Feeling 9/11 and its aftermath: America swings right

We don’t typically share first person narratives, but this is an emotional and relevant issue for many Americans. Rather than share something less meaningful to me, I offer my experience of 9/11 and the way I try to make sense of it as a social psychologist.

HAER NY-18-77

Brooklyn Bridge and World Trade Center

Today marks the 15th anniversary of 9/11. The national tragedy was also a local one for me. I grew up in a New Jersey suburb about an hour’s drive from New York City (which, to me, will always be the city). My town was full of commuters who worked in the city. The skyline was visible from our beaches. Half of my classmates were originally from New York. Proximity to the city and, thus, its cultural and financial opportunities was taken as a matter of course, but that didn’t diminish people’s pride of it. After all, it’s New York City. Legendary.

I was 13 on September 11, 2001. In my middle school that day, rumors buzzed, most only half-accurate, about what was happening a mere 22 miles from where we sat: a plane flew into the Empire State Building. No, it was the World Trade Center. What? How could a pilot be that off course? No one understood then that it was terrorism. Why would anyone suspect that? We were sheltered, privileged from that type of national tragedy, like most Americans at that time. The new normal hadn’t yet descended. Teachers had been asked not to say anything to us, and social media didn’t exist. Parents were picking their kids up from school all morning. By lunchtime, our table had three empty seats. Missing were three of my friends whose parents worked in the city (they ended up being okay, fortunately). That’s when we knew something serious had happened. I managed to get some more information out of my guidance counselor at lunch; he liked me. He wouldn’t give me many details, but when I asked, Is it really bad? Are people dead? He said yes.

By the time we walked home from the bus stop, the rumors had evolved: there was still a plane in the air, and no one knew the target. I craned my head up to see if I could spot anything. It was sunny that day, the sky a brilliant blue. Details like these seem dramatic, clichéd, but they underscore the contrast between what seemed impossible and what was actually happening. We knew now that it was terrorism, but the implications of what that truly meant were still uncertain.

That night, my parents and I, my younger sister—at 9, too young to understand but old enough to be scared—were glued to the news. The coverage was gratuitous, repeated footage of the first plane crashing into the North Tower, then the South Tower. Eventually, the collapse. People running, covered in ash, crying. At 13, I had never seen suffering so widespread. I couldn’t stop watching even though it made me feel terrible. My homework for the night, several pages from my Spanish workbook, lay forgotten in my hands, though I clutched the pages tightly.

The next day, I went to school. The township wanted to maintain routine as much as possible. Walking to my bus I smelled the smoke from the Towers that had drifted south. Classmates in the northern part of my town, closest to the city, woke to ash on their lawns.

Those following days, weeks, months blur together. Names were released of neighbors, classmates’ parents, parents’ friends who died in the Towers. Close call stories were told and repeated, like my parent’s friend who was supposed to be on the plane that flew into the South Tower. He had cancelled his business trip at the last minute. From a pier, my best friend’s dad watched one of the Towers come down. My cousin, who lived in Manhattan, volunteered for the bucket brigade at Ground Zero. These stories, these tragedies, they were national, yes. America had been attacked. But they were also local. They felt deeply personal to those of us in the tri-state area; I’m certain that was the case for those living in D.C., too.

The vividness of that day remains with me now, at 28. I still get goosebumps when I think about 9/11. I intentionally avoid movies and TV specials about that day. It upsets me too much. Sometimes, I get angry when I hear about 9/11 or see another movie about it. That day has already done too much damage to the American psyche. Let’s stop profiting from people’s grief.

Now that I’m older, the pain of 9/11 and its aftermath have grown in complexity. I mourn that day and the lives lost, the loss of collective American innocence on a grand scale.

And now I see it through the lens of a social psychologist. Research indicates that shifting toward a more conservative ideology after tragedies is common.1 As our recent post on ideology explained, conservative/right-wing thinking is about endorsing the status quo, resisting change, and prioritizing stability and order. Going to war fits in that category. Taking action to return to the status quo is also a conservative action. This conservative shift happened to many Americans following 9/11. In one study, liberal and conservative participants alike endorsed more conservative attitudes after 9/11 than before.2 People who endorse conservative beliefs likely do so to reduce uncertainty, fear, and anxiety, or as a way to regain stability and order.3 In other words, becoming more conservative, even temporarily, is perceived to be a shield against threat. And that shield felt completely necessary to recover from 9/11. Just take a look at some of the headlines and news stories covering the attack (warning: some of these are graphic).

