In a new study of 9/11 survivors, researchers found that participants who had “near-miss” experiences — such as those who called in sick or who missed their flight — did not necessarily escape the tragedy unharmed. For many, their close-call with death and the realization that others were not as fortunate tends to weigh heavily on their mind.
“There is a misfortune to being fortunate,” says Michael Poulin, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Buffalo (UB) and lead author of the paper.
“You would think that having a near-miss experience is unequivocally good news. That means it didn’t happen to you. Although obviously that’s far more preferable than having tragedy befall you, it turns out that merely being aware of that fact can be burdensome — and it’s particularly true when it’s vivid that others were not as fortunate.”
The results, published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, deepen our understanding of how large-scale trauma affects mental health.
“We tend to focus understandably on those who were affected, but our data suggest that even people who were not directly affected in any obvious way can be upset by mentally comparing what didn’t happen to them in light of what actually happened to someone else, who easily could have been them.”
Despite the frequency with which “survivor guilt” appears in casual conversation and popular culture, this study turns out to be among the few to directly examine near-miss experiences.
“Survivor guilt is widely understood to be true, almost like a kind of clinical lore,” says Poulin, an expert in stress and coping. “But in the context of near-miss experiences, there’s just not much there if you go looking for empirical data on the existence of survivor guilt.”
Near-miss experiences are difficult to study because of the challenges involved in finding a representative sample, but 9/11 provided the researchers with the opportunity to conduct a rigorous study on the phenomenon.
Poulin conducted the research with Roxane Cohen Silver, professor of psychological science, medicine and public health at The University of California, Irvine. They used a 1,433-participant sample provided by an online research company, which assessed a near-miss experience by asking: “Did you or someone close to you experience a near miss as a result of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks?”
Some examples include:
- My brother-in-law on the 90th floor where he works called in sick.
- I got a job in the World Trade Center a couple months before, and did not take it.
- My son-in-law would have been on that flight, but my daughter got sick and he took her to the hospital.
The findings suggest that the near-miss participants reported higher levels of re-experiencing symptoms (sudden, traumatic memories of the event) that persisted over three years and probable post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
PTSD is, not surprisingly, affected more by direct exposure, but near-misses exist as an independent predictor, suggesting their role is not related exclusively to familiarity with the victims.
“I think this study contributes to a broader debate that people are having in the world of psychology about what counts as being exposed to trauma,” says Poulin. “It’s not just ‘Did this happen to you?’” “But ‘Did something almost happen to you?’”
Source: University at Buffalo