The terrorist attacks of September 11 traumatized millions of Americans, but they also provoked an outpouring of sympathy and kindness. Volunteers swarmed the Red Cross to donate blood; civilians teamed up with rescue crews to help victims at the Pentagon and World Trade Center.

Now a team of Stanford researchers, with support from the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love, are trying to determine just how common those altruistic responses were, and whether they helped people cope with the trauma of September 11. More than 7,000 people worldwide—nearly all of whom had only indirect exposure to the attacks via television—completed the researchers’ Web-based survey in the weeks after the attacks. Co-investigators Jay Azarow, Cheryl Koopman, Lisa Butler, and graduate student Melinda Manley, analyzed 137 of these responses to identify and better understand generativity—concern for the well-being of future generations—and altruism in the wake of 9/11.

“What really jumps out at me from the moving accounts provided by our respondents is that, as media reports suggested, there was indeed an outpouring of generativity and altruism,” Azarow said. More than 40 percent of the sample respondents had clear altruistic responses, such as donating blood or checking on elderly neighbors. Respondents directed their altruism toward strangers about as frequently as they did toward family members, and their political orientation did not seem related to their levels of altruism.

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The group has published two papers on the study—one in CNS Spectrums, one in Psicologia Politica—with a third due out later this year. That paper will discuss the effects altruistic and generative acts had on people’s resilience to post-traumatic stress disorder and other forms of distress. Although the analyses are not yet complete, preliminary results suggest that altruism did help people cope with the traumatic effects of September 11.

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