Though the havoc of Sept. 11, 2001, has passed, the threat of new terrorist attacks is present even today for many people and leaves a lingering sense of anxiety. Exploring those aftereffects is the focus of a new APA book, "In the Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror," by Tom Pyszczynski, PhD, Jeff Greenberg, PhD, and Sheldon Solomon, PhD.
"Bin Laden is still at-large, the economy is still reeling, airport security is in question...and our own government argues that further attacks are inevitable," says Greenberg. "In addition, the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians continues to escalate, and as do talks about an attack on Iraq. So fears, frustration, anger and prejudice related to 9/11 are still with us and not likely to go away any time soon."
In the book, the three psychologists explore the terrorist attacks and the reactions of the public to this social upheaval in the context of a theory rooted in the work of the late Pulitzer Prize-winning psychologist, Ernest Becker.
Their theory, known as the Terror Management Theory, or TMT, is a combination of social psychology and existentialism. "The theory proposes that innate annihilation anxiety, combined with the human knowledge of the inevitability of death, creates an ever-present potential for terror," says Greenberg.
This subconscious "terror" leads to the cognitive construction of immortality through social connections to institutions, traditions or symbols. When people are reminded of their mortality, and the permanence of these psychological constructs comes into question, people feel threatened and become motivated to bolster their securityproviding belief system, often leading them to lash out at those perceived as responsible for the threat.
According to the book, TMT can be applied to the American public as well as the terrorists of Sept. 11. Two chapters are devoted to a TMT stylized explanation of why some from impoverished areas in the world would willingly sacrifice their lives to bring down Western powers. But Terror Management Theory has been slow to gain wide acceptance. The authors say the connections of TMT to the psychoanalytic tradition have made some psychologists reluctant to accept it. "Starting in the late 1950s and growing in the '60s and '70s, there was a strong backlash within academic psychology against Freud and the psychodynamic theorists who followed him," says Greenberg. "Researchers in psychology, and practitioners as well, began questioning the testability and validity of these ideas, and most probably still do to this day."
Greenberg argues that the work from other psychologists such as Otto Rank, Karen Horney, Harry Stack Sullivan and Ernest Becker has corrected most of Freud's mistakes and "psychodynamic theories can now be assessed with the increasingly sophisticated and innovative methodological tools now available to researchers."
Ultimately, the authors hope that their book will show the "breadth of theoretical framework, the assumptions upon which it is based and the extent and nature of the empirical research that the theory has generated," says Greenberg.
It will also give insight into the nature of psychological defenses, self-esteem and prejudice, and how these factors have molded the post-Sept. 11 world in which we now find ourselves.