It”s become clich to say that Sept. 11 brought America together, but a new study indicates Americans may really be more kind and loving since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
The study, based on responses to an online survey, was conducted by University psychology Prof. Christopher Peterson. Created to classify and measure character strengths, it gained new meaning after Sept. 11 as a way to understand how the nation has changed.
Of the 24 virtues measured by the study, Peterson said six showed a significant rise: love, kindness, teamwork, hope, gratitude and spirituality.
These character traits all “involve other people as well as reflecting beliefs about the meaning of life,” he said.
Peterson attributed the change to a greater presence of death in peoples” minds after Sept. 11.
“(Americans) are confronting the possibility that life is short and life can be snuffed out, and it”s kind of hard to have that front-and-center in your mind and be a petty person,” Peterson said.
The more than 300 questions on the survey asked for agreement or disagreement with statements including “I have never deliberately hurt anyone,” “The goodness of people almost brings tears to my eyes” and “I believe in a universal power, a god.”
The last question indicates spirituality, which according to Peterson is the conviction that life is sacred, including but not limited to religious beliefs. He said there is evidence that religion, not specifically measured in the survey, has grown as a result of the attacks.
“Bible sales have gone up 40 percent since September 11,” Peterson said.
Two traits that Peterson expected to show similar change, mercy and bravery, stayed constant. He had expected mercy to either rise as part of the general trend toward virtue or drop as a result of a desire for revenge on the terrorists, but neither occurred. Levels of bravery, a word often used in the media to describe America in recent months, also stayed the same.
“We hear so much about being brave, but it didn”t translate,” he said.
The strengths changed more for men than for women, which Peterson says is because females had higher levels before the attacks, leaving less room for improvement.
“Before September 11, women scored higher on the test. After September 11 men scored more like the women,” he explained.
LSA freshman Laura Gadzala said there has been a noticeable change in herself and others since Sept. 11.
“People smile more when you”re walking by on the Diag,” she said. “I think I”ve become more sensitive to other people, paying more attention.”
“I do think that after the initial attacks there was a great outpouring of help,” said LSA senior Jenny Hagiwara. “As things died down though, we”ve gone back to life as usual.”
Because the survey was conducted over the Internet, Peterson conceded that it was not perfect.
“It”s not an ideal study because we have no control over who signs on,” he said.
Peterson has worked in Pennsylvania for a year and a half, conducting the study with University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman. He will return to the University of Michigan for fall term.
The survey is online at http://www.positive-psychology.org/strengths.