Unfortunately, this conservative mindset, driven by the desire to be safe, stable, to understand the environment around us, to take care of the threat, went awry too often in the wake of 9/11. In addition to the lives lost, I mourn the context 9/11 set for our country’s political and social agenda. The consequent nationalism bordering on jingoism. The Islamophobia. The justification for Weapons of Mass Destruction, later deemed to be false. The vigor with which we invaded Iraq; and a war that, 14 years later, many veterans who fought are ambivalent about its effectiveness (See Post 9/11 Veterans and their wars). At the time, I, too, supported President Bush’s actions. I believed we did need to go to war. America was hurting. My town was hurting. It was the only way! And I was surrounded by people who felt the same way, adults I trusted and respected. I know there were naysayers then, but I didn’t know them. My priority was to feel safe again.

So on this day, as a progressive anti-racist anti-war social psychologist, I reflect in the best way I know how. I feel pride in the way my hometown came together that fall. The way it honors its lost residents every September. I try to make sense of an event that rocked my foundation, whose subsequent events shaped my understanding of the world and my current identity. I don’t forget, but I also don’t accept the wrong that happened to many in the aftermath of that day. I try to be cognizant of the issues our country has now, as a result of 9/11 or independent of it. And I try to do my part, by working to understand the drivers of human behavior and sharing that knowledge. This blog is one means of that.


1, 3 – Jost , Glaser, Kruglanski, & Sulloway. (2003). Political conservatism as motivated social cognition. Psych Bulletin, 129, 339-375.

2 – Nail & McGregor. (2009). Conservative shift among liberals and conservatives following 9/11/01. Social Justice Research, 22, 231-240.



Political Psych in Sum: Ideology

This fall, we’ll be breaking down various aspects of the American presidential election, ranging from the psychology of why people support particular candidates to the role of group processes in dismissing people who don’t support your beliefs and everything in between. First up, ideology.

Ideology is a motivation-based orientation of being in favor of or against a social system.1 This orientation breaks down into the right-left spectrum we all know so well in today’s political system (the historical origins of determining right wing and left are quite interesting). Whether people endorse right-wing (conservative) or left-wing (liberal) ideas is typically determined by two fundamental dimensions:

  • advocating versus resisting social change (i.e., do you want to keep the social status quo?)
  • accepting versus resisting inequality2

Generally, although with some exceptions,3 knowing where people exist within these dimensions can predict their explicit political attitudes and opinions. And, as recent research shows, these differences also exist in implicit (i.e., automatic, non-conscious) associations (Side note: if you’re unfamiliar with implicit bias, check out the Implicit Association Test). The figure below shows the results of implicit preferences for five values. Higher scores indicate a greater preference for the first value in each pair.



Jost, Nosek, & Gosling. (2008). Ideology: Its resurgence in social, personality, and political psychology. Perspectives in Psychological Science


Jost et al. also suggest that people’s threshold for managing risk or uncertainty, as well as their tendency to justify the current political and social system, predicts their place in the right-left spectrum. So, what does this mean?  Consider this: a conservative’s preference for order and fear of uncertainty translate to wanting to maintain the status quo. In contrast, a liberal’s lack of preference for traditional values (or their preference for feminism) translates to endorsing social change and more progressive ideals.

The more you know!



1 –  Jost, Nosek, & Gosling. (2008). Ideology: Its resurgence in social, personality, and political psychology. Perspectives in Psychological Science, 3, 126-136.

2,3 – Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski, & Sulloway. (2003). Exceptions that prove the rule—Using a theory of motivated social cognition to account for ideological incongruities and political anomalies: Reply to Greenberg and Jonas (2003). Psych Bulletin, 129, 383-393.


Belief superiority, guns, and faulty data: A recipe for frustration

I’ve been seeing a lot of memes, conversations, and sarcastic comments online lately about gun control, especially with Obama’s latest executive order. The content is usually somewhere along the lines of “We should prohibit guns like we prohibit drugs, because no one does drugs anymore, right?” Which is supposed to be funny and point out the blatant “idiocy” of how making something illegal doesn’t stop people from using it. Get it?

