How 9/11 changed us: First-ever quantitative research documents the before and after effect

May 05, 2003

ST. LOUIS -- If a goal of terrorism is to make victims feel less in control of their own destinies, the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 succeeded, according to new research from Saint Louis University. The unusual study, published in this month's Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences, is the first to compare people's attitudes before and after the attacks.

"Most people raised within the Judeo-Christian tradition believe that life is at least relatively fair," said Fredric Wolinsky, Ph.D., professor at Saint Louis University School of Public Health and the lead investigator on the study. "They believe that if you work hard, you can succeed. The attacks of Sept. 11 changed that for many people.

"In a sense this demonstrates that the attacks were successful. They changed deep-seated psychological assumptions."

Wolinsky said it usually is impossible to study the effects of a traumatic event like 9/11, because researchers can't collect baseline data about how participants felt ahead of time.

"You have to know ahead of time when an attack will occur," he said. "Only the attackers know that, and they're not going to do a study."

Wolinsky's research was made possible only by coincidence.

His team already had begun an investigation of how patients with illnesses such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, congestive heart failure and asthma felt about their lives. Participants were asked questions about their mental health, levels of personal stress and feelings of control over their lives.

"We saw an opportunity to gauge how this event changed people's feelings about their lives," he said.

While feelings of personal stress and mental well-being did not change, participants were much more likely to report they disagreed with statements such as "I am responsible for my own successes," and, "my misfortunes are the result of mistakes I have made," than they were prior to Sept. 11. The findings are even more striking given that most subjects were 50 or older, an age at which people's fundamental attitudes about the world tend typically do not change, Wolinsky said.

"Somebody's sense of control is usually fixed by their early thirties. As people get older, an isolated event doesn't rattle them much. This is an exception."
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Saint Louis University is a Jesuit, Catholic university ranked among the top research institutions in the nation. The University fosters the intellectual and character development of 11,000 students on campuses in St. Louis and Madrid, Spain. Founded in 1818, it is the oldest university west of the Mississippi and the second oldest Jesuit university in the United States. Through teaching, research, health care and community service, Saint Louis University is the place where knowledge touches lives. Learn more about SLU at http://www.slu.edu.

Researchers from the St. Louis VAMC, the Indiana University School of Medicine and the Regenstrief Institute for Health Care also participated in the study.

Editor's note: For more information about this research, or to arrange an interview with Fredric Wolinsky, contact media relations specialist Matt Shaw at 314-977-8018.

Saint Louis University

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