The University Record, October 15, 2001

ISR survey finds positive impact of terrorist attacks

By Diane Swanbrow
News and Information Services

Americans are still suffering psychologically from last month’s terrorist attacks, according to a special survey of the political, social, psychological and economic impact of the terrorist attacks released by the Institute for Social Research (ISR).

More than 66 percent of the nationally representative sample of 668 American adults surveyed between Sept. 15 and Oct. 7 reported at least some trouble concentrating, 52 percent said they felt depressed, and nearly 62 percent reported restless sleep at least some of the time in the last week. Only 21 percent said they often felt hopeful about the future, compared with 68 percent answering that same question in a national survey in 1990.

But the Sept. 11 attacks also have had some positive effects on the American psyche, contributing to a sense of cohesion among the U.S. public, according to results from the survey, called “How America Responds.” More than 90 percent of those surveyed agree or strongly agree that they are proud to be an American, and nearly 60 percent agree that the world would be a better place if people from other countries were more like Americans. These are higher levels of patriotic feelings than reported in other national surveys conducted in the past five years.

At the same time, the public has shifted its attitudes toward the diverse groups that make up the country, with a greater tendency to view Americans of different races, ethnicities and religions more favorably than in the past.

“This is a patriotism of inclusion that seems much less jingoistic and ethnocentric than similar periods in the past,” says James S. Jackson, the Daniel Katz Distinguished University Professor of Psychology.

On the “feeling thermometer” included in the survey, Black Americans were rated positively by 67 percent of respondents, compared with 63 percent of people surveyed in 2000. Hispanic Americans were rated positively by 64 percent of respondents, compared with 58 percent in 2000. Asian Americans were rated positively by 62 percent of respondents, compared with 61 percent in 2000. Jewish Americans received positive ratings from 67 percent of those surveyed. Even white Americans received better ratings in the survey—78 percent of respondents rated them positively in the wake of the terrorist attacks, compared with 72 percent in 2000 and 63 percent in 1998.

“These results, which indicate more positive feelings about the diverse racial and ethnic groups in America, suggest that the events of Sept. 11 may have produced a more expansive sense of who is an American,” says Jackson. “Of course, how long these positive feelings last remains to be seen.”

Jackson also notes that although Muslim Americans and Arab Americans did not fare as well, 43 percent of respondents rated these groups favorably.

On the whole, groups in the Middle East were rated less favorably than those in the United States. Israelis received positive ratings from 44 percent of respondents, Palestinians from 25 percent, and “Arabs in the Middle East” from 22 percent.

The survey also found that Americans seem to believe that the terrorist attacks have many causes rather than one single explanation. “As a nation, we are not making the mistake of seizing on a single, simple answer to a very complex question. And that’s reassuring,” says Robert L. Kahn, professor emeritus of psychology and of health services management and policy.

In an open-ended question asking respondents to name possible reasons for the attacks, almost half provided at least two reasons and one out of five provided three or more. Among the most frequently mentioned were hatred of the United States, undesirable characteristics of the terrorists, religious issues, non-religious differences between the United States and the terrorists, and U.S. international policies.

When next presented with a list of possible reasons, only 4 percent of the people surveyed agreed with only one item on the list, while 6 percent agreed with two, 12 percent agreed with three, and 78 percent agreed with four or more. About 82 percent responded “yes” when asked if it was Osama bin Laden, and about 62 percent agreed that it was because terrorists are sheltered in some countries. Almost 64 percent agreed that U.S. support for Israel was a reason, 51 percent agreed that U.S. failure to support Palestine was a cause, and about 62 percent agreed that the U.S. role in the Persian Gulf was a reason. While not many people think the terrorist attacks were inevitable, a result of human nature or God’s will, two-thirds agreed that the attacks were caused by a few crazy people. About half said Muslim-Christian conflict was responsible.

“Even though patriotic feelings have increased, the attacks have affected Americans’ sense of personal safety and security,” says Michael Traugott, department chair and professor of communication studies, and senior research scientist. He notes that about half the respondents in the survey say that the attacks have shaken their sense of personal safety a great deal or a good amount. “The significance of these altered feelings about personal safety can be seen in their attitudes about the economy, their own economic behavior and their willingness to let civil liberties be eroded.”

For example, 76 percent of those whose personal sense of safety was shaken a great deal said they would be willing to give up some civil liberties in return for greater security, compared with 66 percent of those who said their sense of personal safety was not affected at all by the attacks. And 68 percent of those who reported being shaken a great deal said they would support random searches by police in public places, compared with just 41 percent of those who said they were not affected at all.