Here’s where I get frustrated. Because do I really have to go into the difference between illegal and regulated and point out that no one is making it illegal for Americans to arm themselves? Do I have to state the fact that expanding regulations would ensure that people with violent backgrounds can’t purchase a gun at a gun show without a proper background check? Or that closing loopholes and supporting inter-state communication about gun sales and background checks would make it more difficult for someone to buy a gun in one state from a pawn shop and use it to commit a shooting in another state?

Never mind the fact that the argument not to do something because some people will try to do it anyway is a weak one.

Some pro-gun/anti-regulation advocates have cited a study recently released by the Crime Prevention Research Center (CPRC) as evidence that expanding background checks to include private transfers of guns won’t prevent mass shootings. The study claims that the frequency of mass shootings actually increases in states with background checks on private transfers, thus negating the need for expanded gun regulations as an effective means of protection.

In addition to this study’s fundamental error of conflating correlation with causation and ignoring missing data, it should be noted that the founder of the CPRC is gun researcher Dr. John Lott. His research, including additional work conducted by the CPRC, has come under scrutiny before and has largely been discredited. It’s not surprising that this study was not published in an academic peer-reviewed journal. Although the peer review process admittedly has its own glitches, it’s still the gold standard for ensuring that published studies are rigorous, impactful, and contain plausible conclusions. Hence, my reluctance to give credence to this particular study that many in the anti-regulation gun crowd are using as a rallying cry.

What’s happening with the gun debate and other polemical issues is something beyond people clinging to discredited data or researchers like Lott drawing conclusions that favor their beliefs. A recent NYTimes editorial talks about the extreme perspective on gun control taken by many of the current Republican presidential candidates, labeling them the “hear-nothing gun crowd,” aka the anti-regulation folks, who essentially refuse to engage in meaningful debate or even conversation about gun control. In fact, Ted Cruz preempted Obama’s public announcement about the gun regulation executive order by publicly condemning it before the specifics had been released; other Republican candidates responded in suit.

Aside from an obvious display of highly partisan politics (business as usual on the Hill), research on belief superiority1 may explain the playing field here. Belief superiority describes people who have more strongly held (“extreme”) beliefs who see these beliefs as superior to others’. This tendency seems to hold true regardless of direction (i.e., far-right or far-left viewpoints), although the issues may vary for self-identified liberals and conservatives. In a 2013 study of more than 500 participants published in Psych Science, those who identified as very conservative or very liberal on a particular issue were significantly more likely to agree that their beliefs are superior. Moderates or “neutral” participants were more open-minded and willing to consider beliefs that didn’t align perfectly with their own.

From Feeling superior is a bipartisan issue: Extremity (not direction) of political views predicts perceived belief superiority. Psychological Science, 2013

These findings suggest that all of us, regardless of political ideology, are a bit biased at times. Combined with misinterpreted data, such as Lott’s skewed conclusions, rigid beliefs can produce counterproductive and immoveable perspectives.

So, take this for what you will: is the new executive gun order an attack on the Second Amendment, regardless of what the empirical evidence suggests? Are anti-regulation advocates just using it as another opportunity to espouse the same viewpoints, essentially hearing nothing? Don’t take the rhetoric and snide remarks about Obama’s “pointless” new gun regulations at face value. Consider the way belief superiority works and recognize that the more strongly held beliefs about guns people have, the less likely they may be open to alternative viewpoints. And also recognize this: guns aren’t being made illegal. These new regulations are likely to have a positive impact. Isn’t it worth trying?



1 – Toner, K., Leary, M.R., Asher, M.W., & Jongman-Sereno, K.P. (2013). Feeling superior is a bipartisan issue: Extremity (not direction) of political views predicts perceived belief superiority. Psychological Science, 0956797613494848.


Forecasting Self-Control

Today’s guest writer is Andrew Hall, a current social psychology PhD student at Northwestern University.head 8

Have you ever established plans to maintain a healthy weight or to exercise more, only to find that the presence of sweets or the temptation of television steers you away from your lofty goal? If you answered yes to this question, you may not be alone: people might frequently craft flawed predictions of their own ability to exert self-control in future situations, making for disagreements between what is predicted and what is actually achieved when trying to exert self-control. In a new line of research, social psychologists are investigating whether this perceived inaccuracy in self-control predictions—termed “self-control forecasting” in the literature—is a commonly-occurring phenomenon in human behavior and, potentially, a quality that could impact the way that we approach goal-setting and goal-attainment moving forward.

