World Trade Center smoking after planes hit both towers
Plumes of smoke billow from the World Trade Center towers in New York City after a Boeing 767 hits each tower during the Sept. 11 attacks. Michael Foran

As a psychologist who studies how people cope with traumatic life events, Roxane Cohen Silver is uniquely positioned to comment on lessons learned from the Sept. 11 attacks. Terrorists’ aim, after all, is to instill fear and anxiety in the population, which is inherently a psychological concept, she says.

“The fact that terrorists have fear as a goal means that psychology is relevant,” Silver says. “Psychologists have a lot to say about encouraging vigilance without panic. Politicians, unfortunately, have had less training in the best way to communicate this with the public.”

Politicians and public officials must be open and honest when speaking to the public, says Silver, who serves on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Advisory Council and has briefed Congress and DHS secretaries Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff on the psychological effects of terrorism.

“It’s important that officials explain to the public what we know and don’t know about the threat of terrorism,” Silver says. “Politically motivated messaging only inspires a lack of trust in our leaders.”

She has led dozens of studies on trauma and headed a national study of responses to the Sept. 11 attacks. She found that the attack caused long-term mental and physical health effects:

  • 17 percent of the U.S. population outside of New York City reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress two months after the attacks and 5.8 percent did so at six months.
  • A 2008 study linked acute stress responses to the attacks to a 53 percent increase in cardiovascular ailments in the three years following Sept. 11.
  • A study published in July found that people who watched the attacks live on TV experienced 28 percent more physical ailments over the three years following the attacks than those who didn’t watch the attacks live on TV.

“Individuals did not have to be directly exposed to the 9/11 attacks in order to have been significantly impacted by them” Silver says. “From our research we learned that watching the attacks unfold live on television was enough to result in post-traumatic stress symptoms in people living far away from New York and Washington D.C.” Nearly 60 percent of Americans watched the attacks live on that Tuesday morning 10 years ago, Silver says.

On Oct. 4, from 4-6 pm, Silver will participate in a program offered as part of the Newkirk Center for Science & Society’s Post 9/11: Science, Policy & Law series. She will be joined by UCI Distinguished Professor of Social Ecology Elizabeth Loftus discussing post-9/11 intelligence gathering techniques, retired Col. Lawrence Morris, former chief prosecutor for the Guantanamo Military Commissions who will bring a military perspective to the questions of interrogation, and Christian Meissner of the National Science Foundation who will talk about interrogation and deception detection techniques.

Silver edited and contributed articles to a special issue of American Psychologist, the flagship journal of the American Psychological Association, which marked the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks. “9/11: Ten Years Later” features peer-reviewed articles on the social, political and psychological impacts. Silver penned the introduction, an analysis of 9/11’s influence on U.S. youths who grew up under the shadow of terrorism. For most children, the psychological consequences of 9/11 were relatively transient, particularly for those who only watched the events unfold on TV. However, 9/11 may have affected American youth in other ways, in terms of their sociopolitical attitudes and their worldviews.

She also wrote about what to expect after the next attack on American soil. Drawing on basic behavioral psychology and field research, Silver expects Americans to display resilience in the event of a future attack.

“People will respond responsibly and even bravely, with none of the panic often seen in movies, but rarely in reality,” Silver says. She cites the evacuation of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, where most injuries arose not from people trampling one another while trying to escape, but from exposure to collapsing structures and secondary explosions.

The next step in the war on terror calls for better interrogation and intelligence-gathering methods to thwart another attack. Silver says law-enforcement and intelligence-gathering agencies would benefit from awareness of psychological research in their interrogations of potential terrorist suspects.

“Profiling doesn’t work, as there has been a clear attempt from al-Qaida to recruit people that don’t look like typical terrorism suspects,” Silver says. “Behaviors and attitudes are more telling, and the focus should be on stopping entry by virtue of identifying potential terrorists using psychological science as a guide.”