Sadness, fear, anger: How Americans reacted to the events of September 11, 2001

Researchers at Mainz University carried out a minute-by-minute reconstruction of the sequence of emotions on September 11, 2001


American people reacted to the events of September 11, 2001 with increasing levels of anger and rage rather than sadness and fear as the day went on. This is the result of a study conducted by psychologists at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz in which they analyzed over 570,000 texts from US pagers. "We were extremely surprised by these results," states Mitja Back and Albrecht Küfner from the department of Personality Psychology and Diagnostics. "We expected to find that this tragedy would have evoked a massive wave of sadness or fear. But our findings showed a continuous increase in anger and rage as time went on." Using automated text analyses, the scientists searched for emotive words such as sadness, crying, worry, fear or hate occurring in the reports. The results of the study have now been published online in the scientific journal Psychological Science.

For the study, the authors Mitja Back, Albrecht Küfner and Boris Egloff used freely accessible, anonymous data published on the Internet platform WikiLeaks on 25 November 2009. The data spans a period of 24 hours from 3am to 3pm on the following day and includes a total of 573,000 records with 6.4 million words sent from over 85,000 different pagers in the USA. The data provides a minute-by-minute reflection of the emotional reaction of thousands of US citizens.

The evaluation shows that sadness was not the primary reaction to the terrorist attacks. There were a number of panic outbreaks in response to the planes hitting the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the towers collapsing and the initial information relating to the terrorist background of the attacks – but these soon died down. "This was probably due to the ongoing flow of additional background information provided in the media, which reduced the uncertainty and fear," explains Back.

But the feelings of anger were there right from the moment the first plane hit the World Trade Center and increased steadily as more information on the terrorist background of the events became available. By the end of the day, the expressions of anger and rage were almost ten times higher than at the beginning. The study provides an initial insight into the causes behind the global repercussions resulting from the events on September 11 – starting with the rise in discrimination and the confrontational politics of the Bush era, right through to the curtailment of civil rights. "Because anger and rage evoke indignation and a desire for revenge, we are now getting an initial idea of what was going on inside the people of America in the moments after the attacks," explains Küfner.