A new piece of research has shown that in the aftermath of national trauma, people's ability to make sense out of what happened has implications for their well-being, and that the kinds of stories they tell about the incident predict very different psychological outcomes for them.
"Understanding the stories people tell about national events provides a unique opportunity to understand how individual well-being is linked to the state of the society," says Dr. Michael J. Poulin, an assistant professor of Psychology at the University at Buffalo, who carried out this study with researchers from the F. W. Olin College of Engineering.
"Our findings suggest that different ways of writing about the events of 9/11 relate to different psychological outcomes," Poulin says.
He also says that the different ways people describe traumatic national events-even those they do not experience directly-are linked to different levels of psychological adaptation.
"To sum up," he says, "we found that psychological well-being was associated with post-trauma stories that were high in closure, high in redemptive imagery and high in themes of national redemption.
Psychological distress, on the other hand, was significantly related to accounts that were low in closure, high in contaminative imagery and high in themes of personal contamination."
During the study, the researchers looked at personal accounts about experiences of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 written by 395 adults from across the country, some of whom were more intimately connected to the events in question than were others.
The narratives were compared with various measures of psychological well-being.
"Accounts high in 'closure' are those that demonstrate an emotional conclusion or a coherent resolution of a difficult life event, and perhaps not surprisingly, participants who described the terrorist attacks with a sense that they were really over and no longer exerted an emotional influence had low levels of distress and high levels of well-being," Poulin says.
"However, we also found that a high level of psychological well-being was significantly related to accounts that were high in references to national redemption and, among those more directly exposed to the attacks, high in redemptive imagery in general," he adds.
According to him, "redemptive accounts" are those that tell a story of something positive coming out of something negative.
Dr. Jonathan M. Adler, an assistant professor of Psychology at Olin, notes that the theme of redemption has been characterized as a particularly American theme, observed in national rhetoric throughout history and in the personal stories of many well-known Americans.
Adler and Poulin also found that psychological distress was significantly related to accounts low in closure and high in contamination imagery or themes of personal contamination.
"Contamination is reflected in stories in which what was 'good' or 'acceptable' becomes contaminated, ruined, undermined, undone or spoiled. It is basically the opposite of redemption and may therefore be somewhat opposed to the themes of traditional American stories," Poulin says.
A research article describing the study has been published in the online edition of the Journal of Personality.