Increase in character strength after terrorism sustained
By Diane Swanbrow / News and Information
A U-M study recently presented at the annual meeting of the American
Psychological Association suggests that Americans have changed for
the better in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Comparing responses to on-line surveys before and up to 10 months
after the attacks, U-M psychologist Christopher Peterson finds a
sustained increase in the levels of seven character strengths: gratitude,
hope, kindness, leadership, love, spirituality and teamwork.
These character strengths encompass the theological virtues
identified by St. Paul and represent core cultural emphases,
says Peterson, who co-directs the Values in Action Institute (VIA),
an organization founded as part of the growing positive psychology
For the presentation at a symposium on post-traumatic growth in
the aftermath of terrorism and combat, Peterson discussed data from
906 responses to on-line questionnaires before Sept. 11 and 3,729
responses after the attacks. This is an update of an earlier study,
which compared responses logged before Sept. 11 to those recorded
Sept. 12Nov. 30.
The increases in key character strengths that had surged immediately
after the attacks were sustained throughout the period studied,
according to Peterson, who notes that some pundits had predicted
incorrectly that the rise in public and private virtues in the immediate
aftermath of the attacks would prove to be short-lived.
The strengths that increased all involve a sense of increased
belongingness, says Peterson, adding that the pattern of elevated
character strengths held across many demographic categories, including
gender, race, age, education and marital status.
While the analysis points to a broad and sustained surge in character
strengths, with Americans mobilizing their inner strength over the
long haul to deal with the attacks, 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 says. Its
possible that Sept. 11 didnt change people, but rather influenced
who did or did not log onto our Web site. We compared the demographic
characteristics of those who responded before and after the attack,
and found no major differences, but there might be other important
differences in the two groups of people were contrasting.
Using data from the on-line questionnaire and other sources, Peterson
and University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman are
working to classify human strengths and virtues, attempting, as
Peterson puts it, to do for human strengths what the Diagnostic
and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association does
for disorder and disease. So far, they have described and
categorized 24 positive traits under six core moral virtues: wisdom,
courage, love, justice, temperance and transcendence.
Throughout most of its history, psychology has been concerned
with identifying and remedying human ills, Peterson says.
But positive psychology wants to put as much emphasis on strength
as weakness, on building the best things in life as repairing the
worst, and on increasing the fulfillment of healthy people as healing
the wounds of the distressed.
This research and the VIA Institute are funded by the Mayerson
For more information, visit the on-line survey at www.positivepsychology.org/strengths',
the American Psychological Association at http://www.apa.org
or the U-M Department of Psychology at http://www.lsa.umich.edu/psych.