The University Record, January 21, 2002

Kindness post 9/11

By Diane Swanbrow
News and Information Services

If you resolved to be a better person this year, you may have a lot of company. The results of a survey conducted by Christopher Peterson, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Psychology, suggest that, in some respects, Americans really have become kinder, more loving and more grateful since Sept. 11.

Peterson, who co-directs the Values in Action Institute, recently analyzed more than 1,000 pre- and post-Sept. 11 responses to an online questionnaire designed to measure the extent to which people see themselves as having various character strengths, including curiosity, kindness, fairness, valor, hope and humor.

Comparing 451 responses logged before Sept. 11 to 625 responses recorded Sept. 12–Nov. 30, Peterson and University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman found significant increases in the levels of six out of 24 character strengths: love, gratitude, hope, kindness, spirituality and teamwork. “All these strengths involve other people as well as reflecting beliefs about the meaning of life,” says Peterson.

Reported levels of only one character strength—love of learning—declined in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks. “This was only a very slight decline,” says Peterson, “and may reflect an understandable overload with media coverage of the terrorist attacks.”

Women’s reported strengths changed less than those of men. Peterson speculates that since women usually score higher than men in survey tests of kindness, generosity and nurturance, women simply had less room for improvement. “Another way to view this gender difference,” he says, “is that men’s profile of character strengths became more similar to those of women, suggesting that all of us became more attuned to other people in the wake of Sept. 11.”

Nearly four months later, the increases seem to have leveled off, Peterson points out. But it is not yet clear whether scores will drop to their pre-Sept. 11 levels or whether the changes will be more lasting.

Peterson cautions that the study has several limitations. “We had no control over who did and did not complete the questionnaire at different times,” he notes. “It’s possible that Sept. 11 didn’t change people, but influenced who did or did not log onto our Web site.”