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Increase in character strength after terrorism sustained

By Diane Swanbrow / News and Information Services

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 movement.

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. 12–Nov. 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. “It’s possible that Sept. 11 didn’t 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 we’re 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 Foundation.

For more information, visit the on-line survey at', the American Psychological Association at or the U-M Department of Psychology at

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