But what exactly is self-control? We define self-control as the process by which one alters one’s immediate thoughts, emotions, or behaviors in order to promote future goals or idealized states [1]. In other words, self-control translates to restraining current impulses (e.g., watching television) in favor of actions that move a person toward a desired future state (e.g., paying bills on time). If there are inaccuracies in the way that one “forecasts” self-control, then there are discrepancies between one’s predicted ability to resist these current impulses in favor of desired future states and one’s actual behavior when confronted with the self-control situation.

Although the qualities of self-control predictions have not been thoroughly investigated in the psychological literature, anecdotally, we know that these predictions may not be consistently accurate. This reasoning largely draws from research on a related subject, that of affective forecasting. Affective forecasting describes a person’s ability to predict his or her future emotional or “affective” states [2][3]. People have been shown to make flawed predictions of their future affective states, tending to overestimate both the intensity and duration of emotional reactions [2][4][3]. Researchers of self-control forecasting attempt to draw this same conclusion about behavioral prediction: could it be possible that humans are just as bad at predicting future ability to exert self-control as they are at predicting future affective states?

An initial exploratory analysis conducted at Duke University suggests that this may be the case. When asked to describe a time in the past in which they made inaccurate self-control predictions, all 192 of the respondents in a recent survey were able to provide rich descriptions of experiences in which they made self-control predictions in response to a temptation that differed from their realized behaviors. That respondents were able to detail instances of self-control forecasting inaccuracies with such rich description and only minimal prompting suggests that such prediction inaccuracies are not unusual to the average person. Extending upon this conclusion, the categories of temptations from the responses were very diverse, with responses that included food, sex, exercise, and relaxation, among others. This diversity suggests that these inaccuracies may characterize self-control predictions in general and not just those associated with a specific type of temptation. Additionally, though they were permitted to respond about a temptation that occurred within the past month, all participants detailed temptations that occurred within the past week, providing further evidence that these prediction inaccuracies are fairly common occurrences. Taken together, these results suggest that inaccurate self-control predictions are not unheard of in a general sample and may actually be commonplace occurrences.

Although self-control forecasting research is still in an early stage, these initial exploratory results are promising. It appears as though forecasts of future self-control abilities are not always accurate and that these inaccuracies are not infrequent occurrences. However, further studies are needed in order to determine the magnitude and frequency of this effect. In the meantime, many of us can at least be reassured that we are not alone in our self-control prediction inaccuracies, lofty self-improvement goals be damned.


Andrew hails from Charlotte, NC, where he lived before shuffling slightly north to receive a Bachelor’s degree from Duke University. At Duke, he completed research investigating social psychological phenomena related to the self and self-regulation. He is currently a graduate student in the PhD program in social psychology at Northwestern University. His research focuses on the social side of self-regulatory functioning, as well as how self-implemented goals and mental ideations about identity affect one’s ability to achieve appropriate self-regulatory control. Outside of the lab, Andrew enjoys going on runs in the sweltering southern heat and cooking dishes that have been described by critics as “edible.”


1-Baumeister, R. F., Vohs, K. D., & Tice, D. M. (2007). The strength model of self-control. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16 (6), 351-355.
2-Bueller, R., & McFarland, C. (2001). Intensity bias in affective forecasting: The role of temporal focus. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27, 1480-1493.
3-Wilson, T. D., & Gilbert, D. T. (2005). Affective forecasting. Current Directions in Psychological Science.
4-Gilbert, D. T., Pinel, E. C., Wilson, T. D., Blumberg, S. J., & Wheatley, T. P. (1998). Immune neglect: A source of durability bias in affective forecasting. Journal of Perosnality and Social Psychology, 75, 617-638.

social psych snapshot: week of 10/5/15

This week, Hannah provides the research highlights of early fall 2015!

You may already know about the cognitive consequences of Google but this article explores some social consequences of Google and technology more broadly.

