering, in the midst of all that we are hearing about the needs that people have for mourning and for their PTSD, which calls upon only one part of psychology, [about] the other side of the coin: the science end of things. [The hijackers] suffered from violent, self-righteous, religion-based behavior. We need to know more about the origins of human behavior in that realm. We have to account for what happened, we have to learn more about the motivations and learning processes of the terrorists, and we have to do intensive studies of the people who behaved and survived during the critical moments after attack.

Here are some ideas for starters:

  • The perceptual acumen, motor skills, and quick decision-making capabilities needed by airport security personnel.
  • A wide range of human factors and engineering psychology know-hows that could be used inside the plane itself for minimizing the mischief hijackers might inflict and for alerting the air crew as to dangers ahead.
  • "Crowd control"-How the flight attendants might seek to settle down uneasy passengers and how to handle the possible onset of panic.

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