Charting the Emotions of 9/11 — Minute by Minute

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Jason Florio / Corbis

People rush away from the collapsing World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, after two hijacked airplanes ran into the two New York City towers

There has always been a chilly succinctness to the way we refer to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Even before the page had turned on that shocking day — when the buildings were still smoking and the alarms were still sounding — an unspoken consensus emerged that the event would be labeled simply 9/11. Pearl Harbor and the Kennedy assassination were never known simply as 12/7 or 11/22, but for 9/11, a numerical designation seemed to serve as a thin shield against having to name — and thus feel — the tragedy every time we discussed it.

If we've been parsimonious with what we've called 9/11, we've suffered its impact all the same. One nationwide study in the months following the attacks found that 4% of Americans were suffering from 9/11-related posttraumatic stress disorder, including a whopping 11.2% of New Yorkers. For many office workers who fled the sites and first responders who labored there, those symptoms still linger. Now, a new paper published in the journal Psychological Science has provided a sort of fever chart of how the emotions of Americans as a whole rose and fell in the course of that singular day. The study drew its data from a surprising — and revealing — source: messages sent on text pagers (the closest thing to texting at the time) from people around the country sharing news of the event.

A team of psychologists at the University of Mainz in Germany collected 573,000 lines of text from 85,000 different pagers, comprising 6.4 million words. The texts span the period from 6:45 a.m. E.T. on Sept. 11, or roughly two hours before the first plane hit, to 12:44 a.m. E.T. on Sept. 12, or 18 hours after. All of the messages were released last year on WikiLeaks and all have been freely available since then, but no one has subjected them to quite the kind of analysis the German team did.

The researchers first cleaned up the content of the texts, removing all technical codes, to-from data and anything else not associated with actual human communication. This left them with about 29% of the original material. They then ran all of these distilled exchanges through a form of language-identification software known as the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count program. The system was primed to look for words such as crying and grief (measures of sadness), worried and fearful (measures of anxiety) and hate and annoyed (measures of anger). Sadness, worry and a rising fury were the three great emotions that defined the day, and the analysis revealed how they all changed depending on the circumstances.

Sadness was the least labile, or fluctuating, of the day's reactions and that's not a surprise. Sorrow and, later, grief are slow-cooked emotions, ones we allow ourselves to experience most fully when the initial crisis has passed and the loss we've experienced settles in to stay. On 9/11, this pattern was manifestly in evidence; indeed, in the first hour after the attack, sadness-related words actually fell, going from a little over 0.5% of the total material to just 0.25%. The number knocked around in that range all day, rising slightly after 2:49 p.m., when Mayor Rudy Giuliani memorably said that the eventual body count would probably be "more than any of us can bear." It rose again at 7:45 p.m. with the first detailed reports of the firefighters who were killed at the scene, and peaked at about 1% of the total word count at 10:45 p.m. — perhaps as the emotional fatigue of the day set in, and perhaps as details were revealed that made the deaths seem avoidable, particularly the news that the hijackers had been armed only with box cutters.

Anxiety was a different story. Unlike sadness, anxiety is a sort of flash-paper emotion, quick to ignite and quick to subside once some kind of reassurance is made available. Again and again throughout the day, anxiety rose and fell, spiking at 10:05 a.m., when the South Tower fell; at 11:26 a.m., when United Airlines reported the crash of the fourth hijacked jet in Pennsylvania; at 4:00 p.m., when Osama bin Laden was first widely cited as the likely author of the attacks; and at 8:30 p.m., when President George W. Bush addressed the nation, confirming that "thousands of lives were suddenly ended by evil." But Bush's speech, like all the other trigger events, was followed by a quick return to baseline levels of anxiety. For this, the media, the Web and the tendency of people to pass the word of anything they've learned all get credit.

"The immediate recovery from anxiety," the researchers wrote, "might be explained by the lessening of uncertainty shortly after each event, as the result of the spread of information."

When it came to anger, there was no return to baseline, and in some ways — as evidenced by the recent rage over the proposal to build an Islamic community center near Ground Zero — there never has been. On Sept. 11, anger began in a statistical trough, representing around 0.25% of the total words in the text at 8:45 a.m. It climbed throughout the day, cresting near 2.5% at the end of the study period — about six times greater, on average, than sadness or anxiety, and nearly 10 times greater than it was just after the attacks. Almost any news stoked the national outrage, though both presidential addresses (the first occurred at 1:04 p.m.) did cool tempers — briefly.

"President Bush's speeches, which can be interpreted as a vicarious acting out of people's anger, led only to a temporary pause in the increase of anger," the researchers wrote. "Instead, anger accumulated over the course of the day."

The results of the study, the German team stresses, offer more than just a new perspective on an exhaustively lived and relived day. Rather, the data can be helpful in understanding how human emotions are generated and resolved, and how any society can best cope with those feelings — particularly anger. "On the one hand," conclude the scientists, "anger might have been helpful for regaining a sense of control over the tide of events ... On the other hand, anger is known to predict moral outrage and a desire for vengeance, which — once aroused — seem to require an outlet."

That may be worth remembering on a national level, as American troops remain bogged down in Afghanistan and American combat forces only now quit Iraq. It may be worth remembering on an individual level too, as a Muslim cab driver in New York City begins to heal following last week's knife attack by an Islam-hating passenger. We can do little about the anger, anxiety and grief we feel after an event like 9/11. We can do much, however, to determine how we respond to those feelings.