Feature

Psychologists with federal funding weren't the only ones to launch research projects in the wake of Sept. 11.

For example, research presented at a June 18 congressional briefing, "Reactions to terrorism: attitudes and anxieties," by psychologist Michael Traugott, PhD, of the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research (ISR), finds that the public's fears over safety persisted long after the attacks.

In March, Traugott found that 11 percent of the 613 Americans he surveyed reported being "more shaken" than they were last fall, and 37 percent "still shaken." Women were nearly twice as likely than men to report uneasiness.

Sixty-nine percent of participants reported feeling more concerned about their safety when taking an airplane, 37 percent when attending a sporting event, and 22 percent when going to a shopping mall, according to the study.

"The impact of the attacks on 9/11 has been relatively severe and durable," said Traugott, a senior research scientist at ISR. His longitudinal study has included two waves of data collection so far, Sept. 17 through Oct. 17 and March 11 through April 16.

Also at the briefing, Len Lecci, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at University of North Carolina-Wilmington, presented preliminary findings from his research on "Anthrax fears: determinants of perceived health risks." His study shows that those with high hypochondriacal tendencies were more likely to involuntarily focus on anthrax-related stimuli.

"Despite the low risk, there is a widespread concern of anthrax," Lecci said, citing the probability of contracting anthrax as 1 in 14 million. But since the anthrax attacks were delivered by mail, everybody felt at risk. Furthermore, the ambiguous symptoms of anthrax exposure, which are similar to symptoms of the common cold, contributed to the public's uneasiness, he said. What he found, however, was that perceived vulnerability could be decreased by asking people to focus on things within their control that could reduce the possibility of contracting anthrax.

Mansoor Moaddel, PhD, professor of sociology at Eastern Michigan University, presented findings on the impact the Sept. 11 attacks have had on the values of the Egyptian Islamic public.

"Egypt is experiencing a cultural change," said Moaddel, who has studied religion, gender and politics in Egypt, Morocco, Jordan and Iran. "This change is certainly in a direction favorable to democracy, gender equality and secularism, and away from the Islamic fundamentalism of the past decades."

However, Egyptians view Western cultural influence negatively, with 63 percent before Sept. 11 reporting this influence as an "important problem," a number that grew to 71 percent after Sept. 11.

New York v. the rest of America

Psychologists Michael Johll, PhD, and Curtis Brant, PhD, recently conducted a study of 1,142 Americans to measure participants' perceived stress, methods of coping and physical and psychological outcomes as a result of the attacks. They found that women experienced more stress, used more coping mechanisms and had better psychological outcomes than men. In addition, they found that while many Americans want retribution for the attacks, those in New York City show less vengeance.

Johll and Brant conducted the research in New York City three weeks after Sept. 11. "We put on our backpacks and headed to the streets to talk to people--businesspeople, firemen, police, priests, rabbis, anyone who would share their story," says Johll, founder of a Texas consulting firm that specializes in research and assessment. To broaden their sample size so they could compare other areas with New York, they mailed questionnaires to people around the country. "We found significant differences on almost everything," says Brant assistant professor of psychology at Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio.

Their findings include:

  • New York City residents reported the most loss and sought the most social support.

  • In terms of coping, people in New York used more active problem-solving than those in the Midwest, Southeast and Northeast.

  • New York City experienced less positive growth as a result of the attacks. This may be due to the fact that New York City was somewhat "frozen in time," the researchers say--reminders of the attacks were present all around Manhattan.

  • People in the Northeast (excluding New York City), Midwest and Southeast reported a need for more vengeance. One firefighter in New York City told Johll and Brant that he "wouldn't wish what happened on us to anyone."

  • All over the country, women had more physical symptoms of stress, yet less need for vengeance than men.

Students' reactions

In other research, Denise Beike, PhD, associate professor of psychology at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, recruited 111 students for a post-Sept. 11 study. Questionnaires administered in September, October and December revealed that students were quick to achieve closure or adapt to the event. Those who had achieved closure and coped most successfully with the tragedy were those who hadn't let terrorism alter their worldview; those who did overhaul their beliefs had lower closure rates. And closure's benefits weren't just psychological. Participants with higher rates of closure in December had had fewer sick days and doctor visits during the three-month study period.

--R. CLAY, J. DAW AND M. DITTMAN