BUFFALO, N.Y. -- A new study by psychologists at the University
at Buffalo and the F. W. Olin College of Engineering finds that in
the aftermath of national trauma, the ability to make sense out of
what happened has implications for individual well-being and that
the kinds of stories people tell about the incident predict very
different psychological outcomes for them.
The study, "The Political is Personal: Narrating 9/11 and
Psychological Well-Being," is by Jonathan M. Adler, Ph.D.,
assistant professor of psychology at Olin, and Michael J. Poulin,
Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at UB.
"Understanding the stories people tell about national events
provides a unique opportunity to understand how individual
well-being is linked to the state of the society," Poulin
The study is published in the August issue of Journal of
Personality. An online version of the study can be found online
at the journal site: http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/cgi-bin/fulltext/122387789/HTMLSTART
"Our findings suggest that different ways of writing about the
events of 9/11 relate to different psychological outcomes," Poulin
says, and that the different ways people describe traumatic
national events -- even those they do not experience
directly -- are linked to different levels of psychological
"To sum up," he says, "we found that psychological well-being
was associated with post-trauma stories that were high in closure,
high in redemptive imagery and high in themes of national
redemption. Psychological distress, on the other hand, was
significantly related to accounts that were low in closure, high in
contaminative imagery and high in themes of personal
The researchers looked at personal accounts about experiences of
the terrorist attacks of 9/11 written by 395 adults from across the
country, some of whom were more intimately connected to the events
in question than were others. They then compared the narratives
with various measures of their psychological well-being.
"Accounts high in 'closure' are those that demonstrate an
emotional conclusion or a coherent resolution of a difficult life
event," Poulin says, "and perhaps not surprisingly, participants
who described the terrorist attacks with a sense that they were
really over and no longer exerted an emotional influence had low
levels of distress and high levels of well-being.
"However, we also found that a high level of psychological
well-being was significantly related to accounts that were high in
references to national redemption and, among those more directly
exposed to the attacks, high in redemptive imagery in general," he
He describes "redemptive accounts" as those that tell a story of
something positive coming out of something negative. Adler notes
that the theme of redemption has been characterized as a
particularly American theme, observed in national rhetoric
throughout history and in the personal stories of many well-known
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Adler and Poulin found that
psychological distress was significantly related to accounts low in
closure and high in contamination imagery or themes of personal
"Contamination," Poulin says, "is reflected in stories in which
what was 'good' or 'acceptable' becomes contaminated, ruined,
undermined, undone or spoiled. It is basically the opposite of
redemption and may therefore be somewhat opposed to the themes of
traditional American stories."
The study, funded by the National Science Foundation, is
grounded in the theoretical tradition of the narrative study of
lives. It involved a nationally representative sample of adults who
wrote accounts about the 9/11 terrorist attacks approximately two
months after they occurred.
The study participants were among more than 1,000 respondents
who earlier had completed a two-month post-9/11 survey that
included a number of open-ended questions related to their 9/11
experiences: their individual experiences on Sept. 11, 2001, how
they made sense of the attacks and their aftermath, and whether
they had been able to find positive consequences.
Those selected for the study were respondents who had
contributed enough descriptive material to be coded for narrative
themes of closure redemption and contamination.
The participants also completed a demographic survey, a
mental-health questionnaire and answered questions about whether
they had ever experienced any of 30 negative life events such as
natural disaster or child abuse. They were assessed for their
degree of exposure to the events of 9/11, and their levels of
psychological well-being and distress were analyzed using
well-known psychological scales.
The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public
university, a flagship institution in the State University of New
York system and its largest and most comprehensive campus. UB's
more than 28,000 students pursue their academic interests through
more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree
programs. Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo is a member of
the Association of American Universities.