The Consequences of Construing Terrorist Attacks as Suffering versus Threat

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Principal investigator:

Alison Ledgerwood

University of California, Davis



Sample size: 531

Field period: 4/21/2011-10/6/2011


Memories of terrorist attacks may have ongoing negative consequences (e.g., reminders of the attacks could elicit negative feelings toward the “enemy” group even years later) as well as positive, socially functional consequences that could help explain why societies are drawn toward commemorating them. In this experiment, American participants were randomly assigned to be either visually reminded of 9/11 with one of two sets of pictures (one set that focused on suffering, and one that focused on threat) or not reminded (in the no-reminder control condition). We then measured connectedness to other Americans, intergroup anxiety, anti-Arab discrimination, and a variety of political attitudes. In addition, participants reported the extent to which their American identity was important to them as well as their political orientation—two potentially important individual difference variables that could shape intergroup responses. The results suggest that being reminded of a terrorist attack interacts with identity importance and political orientation in shaping intergroup anxiety, and that such reminders may also polarize or depolarize Democratic and Republican positions on different political issues, depending on the topic.


Specific Hypotheses:
1. Participants in the suffering-focused reminder condition, compared to those in the other conditions, would show greater connectedness with Americans.
2. Participants in the threat-focused reminder condition, compared to those in the other conditions, would show higher levels of intergroup anxiety and discrimination.

Additional Research Questions:
1. Will the effects of 9/11 reminders change depending on identity importance?
2. Will the effects of 9/11 reminders change depending on political orientation?

Experimental Manipulations

We experimentally manipulated threat and suffering construals by randomly assigning participants to one of three experimental conditions: Threat-centered reminder of 9/11 (images of a plane crashing into the WTC), suffering-centered reminder of 9/11 (images of people crying for their loved ones), or a control/no reminder condition.


We assessed participants’ sense of connectedness with Americans, intergroup anxiety, and anti-Arab discrimination.

Summary of Results

We began by examining the potential impact of 9/11 reminders, identity importance, and political orientation on one of our key dependent variables, intergroup anxiety. After observing that our two experimental reminder conditions (threat images vs. suffering images) did not differ from each other, we collapsed across them to create a two-level reminder variable (no reminder vs. reminder). We regressed intergroup anxiety on experimental reminder condition (dummy coded), identity importance (centered), political orientation (centered), and their two- and three-way interactions. Political orientation significantly predicted intergroup anxiety: moving from right to left along the political spectrum was associated with a decrease in anxiety about interacting with Muslims in the control (no reminder) condition. There was also a significant three-way interaction between reminder condition, identity importance, and political orientation. To further explore this interaction, we regressed intergroup anxiety on political orientation, identity importance, and their interaction within each reminder condition. Whereas only political party (marginally) predicted intergroup anxiety in the control condition, the pattern of results was quite different in the reminder condition—here, intergroup anxiety was significantly predicted by identity importance, political orientation, and the interaction between the two. When visually reminded of 9/11, those higher (vs. lower) in American identity importance displayed greater intergroup anxiety toward Muslims, as did participants with more Republican (vs. Democratic) political leanings. Most interestingly, however, political orientation only seemed to matter for those low in identity importance in predicting intergroup anxiety. When reminded of 9/11, those who place high importance on their American identity respond with similarly high levels of intergroup anxiety, regardless of political orientation.