As we approach the ninth anniversary of 9/11, researchers writing in Psychological Science this week analyzed 85,000 text pages sent through pagers during the 2 hours before and 18 hours after 9/11 took place. (You do remember what a pager is, don’t you?) WikiLeaks, the website in the news lately for other reasons, has made the 573,000 lines consisting of 6.4 million words freely available on its website for the past year.
What would these 85,000 pages tell us about the human emotion that people were expressing during those 20 hours?
Researchers’ favorite tool when it comes to text analysis is the good ole Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC). So it’s no surprise that’s what these researchers also turned to to analyze the word content of these communications for three specific emotions — sadness, anxiety and anger. The researchers “computed the percentage of words related to (a) sadness (e.g., crying, grief), (b) anxiety (e.g., worried, fearful), and (c) anger.”
What did they find?
(Click on the graphic above for a larger, more readable version.)
For sadness, the researchers didn’t find much of significance. I suspect this was largely because the shock of the attacks was still with most of us, and the extent of the human toll was not known that first day.
For anxiety, the researchers found that anxiety spiked after each big event — “the crash of the hijacked planes into the WTC and the Pentagon, the collapse of the WTC towers, and information concerning the terroristic nature of the attacks were all mirrored by a marked increase in anxiety-related words.”
And finally for anger? “Anger was present as soon as the first airplane crashed into the WTC, and it continued. The expression of anger steadily and strongly increased with ongoing information regarding the terrorist attacks.”
The researchers found that, perhaps contrary to what some might expect, the initial overall reaction from people wasn’t that of sadness, but instead some anxiety that spiked around specific incidents. They also found a significant increasing sense of anger at the senselessness of the attacks as the day progressed and more information became known.
This leads us to the question, “Why study such population-wide emotional reactions? What can we learn from such data?”
This uncovering of the emotional experiences of thousands of people on a minute-by-minute basis might be useful for evaluating and refining theories of emotion generation and coping in general, as well as sense making following disaster.
Further, this dynamic pattern of immediate negative emotions in response to the terrorist attacks has important implications for understanding the individual and societal consequences of September 11: On the one hand, anger might have been helpful for regaining a sense of control over the tide of events on an individual and collective level.
On the other hand, anger is known to predict moral outrage and a desire for vengeance, which — once aroused — seem to require an outlet. This might help to explain individual acts of discrimination following the attacks, as well as societal responses such as political intolerance and confrontational policy.
Interesting ideas. And an interesting analysis of the pulse of the nation during 9/11. I can imagine how this can be done so much more easily now with the prevalence and use of Facebook and Twitter. But I’m less convinced of the applicability of these data to any psychological theories. We already have a pretty good understanding of human emotions and coping with a disaster. Perhaps the data may shed light on these issues, but nothing in the current data don’t seem to do much of that.
Back MD, Küfner AC, & Egloff B (2010). The Emotional Timeline of September 11, 2001. Psychological science : a journal of the American Psychological Society / APS PMID: 20805373