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To Better Understand Tragic Events, Look at Big Picture

To Better Understand Tragic Events, Look at Big PictureA new study suggests that the best way to make sense of horrific events such as the Sandy Hook school shooting or the Boston Marathon bombing is to take a step back and consider the big picture.

Researchers from The University of Texas at Austin found that people are more likely to find clarity by turning away from detailed reports in the news and social media and adopting a more simplified understanding of the event.

This help diffuse negative feelings, as well as the feeling of a lack of control, said Jae-Eun Namkoong, a marketing graduate student in the Red McCombs School of Business and lead author of the study.

“Certainty about what causes tragic events not only helps people feel better, but also gives them a sense of direction for action,” Namkoong said.

“People launching petitions for government actions, constituents voting for policies, or even consumers boycotting against products that malfunction are all motivated by their certainty of the causes behind negative events.”

As part of the study, researchers presented 196 participants with information about the Sandy Hook shooting, but altered their sense of time by framing the incident around different reference points.

For example, the shooting is much more recent when compared with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. But when compared to a similar incident that happened just two weeks before, the events in Sandy Hook seem much farther away, according to the researchers.

The study found that people who perceived the shooting as farther away in time were more confident in their understanding about why it happened.

“As time passes, people naturally gain more certainty about events,” said Marlone Henderson, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology and co-author of the study. “If you’re trying to give yourself a feeling of meaning, you can distance yourself from the incident with time and space.”

He noted this also applies to personal problems, “such as troubles at work, a broken appliance, or even a bad breakup.”

In another experiment, the researchers presented 202 people with a list of potential causes of the Sandy Hook shooting that were frequently mentioned in the media and public discussions.

Among these were such things as the suspect’s personality disorder, his poor social support network, weak security in elementary schools and loose gun control. They were then asked to assign a percentage value to each cause.

The researchers found that people who perceived the shooting as a distant memory were likely to attribute the event to one or two possible causes. However, the people who perceived the incident as much closer in time said a multitude of factors contributed to the incident.

The study’s results could have important implications for mental health professionals, as well as for the media, according to Henderson.

“It’s in the media’s interest to keep coming up with new reasons because these things are novel and exciting,” he said. “But reporters could actually help bring people comfort by incorporating a sense of distance in their reports.”

The study was published in Social Psychological and Personality Science.

Source: The University of Texas at Austin

Policeman at a car bombing scene photo by shutterstock.

To Better Understand Tragic Events, Look at Big Picture

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2018). To Better Understand Tragic Events, Look at Big Picture. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 3, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 25 Aug 2013)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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