Anger and sadness frame how we respond to a terrorist attack

A study published in the latest issue of Political Psychology surveyed a national sample of Americans to examine if their feelings surrounding September 11th affected their thoughts. The author found that when asked to focus on anger, participants reflected on the causes of the attack (terrorists). When asked to think about what made them most sad, participants thought less about causes; the authors suggest this may be because participants were more focused on the consequences (victims).

The survey asked the participants what makes them most angry/sad about the attacks and instructed them to describe this in detail and explain why. Participants were encouraged to write descriptions that could make a reader feel the same emotion. Both emotions elicited thoughtful responses of roughly the same length. The results show that anger evoked casual judgments more frequently than sadness. A focus on anger may lead to a desire for actions against the offenders while a focus on loss or sadness may prompt actions targeting victims, such as healing.

The findings suggest that different emotions direct our attention to certain aspects of terrorism, possibly driving our reactions. The author explains, "Blaming individuals or governments might drive preferences for retaliatory responses, whereas blaming situational factors might drive preferences toward less hostile approaches."


This study is published in the April issue of Political Psychology. Media wishing to receive a PDF of this article please contact [email protected]

Political Psychology, the journal of the International Society of Political Psychology, is dedicated to the analysis of the interrelationships between psychological and political processes.

Deborah A. Small is an assistant professor at The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Small's research interfaces psychology and economics, examining fundamental processes that underlie human decision making. Small primarily focuses on two areas of inquiry: sympathy biases, and the role of specific emotions in judgment and choice. Dr. Small is available for media questions and interviews.

Blackwell Publishing is the world's leading society publisher, partnering with 665 academic and professional societies. Blackwell publishes over 800 journals and, to date, has published more than 6,000 books, across a wide range of academic, medical, and professional subjects.

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Apr 2016
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