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Distance Helps People Recover From Tragedies

Update Date: Aug 23, 2013 03:57 PM EDT

Distance may help people recover from tragedies, according to a new study.

Researchers at The University of Texas at Austin found that the best way to make sense of tragedy is to not look at reports in news and social media and to adopt a more simplified understanding of the event.

The study found that people are significantly more likely to find clarity when they consider the bigger picture.  Researchers said this is important because finding clarity can help diffuse negative emotions and the feeling of a lack of control.

"Certainty about what causes tragic events not only helps people feel better, but also gives them a sense of direction for action," lead researcher Jae-Eun Namkoong, said in a news release. "People launching petitions for government actions, constituents voting for policies, or even consumers boycotting against products that malfunction are all motivated by their certainty of the causes behind negative events."

The study involved 196 participants who were given information about the Sandy Hook shooting.  Researchers altered their sense of time by framing the incident around different reference points.  For instance, the shooting appears to be more recent when compared with the 9/11 attacks of 2011. However, the Sandy Hook shooting appears much father away when compared to the more recent Boston Marathon Bombing.

The study revealed that participants who perceived the shooting as father away in time were more confident in their understanding about why the event happened.

"As time passes, people naturally gain more certainty about events," co-author Marlone Henderson said in a news release.

"If you're trying to give yourself a feeling a meaning, you can distance yourself from the incident with time and space. And this also applies to personal problems, such as troubles at work, a broken appliance, or even a bad breakup," Henderson said.

Researchers conducted another experiment with 202 participants.  They gave participants a list of potential causes of the Sandy Hook shooting that were frequently mentioned in the media and public discourse (e.g., suspect's poor social support, weak security in elementary schools, shooter's personality disorder, loose gun control).  Researchers were then asked to assign a percentage value to each cause.

Study results revealed that participants who perceived the shooting as a distant memory were more likely to attribute the event to a maximum of two causes.  However, those who perceived the incident as much closer in time attributed the event to a multitude of causes.

Researchers said the findings have important implications for health professionals and media.

"It's in the media's interest to keep coming up with new reasons because these things are novel and exciting," Henderson said. "But reporters could actually help bring people comfort by incorporating a sense of distance in their reports."

The findings are published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

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