Feature

To learn as much as possible about the causes and consequences of terrorist attacks, psychologists across the country have taken advantage of rapid-response opportunities that allow scientists to launch research projects soon after such unanticipated events as terrorism.

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), for instance, has a Rapid Assessment Post Impact of Disaster (RAPID) grants program. The National Science Foundation (NSF) has a similar resource called the Small Grants for Exploratory Research (SGER) program that funds research on disasters and other topics. Targeting small-scale, exploratory research, these ongoing programs promise extra-fast turnaround in processing proposals so that researchers can learn as much as possible about a particular event by being on the scene as soon as possible.

"Thanks to NSF and other government agencies, psychologists were able to do more than swoop in and make sure everyone was OK," says Heather O'Beirne Kelly, PhD, senior legislative and federal affairs officer in APA's Public Policy Office. "They were able to go in and look at things in a methodical, scientific way."

Now those grants are starting to pay off. Here's some of what several psychologists have found so far.

DIFFERENT RESPONSES

Thanks to a SGER, for example, Heidi A. Wayment, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, has learned much about how people respond to collective loss.

Using a questionnaire administered soon after the attacks, Wayment discovered that the 314 college students and staff members in her sample at the university were quite distressed--even though they lived thousands of miles from the World Trade Center.

Individual differences affected how people responded, however. People who reported feeling similar to the victims and empathic toward the survivors were more likely to suffer from grief and "survivor reactions" such as guilt and anxiety about the future. People who were more insecure to start with were more likely to suffer from depression.

Wayment also looked at how these emotions affected people's behavior. She discovered that people with the strongest survivor reaction were the most likely to respond by valuing their family and friends more, getting involved in their community and expressing a positive form of patriotism.

"As distressing as these feelings are, there can be positive consequences," notes Wayment.

RACIAL ATTITUDES

SGER recipient Stephanie A. Goodwin, PhD, and collaborator Thierry Devos, PhD, have focused on shifts in American identity.

Inspired by media reports that Americans were joining together in the tragedy's wake, the researchers set out to measure the relative inclusion and exclusion of different races within the larger group "American." When asked directly, college students in Indiana and New York City included both whites and African Americans but excluded Arab Americans.

A computerized test of implicit associations revealed a slightly different pattern. Although participants automatically associated whites with "American," they excluded African Americans somewhat and Arab Americans strongly. In other words, what people said didn't necessarily match their more basic associations.

That contrast between what people say and think could have real-world ramifications, says Goodwin, noting that initial analyses of her data suggest a relationship between excluding Arab Americans and wanting to limit their civil rights.

"Assuming those relationships generalize to the larger population, those beliefs could influence public support for limitation of civil rights," says Goodwin, an assistant professor in the departments of psychological sciences and women's studies at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. "And that could shape our future."

PTSD AMONG CLINICIANS

Some researchers are still in the early stages of their projects. RAPID-grant recipient Rose T. Zimering, PhD, and collaborator Suzy Gulliver, PhD, for example, just finished the clinical interviews that form the basis of their study of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in clinicians and firefighter peer counselors.

Zimering is already confident that the results will fill a major gap in the literature by providing a good estimate of how common PTSD is among clinicians and what factors might enhance their resilience.

"An important aspect of this study is its use of standardized clinical interviews," adds Zimering, assistant chief of the psychology service at the Boston Veterans Administration Healthcare System and an associate professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine. "Prior research in secondary traumatization has typically relied on self-reported data."

OTHER RECIPIENTS

A wide spectrum of research received funding. Although Zimering was the only psychologist to receive a new RAPID grant from NIMH, several psychologists received supplemental funding for ongoing projects through the program:

  • Edna B. Foa, PhD, of the University of Pennsylvania is studying various treatments for PTSD symptoms in patients with chronic PTSD.

  • Joseph LeDoux, PhD, of New York University is conducting imaging studies of neurological changes following the World Trade Center attacks.

  • Joann Difede, PhD, of New York Presbyterian Hospital is studying an intervention to prevent chronic PTSD in burn patients.

In addition to Wayment and Goodwin, the following psychologists received SGERs from NSF's social psychology branch:

  • Len Lecci, PhD, and Dale Cohen, PhD, of the University of North Carolina in Wilmington are studying how people process information about risks when it comes to anthrax and other health-related threats.

  • George Bonanno, PhD, is studying the role "self-enhancement" plays in post-terrorism resilience.

  • Lisa Feldman Barrett, PhD, of Boston College is investigating the role of positive emotions in resilience.

  • Roxane Cohen Silver, PhD, of the University of California at Irvine is studying how people cope with community-wide traumas, such as the Columbine High School shootings and the terrorist attacks. Silver and Daniel M. McIntosh, PhD, of the University of Denver also are studying early coping responses as a way of predicting who will develop PTSD.

For Silver, receiving the SGER grants has been extremely valuable.

"When you ask people shortly after a trauma and then a year later how they responded, their answers are very different," says Silver, a professor in the department of psychology and social behavior. "The only way you can identify early responses is to go in very early. That's why rapid funding is absolutely critical."

Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C