Nov. 1, 2001
Vol. 21 No. 4

current issue
archive / search

    NORC reports Americans’ response to a national tragedy

    Americans responded with resilience to the events of Tuesday, Sept. 11, registering large increases in their feelings of national pride, confidence in many institutions and faith in people, according to a National Tragedy Study conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University.

    The study, funded publicly by the National Science Foundation and privately by the Robert Wood Johnson and Russell Sage foundations, also contrasted public response to the Tuesday, Sept. 11 events with response to the 1963 assassination of President John Kennedy (also studied by NORC). People reported a large drop in their normally positive feelings toward life after the Kennedy assassination, but reported few similar responses after Tuesday, Sept. 11, the study found.

    “Emotionally, Kennedy“s assassination seems to have had a larger impact on psychological well-being than the terrorist attacks,” said Tom Smith, Director of the General Social Survey at NORC and co-author of a report on the findings, “America Rebounds: A National Study of Public Response to the September 11 Terrorists Attacks.”

    Researchers found a much stronger feeling of anger after the Tuesday, Sept. 11 attacks than after the 1963 assassination. In 1963, people reported feeling ashamed as well as angry; however, feeling ashamed was not a strong response to the terrorist attacks.

    The study, which measured a wide-range of attitudes and included a special survey for New York, was based on random telephone calls to more than 2,100 U.S. residents during the two weeks following Tuesday, Sept. 11. The results were compared with similar questions asked recently in the General Social Survey, a continuing study of American values, attitudes and behaviors on a wide variety of subjects. The GSS provides a baseline for American opinions and is used extensively by social scientists to chart and study changes in public perceptions.

    “We found, with the exception of New Yorkers, that Americans appear to have had weaker physical reactions to the recent national tragedy than to the Kennedy assassination,” said Kenneth Rasinski, a co-author of the report and Senior Research Scientist at NORC. For instance, 68 percent of people felt very nervous and upset as a result the 1963 tragedy, compared with 51 percent in 2001. While 57 percent of the people reported feeling dazed and numb in 1963, 46 percent had a similar response in 2001. In contrast, 60 percent of the people in 2001 reported crying, compared to 53 percent in 1963.

    Researchers asked survey participants about 15 physical and emotional symptoms and found 11 of these symptoms were reported by a significantly higher proportion of New York City residents than by people living elsewhere in the country.

    According to Rasinski, New Yorkers were more likely to have felt very nervous and tense (63 percent for New York vs. 51 percent for the nation as a whole), cried (72 percent for New York vs. 60 percent), had trouble getting to sleep (62 percent for New York vs. 50 percent), lost their appetite (43 percent for New York vs. 29 percent), felt more tired than usual (48 percent for New York vs. 36 percent), had rapid heartbeats (24 percent for New York vs. 16 percent) or headaches (25 percent for New York vs. 20 percent), lost their temper more than usual (13 percent for New York vs. 9 percent), had sweaty and clammy hands (16 percent for New York vs. 9 percent), felt dizzy at times (16 percent for New York vs. 8 percent), and felt like getting drunk (12 percent for New York vs. 7 percent).

    Among the findings contrasting post-September 11 attitudes with earlier General Social Surveys:

    Increased faith in fellow citizens:

    • 67 percent (up 21 percentage points) said that most people are helpful, and 63 percent (up 12 percentage points) said they felt people in general are fair.

    Increased confidence in selected institutions:

    • 77 percent (up 27 percentage points) had a great deal of confidence in the military, compared with 61 percent in 1991 during the Persian Gulf War. Confidence in the executive branch tripled to 52 percent. People also expressed more confidence in organized religion, corporations and Congress. This was the highest confidence level in these areas in nearly three decades.

    Increased feelings of national pride:

    • 97 percent (up 7 percentage points) felt they would rather be citizens of the United States than of any other country.

    Other findings of the National Tragedy Study:

    Positive action:

    • 49 percent made contributions to charities, and 24 percent donated or tried to donate blood.

    Other findings comparing the Tuesday, Sept. 11 attacks to the 1963 Kennedy assassination:

    More prayer:

    • 84 percent reported saying ‘special prayers,’ compared with 75 percent in 1963.

    Television as a key source:

    • 37 percent first learned of the Tuesday, Sept. 11 events from television, while 24 percent learned of the 1963 tragedy from television. In 1963, 36 percent learned of the assassination by personal contact; in 2001, 15 percent learned the news that way.