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How terrorist attacks can change a nation's psyche

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The public's response to the recent mass shootings in San Bernardino, California, follows a typical pattern, says social psychology professor Sheldon Solomon.

First people react by avoiding places associated with the attacks. For example after the killings in Paris last month, some residents didn't go to cafes and other places where groups gather. Next, he says, many people will express goodwill by helping victims — by donating blood or clothing for example.

But then there's a third reaction. Solomon and other social psychologists believe that terror attacks and other threatening situations force us to confront our own death. 

"When we're reminded that we may someday die, this exaggerates our affection for our own culture and magnifies our hatred of anyone who is different."

To quell this fear of death, he says, many people find comfort in identifying a person or group they can blame and who can personify evil. The result, he says, is that leaders who play to this fear become more popular.

"These are larger than life figures who proclaim they know where the evil is and they will take care of it," Solomon says.

For example after 9/11, "President Bush said God had chosen him to rid the world of evil." It's rhetoric Solomon says he is also hearing from political candidates like Donald Trump, whose popularity has surged since the attacks in California.

From PRI's The World ©2015 Public Radio International

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