Facts So Romantic

This Is Why Americans Are Irrationally Anxious About Terrorism

Photograph by Kim Carpenter/Wikicommons

On September 11, 2001 I was living and teaching in Providence, Rhode Island, a town that is on the short flight path between Boston, where terrorists boarded two passenger airliners, and New York, where these planes were flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Center. In the following days, the whole campus seemed convulsed with grief; professors broke down weeping at their podiums and students huddled together, consoling one another. I remember these days as some of the most intensely emotional ones of my life.

Almost a decade and a half has passed since then, and the rawness of that emotion has subsided. Most students now entering college or university have no conscious recollection of that day. To them, 9/11 is a pivotal date in history books—and to most of their parents, a far-off memory. But although time has blunted the shock and grief felt by many, American anxiety over terrorism remains pitched. From 2002 to 2015, the proportion of Americans worried that they or someone in their family would become a victim of terrorism increased from 35 to 49 percent—despite the fact that since 9/11, Americans were less likely to have been killed by a terrorist than by furniture falling on them. Why hasn’t anxiety about terrorism faded when, in so many other ways, we’ve recovered from the emotional trauma of 9/11?

No doubt a number of factors—from geopolitics to media coverage—fuel this anxiety. An important part of the mix may be that anxiety, unlike sorrow, is an emotion that thrives even as we put some psychological space between ourselves and a terrible tragedy. We commonly assume that negative emotions gradually decay over time as the vividness of a painful experience becomes blurred. But in a recent paper, researchers from Columbia University argued that the emotions of sadness and anxiety age very differently.

The researchers collected posts on Twitter made in response to the 2012 shooting attack at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. They looked at tweets about the school shooting over a five-and-a-half-month period to see whether people used different language in connection with the event depending on how geographically close they were to Newtown, or how much time had elapsed since the tragedy. The analysis showed that the further away people were from the tragedy in either space or time, the less they used words related to sadness (loss, grieve, mourn), suggesting that feelings of sorrow waned with growing psychological distance. But words related to anxiety (crazy, fearful, scared) showed the opposite pattern, increasing in frequency as people gained distance in either time or space from the tragic events. For example, within the first week of the shootings, words expressing sadness accounted for 1.69 percent of all words used in tweets about the event; about five months later, these had dwindled to 0.62 percent. In contrast, anxiety-related words went up from 0.27 percent to 0.62 percent over the same time.

A dispassionate discussion in the media of why terrorists strike may actually stoke fear more than intimate reporting of the details of an attack.

Why does psychological distance mute sadness but incubate anxiety? The authors point out that as people feel more remote from an event, they shift from thinking of it in very concrete terms to more abstract ones, a pattern that has been shown in a number of previous studies. Concrete thoughts highlight the individual lives affected and the horrific details of the tragedy. (Images have particular power to make us feel the loss of individuals in a mass tragedy.) But when people think about the event abstractly, they’re more apt to focus on its underlying causes, which is anxiety inducing if the cause is seen as arising from an unresolved issue. 

Although earlier studies established the connection between psychological distance and more abstract modes of thought, the Columbia study was the first to show a direct link between thinking abstractly about an act of violence and feeling anxious about it. Following up on their analysis of tweets related to the shootings, the authors recruited 100 participants and asked half of them to write a few sentences about the broader causes of the Sandy Hook massacre and the other half to write about the details of the event. The participants then rated their feelings of sadness and anxiety on a scale from 0 (not at all) to 100 (strongest I have ever felt). Those who were focused on analyzing the causes of the event felt less sad and more anxious (scoring an average of about 74 for sadness and 60 for anxiety) than those who had described the details of the shootings (84 for sadness, 45 for anxiety). This suggests, counterintuitively, that a dispassionate discussion in the media of why terrorists strike may actually stoke fear more than intimate reporting of the details of an attack. (Of course, having the media point out that terrorism poses a smaller risk than furniture does may help allay their anxiety.)

As 9/11 recedes into history, the shift from concrete to abstract thinking also seems to be providing fertile ground for the practice of stereotyping people by religion or ethnicity—by definition, social stereotyping involves ignoring the particular details that make up a human being in favor of a general abstraction. According to a report from researchers at Georgetown University studying Islamophobia in the U.S., the majority of Americans held favorable views of Islam in the wake of 9/11. But from 2006 onward, the prevailing view of Islam has been negative. By some estimates, concludes the report, “discrimination against Muslims is at an all time high in the United States.”

Time, then, does not heal all wounds inflicted by terrorism. Though the U.S. has not experienced grief on the scale it felt in the autumn of 2001, many of terrorism’s most profound consequences are felt from a distance. Our anxieties are kept fresh by reminders of tragedy long past and news of ongoing violence—even when they don’t plunge us into the depths of sorrow we felt on 9/11.


Julie Sedivy has taught linguistics and psychology at Brown University and the University of Calgary. She is the co-author of Sold on Language: How Advertisers Talk to You and What This Says About You and more recently, the author of Language in Mind: An Introduction to Psycholinguistics.


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This Is Why Americans Are Irrationally Anxious About Terrorism

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