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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Processing terror : an investigation into the immediate and short-term psychological effects of a terrorist attack Jhangiani, Rajiv Sunil


In the years since the 9/11 attacks the incidence of terrorism has been on the rise. At the same time, news media coverage of major terrorist attacks has reached epic proportions, greatly expanding the number of individuals psychologically affected by terrorism. The goal of this dissertation is to better understand how individuals cope with terrorism experienced at a distance. Specifically, this investigation focuses on the impact of stress on integrative complexity (IC; a measure of cognitive processing; Suedfeld, Tetlock, & Streufert, 1992) during and shortly after a major terrorist event. Taken together, the findings from the three studies reported in this dissertation provide several insights into this process. Study 1 replicates and extends results from an earlier study of television newscasters reporting live on 9/11 (Jhangiani & Suedfeld, 2005), in the context of the 2005 London bombings and the medium of radio. In doing so, it provides the first empirical evidence outside of the research laboratory for the curvilinear relationship between stress and IC. Specifically, during the early stages of reports concerning the London bombings, a positive relationship is found between negative emotion and IC. However, once the nature and extent of the event become clearer, increases in negative emotion are related to decreases in IC (the disruptive stress hypothesis). Study 2 replicates this curvilinear relationship in the short-term reactions of two prominent political leaders to 9/11 and the 2005 London bombings. For one of these political leaders, the magnitude of his psychological reaction is moderated by the psychological distance between him and the victims of the attacks. Finally, Study 3 finds that two key personality variables, neuroticism and empathy, play important roles in determining the magnitude of the short-term psychological reactions to 9/11 of more than 250 students from Canada and the United States. This finding is particularly true for those students who were psychologically closer to the victims of the attacks. Implications, strengths and limitations of this research, and possible future directions are discussed.

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