Promising lab research suggests that comedy may be an effective means of coping with emotional distress.

New research conceptually replicates an old finding – that taking acetaminophen (Tylenol) can blunt negative emotions – and extends it, suggesting that acetaminophen may blunt strong positive and negative emotions alike.

Hm… I won’t be trying this unusual method of enhancing self-control based on the theory of inhibitory spillover: that trying to control your behavior in one domain might help you control your behavior in another.

Hannah graduated with a degree in Psychology from Reed College, and worked in educational research and meta-analysis as a lab manager at Duke University before entering the Social Psychology PhD program in 2014. Her research focuses on social psychological processes at work in educational contexts.

Calling All Perfectionists!

The-Perfectionist-Scale-Perfectionist Guide to Results Blog The-Perfectionists-Guide-to-Results-Blog






Look familiar? Are these the standards you use to assess your success? If so, you may be on your way to psychological burnout. A new meta-analysis of 43 studies published by Personality and Social Psychology Review found that some aspects of perfectionism can lead to negative psychological outcomes. Now, if you are a recovering perfectionist, you might be thinking,

Duh gif

“I didn’t need a meta-analysis to tell me that!”


I’m with you. I, too, have struggled with perfectionism and, subsequently, feeling burned out and exhausted. But this meta-analysis is important for several reasons. First, not only does it present empirical evidence to support people’s personal experiences and anecdotes, but it also condenses and provides a robust summary—an analysis, if you will—of the findings from 43 studies, all while taking into account additional factors, such as the domain (e.g., school, work, sports). In other words, solid findings that you are not imagining things and more details to explain what you might be experiencing. Let’s face it: your perfectionism is probably getting you down.

Researchers Hill and Curran use the following definition of perfectionism and burnout:

  • Perfectionism: multidimensional tendency to have exceedingly high standards and to be extremely self-critical1
    • Typically expressed through strivings, the setting of high personal standards and an aim for perfection, and concerns, or a fear of making mistakes and judging oneself harshly for them (See above images)
  • Burnout: a stress-induced psychosocial syndrome associated with motivational, performance, and psychological deficits2
    • Symptoms: emotional exhaustion, cynical attitude, perceived decreases in personal accomplishments and efficacy2
    • May resemble something like the images below



The primary finding indicates that perfectionism and burnout are positively correlated. That is, the more perfectionism a person displays, the higher rates of burnout they’re likely to experience, and this was true especially in the work domain (we’ll discuss that later). However, aspects of perfectionism are not equally at fault. Perfectionistic concerns, rather than perfectionistic strivings, accounted for most of the correlation with burnout.  In other words, and unsurprisingly, the tendency to be extremely self-critical and to judge oneself harshly are more harmful than setting and striving for high personal standards. In fact, perfectionistic strivings may provide a small buffer against the negativity associated with negative self-evaluation, particularly in school/education or sports.

The work domain was unique in its findings. For people dealing with burnout at work, strivings were found to be less effective at buffering against components of perfectionistic concerns, like cynicism and exhaustion. The researchers suggest that people may feel less in control at work than in school or sports given that a “perfect” work performance is typically more ambiguous. This finding deserves particular attention from ambitious high school or college graduates who are entering the workforce and potentially transitioning to a job with less tangible performance feedback.

Burnout is not inevitable, even if you identify as a perfectionist. Factors such as resilience, ability to cope with stress, and social support can all provide protection against burnout and its associated symptoms.2 So can learning to say no—over-commitment may also contribute to psychological distress.

Keep in mind that this meta-analysis describes correlational relationships. Perfectionism does not cause burnout but, rather, is closely associated with it and certainly a contributing factor. If you’d like to learn more specifics about this particular meta-analysis, check out the references below. Let’s just ignore the irony of me wanting to perfect this post before publishing it.

1-Frost, R.O., Marten, P., Lahart, C., & Rosenblate, R. (1990). The dimensions of perfectionism. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 14, 449-468.

2-Hill, A.P. & Curran, T. (2015). Multidimensional perfectionism and burnout: A Meta-Analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 1-20.

