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On the eve of this September 11th, I can’t help but pause and reflect on the day that changed the course of American history (therein changing world history). I remember many of the details, most with strong emotion attached to them – calling my husband to make sure he was all right, waking my brother to watch the news with me, gathering with my friends and colleagues to continue to collect any and all information we could. There was a near-palpable collective confusion, fear, anger and sadness that pervaded my personal environment, as well as throughout the nation. There are some memories from that day that are crystalline in their clarity. This memory acuity is known as a flashbulb memory – a memory created from intense emotional arousal at the moment of a significant and, often times, traumatic event. Do you have a flashbulb memory of that day? If so, you’re not alone.

As a media psychologist, the exposure of media on our memory becomes critically important to individual responses to traumatic events, as well as shared responses. Notable memory researcher William Hirst, PhD and colleagues (2009) found that the levels of media attention, as well as “ensuing conversations,” (the telling and retelling of one’s experience) are correlated with the accuracy of the memory of the event. Hirst and his team assessed 3,000 individuals about their memories of learning of the terrorist attacks of September 11, as well as details about the attack, one week, 11 months, and/or 35 months after the assault. Interestingly, the personal telling of one’s experience (what the authors term “ensuing conversations”) is subject to more memory erosion than media rehearsal. In other words, seeing the factual account of media portrayals of the event can yield more accurate recall almost three years post-event, than simply sharing about your experiences.

Which leads me to another aspect of my personal experience – feeling overwhelmed, yet riveted, by the constant media coverage (which I voluntarily engaged in). Still, I wonder – how has the repeat exposure to the images of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001 affected us? In an effort to understand this, University of California, Irvine psychologist Roxane Cohen Silver and a team of colleagues (2013) hypothesized that repeated exposure to vivid traumatic images from the media could lead to long-lasting negative mental and physical health consequences. They tested their hypothesis during a three-year study, which collected data from a web-based survey of 1322 participants. Their findings are substantial:

  • Nearly 12% of the participants reported high levels of acute stress related to the terrorist attacks on September 11th.
  • Participants who watched four or more hours of 9/11- or Iraq War-related television per day following each event were more likely to experience symptoms of acute stress.
  • The effects of trauma-related media exposure lasted over time – repeated early exposure to 9/11-related television predicted posttraumatic stress symptoms and physical health problems up to three years later (Silver, et al, 2013).

Silver and colleagues’ research ultimately make a compelling case that widespread media coverage of terrorism and war may have harmful effects on mental and physical health over time.

There is a flipside to this, however, that still needs to be acknowledged – the beneficial power of collectively sharing the pain with others. While it may be a bit far-reaching to the global reaction to September 11th, Australian researchers, Brock Bastian, Jolanda Jetten and Laura Ferris examined the positive social consequences of sharing pain (2014). Their experiment examined the effect of physical pain (submerging their hand in a bucket of water or performing an upright wall squat) while participants were in a small group (as compared to participants conducting pain free tasks in a small group). The research team found little to no differences in the emotional affect of subjects, however participants in the pain condition reported a greater degree of bonding with their small group that did those who completed the pain-free tasks.

Why is this important? Because Bastian, Jetten and Ferris show that significant social cohesion can occur as a result of shared, painful experiences. Indeed, the nation felt much of this cohesiveness in the days following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Although their research specifically looks at physical pain and subsequent, enhanced cooperation, the findings are important for emotional and psychic pain, as well. And when media expands the scope of our receipt and delivery of shared pain, the implications are considerable.

Ultimately, my hope for this day, and for the many days ahead, is that media producers and consumers will strike a balance of coverage that illuminates the light during dark moments without exacerbating the shadows of trauma. What will you do to find this balance?

References

Bastian, B., Jetten, J., & Ferris, L. J. (2014). Pain as Social Glue Shared Pain Increases Cooperation. Psychological Science, 0956797614545886.

Hirst, W., Phelps, E. A., Buckner, R. L., Budson, A. E., Cuc, A., Gabrieli, J. D., … & Vaidya, C. J. (2009). Long-term memory for the terrorist attack of September 11: flashbulb memories, event memories, and the factors that influence their retention. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 138(2), 161.

Law, B. M. Seared in Our Memories. Monitor on Psychology, 42.

Silver, R. C., Holman, E. A., Andersen, J. P., Poulin, M., McIntosh, D. N., & Gil-Rivas, V. (2013). Mental-and physical-health effects of acute exposure to media images of the September 11, 2001, attacks and the Iraq War. Psychological science, 24(9), 1623-1634.

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