Major disasters clearly take a toll on the survivors who had the misfortune to go through them. But there is another group of people who can suffer mental and physical distress from disasters: those who experience them second-hand, through media coverage and conversation. After 9/11, for example, researchers found an increase in symptoms of depression and stress among Americans who hadn’t directly experienced the terrorist attacks.
But there have always been doubts about studies purporting to show evidence of vicarious distress. Because disasters occur randomly researchers are usually unable to gather data until weeks after the event, and they often have no record of people’s baseline mood before the disaster.
By chance a new study was able to overcome these limitations. When tragedy struck the Netherlands in 2014, there was a ready-made group of participants who were already recording their daily experiences. In May of that year, Bertus Jeronimus and colleagues at the University of Groningen had begun a crowd-sourced diary study called “HowNutsAreTheDutch” to examine mental health in the Netherlands. Three times per day for 30 days, participants completed questionnaires on their phones that measured their mood and recent activities.
Two months into the project, on 17 July 2014, Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, was shot down over Ukraine by pro-Russian separatists, killing all 298 on board. One hundred and ninety-six of the victims were Dutch and the disaster received widespread attention in the Dutch media.
For their study published recently in the British Journal of Psychology, Jeronimus and colleagues took advantage of this tragic twist of fate and examined the data gathered from 141 participants who were taking part around the time of the MH17 crash, to see how they were affected by their vicarious experience of the disaster.
The team compared participants’ ratings of their mood and physical discomfort in the three days immediately following the crash with their average ratings earlier and later in the study. In each questionnaire, participants had rated themselves for six positive moods (e.g. energetic, cheerful) and six negative moods (e.g. irritable, tired). The questionnaires also measured the extent of general physical discomfort – for example, experience of symptoms like headaches or diarrhoea.
As expected, in the three days after the crash the participants showed a higher level of negative emotion and a lower level of positive emotion, and also reported more physical discomfort. But although statistically significant these responses were pretty small: each rating scale ranged from 0 to 100, and the biggest effect (for physical discomfort) represented a change of just 2.78 points on this scale.
The researchers then looked at whether these changes were associated with aspects of participants’ personality like neuroticism and extraversion. These results were surprising: they had expected that people high in neuroticism, who worry and ruminate a lot, might be more affected by the crash – but in fact these participants tended to show less of a reduction in positive mood than people low in neuroticism. On the other hand, strong extraverts, who usually score higher on happiness and mood than introverts, tended to have a greater drop in mood than the quieter types.
The authors speculated that extraverts tend to socialise more and so could have spent more time talking about the disaster with others, precipitating a drop in their mood. High scorers on neuroticism, they suggested, might be more likely to respond to stress that directly involves themselves, rather than vicarious experiences.
Personality had no association with changes to negative mood, and overall the authors concluded that “broad personality domains are of little importance in predicting differences in vicarious exposure effects.” In this respect, age seemed more important: older participants tended to have less of an increase in negative emotions. Older people may have better strategies for coping with traumatic events, the author say.
Although the study was exploratory, it provides a rare insight into how indirect experience of disasters can affect the general population, albeit in small ways. But while the MH17 crash was a shocking event, it also occurred halfway across Europe and didn’t involve a continuing threat to the population of the Netherlands, which, the authors say, “may have allowed them to retain their sense of safety”. The effects of vicariously experiencing a more immediate disaster – and the importance of personality differences in this response – could be quite different.
Image: Graffiti on a wall commemorates the victims of the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 crash underneath a flyover July 26, 2014 in Koog aan de Zaan, The Netherlands (Photo by Michel Porro/Getty Images)