Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Apr 24, 2020

The Misfortune of Being Fortunate

by Michael J. Poulin
Woman on bus looking out window

Businesses closed. 

Flights canceled. 

People staying home, fearing deadly unseen invaders. 

This was the scene on September 12, 2001.

Yes, there are some eerie parallels between the world's response to COVID-19 and the days after the 9/11 attacks.  Another parallel: we know that many people, but of course not everyone, will be directly affected.  Just as there were those who lost their lives or loved ones on 9/11, there will be those who lose their lives, lose loved ones, or simply fall ill as a result of the novel coronavirus. 

This suggests yet another possible parallel: the psychological effects of COVID-19, like those of 9/11, may extend well beyond those who are directly affected.  That is, even among those who are spared illness or loss, there may be mental health consequences of the present crisis.  And not only because they may suffer economic consequences, but perhaps simply because they got lucky.

This sounds implausible—how could avoiding adversity be upsetting? But this is consistent with research my colleagues and I conducted on the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.  Shortly after those attacks, we surveyed large numbers of Americans in New York City and across the nation.  In the months and years that followed, we contacted these same people to ask about their mental health and well-being. 

One of the questions we asked early on (about 2 months after 9/11) was whether they had experienced a "near miss"—that is, had they almost experienced a loss on 9/11?  Such experiences were surprisingly common: about 1 in 10 Americans we talked to had experienced such an event, and the vast majority of those were not residents of New York.  Some examples:

"My son-in-law would have been on that flight, but my daughter got sick and he took her to the hospital . . . . "

"My brother in law on the 90th floor where he works [in the Twin Towers] called in sick."

"My father was late for a meeting in the World Trade Center."

"My sister was visiting NYC and flew out on 10th September."

"I could have been working in Engine 258 that day but my partner worked the first shift and was almost caught in the collapse of the north tower."
"I got a job in the World Trade Center a couple months before, and did not take it."

My colleagues and I recently returned to our data on the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks to see how those who experienced a near miss on 9/11 differed from those who did not.  On the one hand, you might expect that these individuals would be happier than others: their story is one of disaster averted, after all.  On the other hand, you could imagine that these individuals might be troubled by the fact that they got lucky when so many others suffered.

As it turns out, the latter pattern prevailed.  People who experienced near misses, compared to others, had higher levels of posttraumatic stress symptoms, especially the phenomenon of "reexperiencing" the attacks.  Why?  Well, people who experienced near misses also reported higher levels of "survivor guilt," feeling guilty that they were fortunate when others were not.  In fact, our analysis indicated that feelings of survivor guilt did partially explain the differences in posttraumatic stress between people who did versus did not experience a near miss. 

Of course, people who reported near misses were generally different from those who did not.  For example, people who reported near misses tended to be younger and more educated on average, perhaps consistent with a more cosmopolitan population who would have ties to air travel and NYC. They were also more likely to have experienced actual losses from the 9/11 attacks; for example, someone they knew died.  However, even when we compared people who were similar on all of these characteristics, those who experienced near misses were still higher in both survivor guilt and posttraumatic stress.

The bottom line?  Avoiding suffering and loss can itself become stressful, especially if other people’s suffering is especially notable or widespread.  In the weeks and months ahead, many people will experience illness and loss due to COVID-19, but many others will be spared these traumatic experiences.  For some people, being spared may be a "near miss," with acquaintances or those geographically close being less fortunate. 

With this in mind, it may be worth reminding ourselves and others that surviving unscathed may lead to feelings of guilt, even if these feelings are not rational. Acknowledging these feelings, in turn, may make it possible for the fortunate among us to move from guilt to gratitude. 

For Further Reading

Poulin, M. J., & Silver, R. C. (2020). What Might Have Been: Near Miss Experiences and Adjustment to a Terrorist Attack. Social Psychological and Personality Science11(2), 168-175.

Michael Poulin is an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University at Buffalo and director of the Stress, Coping, and Prosocial Engagement (SCoPE) Lab.

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Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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