Elizabeth Loftus and Roxane Cohen Silver, UCI Psychology Heavyweights, Look at 9/11 a Decade Later

UC Irvine Distinguished Professor of Social Ecology Elizabeth Loftus has long captivated OC Weekly writers (not always in positive ways), and now she's weighing in on this generation's Pearl Harbor moment: the 9/11 attacks that forever changed life as we know it.

Loftus, who specializes in (often unreliable) recovered memories, has a piece on post-9/11 intelligence gathering by the U.S. government in "9/11: Ten Years Later," a special issue of American Psychologist. Her contribution is not the sole UCI connection to the American Psychological Association's flagship journal.

"9/11: Ten Years Later" was edited by Roxane Cohen Silver, a UCI professor of psychology & social behavior, who also penned the introduction and an analysis of how 9/11 may have affected American youths' sociopolitical attitudes, according to the university's communications office.

The theme of the entire issue, which features peer-reviewed articles on the social, political and psychological impact of the terrorist attacks, is that psychologists have learned far more about their field's limitations than they have about their potential to shape and predict behavior.

"Before 9/11, we didn't have any good way to estimate the response to something like this other than--well, estimates" based on earthquakes and other trauma, Silver recently told the New York Times. That led experts to greatly overestimate the number of people in New York who would suffer emotional distress--and many therapists rushed in to soothe victims using methods that proved later to be harmful to some, argues "9/11: Ten Years Later."

Patricia Watson, a Dartmouth Medical School psychiatry professor who serves with Silver on the board of Psychology Beyond Borders, a nonprofit that strives to use proven psychosocial tools to deal with international disasters, cited a case study that showed New Yorkers were unsure if they were helped by mental health professionals, "but the providers felt great about it."

It may not be of much help to those who lived through those terror attacks, but another point of "9/11: Ten Years Later" is to demonstrate that America's psychologists and psychiatrists are now better prepared to deal with the next 9/11. Indeed, the event profoundly transformed the field as much as it did our collective psyche.

Perhaps the greatest lesson learned: experts should employ caution applying the theories of the social sciences to real life. As the conclusion of "9/11: Ten Years Later" puts it:

The closer scientists come to applying their favorite abstractions to real-world problems, the harder it becomes to keep track of the inevitably numerous variables and to resist premature closure on desired conclusions.


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