The truism—apparently first uttered by Steve Allen, the original host of the Tonight Show—is that tragedy plus time equals comedy.
But a newly published study that looked at responses to the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre suggests a different equation: Tragedy plus time equals anxiety.
Analyzing a large dataset of Twitter messages, a Columbia University research team led by psychologists Bruce Doré and Kevin Ochsner found a decrease in sadness-related words the further removed commenters were from the horrible incident, in terms of either time or distance.
“Time and distance can provide a bird’s eye view that alerts people to the scope of an unresolved threat.”
However, the “use of anxiety words showed the opposite pattern,” the researchers write in the journal Psychological Science. They argue that this reflects, at least in part, an increasing focus on “the unresolved causes of the tragedy.”
Their research suggests that, with a certain amount of distance, the immediate reaction “How awful” is superseded by “Why did it happen?” and “When will it happen again?”
The researchers periodically gathered tweets containing the keywords "Newtown" or "Sandy Hook" over six months immediately following the December 14, 2012, massacre, in which 20 children and six adults were killed.
They examined 43,548 such messages posted from December 14-21, January 27-March 3, and April 26-May 30, noting where each sender lived and how far their location was from the Connecticut town where the tragedy took place. Among other things, they looked for "sadness words, anxiety word, and anger words," as well as "words that reflect attention to causal processes."
They found that increases in time and distance from the event "led to a decrease in the use of sadness words, an increase in the use of anxiety words, and an increase in the use of causality words."
To confirm their thesis that being farther from the incident allowed people to think in more big-picture terms—focusing not just on what happened, but why—the researchers conducted a second test, featuring 100 American adults recruited online.
Participants were randomly assigned to write a few sentences either describing "concrete details" of the Sandy Hook massacre, or "the broader causes" of the tragedy. Immediately afterwards, they "rated their current feelings of sadness and anxiety."
In line with the Twitter study, the researchers found that "although thinking about the Newtown shooting generally evokes more sadness than anxiety, thinking about the event's abstract causes rather than its concrete details leads to a shift in emotional tone away from sadness and towards anxiety."
Whether that arc is a positive thing is difficult to say. Responses to an anxiety-provoking tragedy that are made, or endorsed, while in a state of fear are often poorly thought out. Consider the 2003 Iraq War.
On the other hand, the itch to find solutions that anxiety can provoke is presumably preferable to the inertia that so often accompanies deep sadness. As Doré and his colleagues put it: “Time and distance can provide a bird’s eye view that alerts people to the scope of an unresolved threat.”
Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.