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A Kinder, Gentler America?

Survey suggests terrorist attacks prompted character changes in people

FRIDAY, Jan. 25, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Many Americans seem to have become kinder, more loving and more grateful since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, says a University of Michigan psychology professor.

Christopher Peterson has analyzed more than 1,000 pre- and post-Sept. 11 responses to an ongoing online questionnaire created by the Values in Action Institute. Peterson is the institute's co-director.

The 316 questions are designed to measure how people assess their own character strengths. Comparing 451 responses before Sept. 11 to 625 responses recorded from Sept. 12 to Nov. 30, Peterson found increases in the levels of six of 24 character strengths -- love, gratitude, hope, kindness, spirituality, teamwork.

Peterson says he was somewhat surprised there were any changes, given what he describes as the "innocuous nature" of the questions. But, because there were changes, he wasn't surprised by the character strengths that did show increases, he adds.

That's because the shift adheres to something called "terror management theory," he says.

"The idea behind terror management theory is that when people confront their own mortality, they experience terror and have to manage that terror. And one way to manage the terror, the fear, is by increasing your identification with culturally important values," Peterson says.

And all the character strengths that showed an increase involve relations with other people and are values central to American culture, he says.

Only one character strength -- love of learning -- declined post-Sept. 11. That may be because people felt overwhelmed by the constant media coverage, Peterson says. Surprisingly, there was no increase in the character strengths of bravery and mercy, he adds.

Peterson says another interesting aspect of the results is that women's character strengths changed less than men's in the post-Sept. 11 surveys.

"Men changed more than women, and the reason for this is that women started out higher on all these strengths than did men," Peterson says. "Maybe it takes the confrontation with our own mortality to get [men] in touch with other people and with our gentler soul."

Will the shifts identified in the survey endure, or are they just a temporary response to a national tragedy?

Peterson says it's difficult to predict. He does say the shifts are leveling off, but there are no signs of a drop in those six character strengths.

"We're still confronting the terror on a daily basis. My prediction is that things will return to pre-Sept. 11 levels if, and when, our life returns to pre- Sept. 11," Peterson says.

Richard G. Tedeschi, a trauma-response specialist at the University of North Carolina, says it's difficult to judge how valid Peterson's survey is because there's no way to gauge who the respondents are or their motives in answering the questionnaire.

"There have been many anecdotal reports about this kind of thing, so [the findings are] not surprising in that sense," he adds.

Based on his own research, Tedeschi says people directly affected by the Sept. 11 attacks -- survivors, rescue workers, people who lost loved ones -- were most likely to experience profound changes in their attitudes and views, compared to those who watched the events on TV.

First-hand experience of this kind of calamity makes people ask fundamental questions, Tedeschi says. Those questions, he adds, include: Is the world a benevolent place? Are things going to work out for me? Are people going to be there when I need them?

"When tragedies make people question those most basic assumptions, that's when they get involved in the full process of personal change and growth. So the degree to which Sept. 11 had that effect on any particular individual, I think, will determine the degree to which these changes are substantial and lasting," Tedeschi says.

What To Do

If you'd like to assess your character strengths, you can take the questionnaire by clicking here. Peterson says the survey changes pages slowly for users with phone modems. But if you're patient, you'll have no trouble completing the questionnaire.

After you complete the questionnaire, it offers you a summary of your character strengths, but doesn't dwell on your negative traits.

"We pay enough attention to what's wrong with us. The whole premise of this is, let's start to pay some attention to what's right," Peterson says.

The questionnaire will remain online indefinitely, Peterson adds. It's part of an effort to classify human strengths and weaknesses.

Here are some tips from the National Mental Health Association about Mental Health in Troubled Times.

SOURCES: Interview with Christopher Peterson, Ph.D., psychology professor, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; Richard G. Tedeschi, Ph.D., psychology professor and trauma-response specialist, University of North Carolina, Charlotte
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