Getting ish done: Setting and achieving realistic goals

Summer is a time when people set new goals for themselves. It means more time for exercising, gardening, catching up with friends, or organizing your place. It could also mean traveling, more work, or any combination of these activities. But setting goals does not guarantee success of goals…

Goals Pie Chart
Why is it easier to achieve some goals than others? Aside from the obvious—some goals are genuinely more difficult to achieve, like buying a home compared to earning a free coffee after purchasing 12 coffees prior—other factors may be influencing your success. Using goal research, the following questions serve as a primer to increase your likelihood of successful goal pursuit.
1. How is the goal defined? The more concretely a goal is defined, the easier it is to measure progress toward goal achievement. For example, let’s imagine that someone has a goal to eat healthier. An admirable and respectable goal, indeed, but what does eating healthier mean to this person? What would success for this goal look like? The more specifically the goal is defined, the easier it is to track progress toward goal achievement. Maybe eating healthier means eating a banana every day. Maybe it means limiting dessert to twice a week. Regardless of the form they take, setting tangible markers of progress increases your likelihood of success [1].

2. Do you think you can do it? Setting realistic goals is not new advice, but it bears repeating. Your expectations of goal achievement influence your progress toward and your commitment to your goal. If you expect yourself to crash and burn, then you probably will. Many of us have experienced this firsthand. If you have a goal of reducing social media usage, but you doubt that you can break up with Facebook, then readjusting your goal to account for your own preferences is recommended. Sometimes this translates into setting smaller and manageable goals first, and then working up to a greater, and ultimately desired, end goal. Maybe you strive to reduce your Facebook usage gradually, or you eliminate Twitter or Tumblr first, for example.

3. How close are you to achieving this goal? Beginning a new goal versus being near goal completion typically requires different strategies. People often adjust their goal pursuit strategies without realizing it depending on the particular stage of goal pursuit. For example, some research suggests that people exaggerate any progress made in the beginning of pursuit to make success seem more attainable and downplay progress toward the end when close to goal completion to highlight the need for continued effort [2]. Other work suggests that perceiving progress toward a goal (i.e., believing that you’re closer to goal completion) leads to relaxed pursuit of the goal [3], also known as coasting. Coasting is when people don’t feel the need to work as hard toward the goal, because they’re doing just fine [4]. Both of these processes occur at different times depending on the type of goal you have (see questions 1 and 4).

4. Does this goal require maintenance? Some goals are obviously completed once you achieve them. Earning a degree, for example. While achieving this goal may have required maintaining certain behaviors over an extended period, goal achievement is obvious and clear-cut: you have your degree. Not surprisingly, many goals are not like this. Health goals are a prototypical maintenance goal. They’re never truly completed. Even if an initial first part has been achieved, such as reaching a goal weight, the maintenance phase will likely continue indefinitely, which is why continued success is difficult without additional reinforcements (to be discussed in a later post!). Maintenance goals often require rewards, consistent checking in with yourself about your progress, and, sometimes, flexibility regarding the means to goal achievement.

Goals are complicated. Rarely, if ever, do people pursue a single goal at any time [5]. We are continuously juggling and re-prioritizing our goals, big and small, every day of our lives. Doing so is undoubtedly hard work, and these questions certainly do not capture every element of goal pursuit. However, if you’re struggling to finish something or you need a refresher, ask yourself the questions above. They’re a good place to start.


1 – Kivetz, R., Urminsky, O., & Zheng, Y. (2006). The goal-gradient hypothesis resurrected: Purchase acceleration, illusionary goal progress, and customer retention. Journal of Marketing Research, 43, 39-58.
2 – Huang, S. C., Zhang, Y., & Broniarczyk, S. M. (2012). So near and yet so far: The mental representation of goal progress. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 103, 225-241.
3 – Fishbach, A., & Dhar, R. (2005). Goals as excuses or guides: The liberating effect of perceived goal progress on choice. Journal of Consumer Research, 32, 370-377.
4 – Carver, C.S. & Scheier, M.F. (2011). Self-regulation of action and affect. In K.D. Vohs & R.F. Baumeister (Eds.), Handbook of self-regulation: Research, theory, and applications (2nd ed.) (3-21). New York: Guilford Press.
5 – Kruglanski, A. W., Shah, J. Y., Fishbach, A., Friedman, R., Chun, W. Y., & Sleeth-Keppler, D. (2002). A theory of goal systems. Advances in experimental social psychology, 34, 331-378.