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Analysis: American emotional reaction to September 11, 2001

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image On Sept. 14, 2001, Pres. G.W. Bush stood on the rubble in New York and promised to bring those responsible for the 9/11 attacks to justice. Instead, he invaded Iraq. White House photo by Eric Draper

Psychologists in Germany analyzed 570,000 pager messages sent on September 11, 2001 and published last fall on WikiLeaks. Sadness was quickly eclipsed by anger as the defining emotion, according to the report.

Americans did not respond with sadness and fear so much as anger and rage to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, according to German psychologists at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz.

The researchers suggest that the country’s collective emotional reaction to 9/11 provides insight into the causes of America’s involvement in two wars, its confrontational politics, and the rise of religious intolerance.

The psychologists analyzed 570,000 text messages sent from more than 87,000 different U.S. pagers between 3 a.m. Sept. 11, 2001, and 3 a.m. the following day. The texts were made by information technology, health care, emergency service, government, and bank personnel, and ordinary citizens. By the end of the day, the analysis shows, expressions of anger and rage were almost 10 times higher than they were before the attacks.

Using text analysis software, the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count program, the team searched for words such as sadness, crying, worry, fear, hate and other emotive words occurring in the reports. The results of the study are published in the scientific journal Psychological Science.

"We expected to find that this tragedy would have evoked a massive wave of sadness or fear. But our findings showed a continuous increase in anger and rage as time went on,” according to authors Mitja Back, Albrecht Küfner and Boris Egloff. 

"Because anger and rage evoke indignation and a desire for revenge, we are now getting an initial idea of what was going on inside the people of America in the moments after the attacks," wrote Küfner.

The pager messages were made by public and private customers of four national pager networks -- Arch Wireless, Metrocall, Skytel, and Weblink Wireless –- and were turned over to the U.S. government as part of the official investigation into the tragedy. WikiLeaks posted the pager archive online last fall.

WikiLeaks calls the message archive “a completely objective record of the defining moment of our time.”

Reference: Mitja D. Back, Albrecht C.P. Küfner, and Boris Egloff. The Emotional Timeline of September 11, 2001. Psychological Science, 2010 doi:10.1177/0956797610382124


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