What was the emotional timeline of September 11, 2001? A fascinating study of this topic was released yesterday in Psychological Science, authored by Mitja Back, Albrecht Kupfer, and Boris Egloff of Johannes Gutenberg University. The authors analyzed 6.4 million words from messages sent on 85,000 different pagers on September 11. The messages are anonymous and apparently available publicly on the internet. They sorted the messages into 5-min blocks, according to the time they were sent, and analyzed 216 time blocks. They started with messages sent at 6:45 a.m. (2 hours before the first attack) and analyzed those through the 18 hours after the attack. Using software developed by Jamie Pennebaker and his colleagues, the authors counted the percentage of words in each block related to (a) sadness (crying, grief), (b) anxiety (worried, fearful), and (c) anger (hate, annoyed). 

Here’s a graph of their results. 

There’s something quite interesting about those results. You’d expect an act of “terror” to elicit mostly feelings of anxiety and fear, yet as the day wore on, and the news sunk in, the reaction was primarily anger, and although people’s anxiety didn’t increase, their anger did. 

We don’t want to conclude that terror isn’t part of the reaction to acts of terrorism. The authors cite other research suggesting that the attacks on September 11th did certainly elicit lots of stress. But the anger reaction tells us another, and perhaps more important, part of the story. This finding is consistent with decades of research on conflict and aggression in the laboratory: When you attack someone, it reliably elicits a counterattack.

These findings also show the folly of terrorism: The most likely reaction is a desire to counterattack. In the case of those attacks, they have certainly cost more Arab than American lives over the long haul.

Of course, the same goes for our counterattacks, every time our bombs have killed civilians, it has triggered more outrage and anger, and continued to feed back into the cycle of violence. 

You don't need these new data to show that, but they are interesting in showing just how quick the reaction is; the bilateral support for Bush's decisions to start two wars in alleged response to those attacks, demonstrates that such wrath doesn't get replaced by a considered rational analysis too quickly. 

Doug Kenrick is the author of the recent book Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life: A psychologist investigates how evolution, cognition, and complexity are revolutionizing our view of human nature.  

Reference

Back, M. D., Kufner, A. C. P., & Egloff, B. (2010).  The emotional timeline of September 11, 2001.  Psychological Science.

Pennebaker J.W., Francis M.E., Booth R.J. (2001). Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC): LIWC 2001. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum

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