The Psychology of 9/11: Collective Trauma, Cognitive Dissonance, and Healing

A Reconstruction of a U-Tube Talk for Richard Gage on June 21, 2010

Professor William R. Woodward
University of New Hampshire

I am Professor William Woodward. I have taught history of psychology at a state university, the University of New Hampshire, for 35 years. I have a Ph.D. in history of science and a master’s in psychology. I have edited four books and published over twenty peer-reviewed papers (e.g., Woodward & Ash, 1982, Ash & Woodward, 1987, Woodward & Cohen, 1991, Smith & Woodward, 1996, Woodward, 2008).

I would like to speak about the public perception of 9/11. Psychology has a lot to offer for understanding how the public reacted over the past eight or so years. I will apply the insights, drawn from experimental and clinical research, from the theories of psychoanalysis, social psychology, and cognitive-behavioral psychology.

The initial event caused a collective trauma. Like the Kennedy assassination, most in my generation can still remember what we were doing when we got the news. Similarly, for most of us, the images of planes flying into those tall World Trade Center buildings will never go away. It may haunt us when we sleep. We want to talk about it, or we don’t want to talk about it. Either way, it is a cognition lodged in our minds.

This memory is what psychologists call a cognition. According to the social psychological theory of cognitive dissonance, we unconsciously try to harmonize our cognitions, or to make them consonant (Festinger, 1957). When we encounter a shock like 9/11, we naturally look for causes right away. Finding cause and effect helps to produce consonance between cognitions.

The cause was actually provided by our national media, rather surprisingly, within the first day or two of the attack. We experienced it with “shock and awe.” We saw the faces of all 19 Arab hijackers on television. We saw the planes going into the buildings, over and over. We saw the hole in the Pentagon. That was it. And that is where many people remained -- with what I will call “the official theory” of 9/11. This official story helped many to reduce their cognitive dissonance, to reconcile the attack with a ready story of the perpetrators. Our president even provided a motive: they hate our freedoms. Others looked deeper and reasoned that they hated our bases on their sovereign lands.

Others, however, experienced a different cognitive dissonance. They saw this shocking event and became suspicious of the official story, either right away or gradually over a period of months and years. I am in the latter category. It was a local group who gave me the moral support to push on toward the truth. We began by reading Crossing the Rubicon by Michael Ruppert (2004). He suggested that this was a state crime motivated by diminishing resources.

Why was there no criminal investigation? Why did our leaders and our media immediately call for a “war on terror?” Does an unsolved, un-investigated crime, provide a reason for aggression, particularly against countries unrelated to the attackers? The cognitive dissonance of these questioning persons did not go away. Surprisingly, no investigation was forthcoming. How was it that the planes were not intercepted? Why were no bodies found? Why did the buildings fall so quickly? Led by the Jersey widows and a bevy of 9/11 authors, we kept asking questions and not getting answers.

Meanwhile, another psychological operation was also going on. Our fears of attack were being reinforced. Every time we go to an airport, we are subjected to monitoring and security wands. This excessive security behavior combined with a media drumbeat over “terrorists” and “suicide attacker,” completely replacing the rhetoric of “communism” that we heard up until 1990. So the believers in our vulnerability to attack, however remote statistically, had strong cognitions of fear.

Others were less sure that we should be afraid of attack but were quite afraid of the Patriot Act and the suddenness of its implementation, the loss of civil liberties, and rise of renditions and the sweeps of Muslims into custody and the abrogation of habeus corpus. This group of questioners found itself subject to censure and marginalization. I myself was scapegoated as “the nutty professor.” Yet no one in the media answered my questions. How was this? To question is unpatriotic? To be anti-war is to be anti-U.S.? We were being punished and told not to do what our constitution gave us the right and responsibility to do. To fight against tyranny.

This combination of reinforcement and punishment fits in with cognitive behavioral theory and its application. Some cognitions – namely the official story – were reinforced. Others – the alternative stories and the questions – were punished. Strange, indeed. Even the anti-war peace communities, the social activists, split over this issue.

Let me just mention one more cognition: the enemy image based on a stereotype of the evil Arab. People in the street, and especially on airplanes, actually began to fear Muslims and their places of worship, simply as a result of the widely disseminated negative images of Muslim attackers. Never mind that the alleged hijackers were found not to be carousers, not religious fanatics, and to have been recruited by the CIA, or issued passports under official orders over the objections of local embassy staff (Tarpley, 2006). Yet the stereotype stuck.

Why? Because of the anchor effect. The first story is the one that sticks. This is well known in media circles. The first video clips define the event, as in the recent attack on an unarmed aid flotilla. The media conveyed that armed soldiers were brutally attacked by unarmed passengers. Only later did we learn that virtually all the cameras and photos of the unarmed passengers had been confiscated. Control of the media is clearly the objective. The first three days tell the story. Even a skewed and filtered story.

So now we have a traumatic event, and a trauma that some had made consonant, and others had still found to be dissonant. Even those folks have gradually achieved consonance by reading books like The New Pearl Harbor (Griffin, 2004), listening to alternative media such as, and supporting local 9/11 groups. Their consonance came to rest on a very different story from the official one. But at least it made sense because of the enormous pattern of evidence.

Both camps looked forward to the 9/11 Commission Report, though we heard disquieting reports that the President and Vice President were not submitting to interviews under oath, that they had a set a time limit for the investigation and then stonewalled providing documents, as if to run down the clock. This did not make sense, unless of course one shifted and realized that perhaps they had something to hide. Then it made sense again, and became consonant.

Then came the book The 9/11 Commission Report. Omissions and Distortions by David Ray Griffin. It detailed over 500 contradictions in the official story. Surprisingly again, this book did not appear in airport bookstores, while the official 9/11 Commission Report did (Kean & Hamilton, 2004). Nor did university libraries stock 9/11 books. This suggests fear, and the fact that only small publishers dared to publish about 9/11, and these publishers were missing from standing order library lists. A student doing research was more likely to find the pseudo-scientific account in Popular Mechanics (by a relative of Michael Chertoff, 2009) than the science-based one from Olive Branch Press (Griffin, 2007).

A psychoanalytic perspective will shed light here. When we encounter an anxiety-producing object, we use defense mechanisms – unconsciously – to ward it off. We use denial, projecting, rationalization, repression, sublimation, and other psychological mechanisms. That seemed to be happening here: many people were afraid of even reading about the “omissions and distortions” or indeed, any 9/11 book at all. They feared punishment, rightly so, since libraries now had to keep user records to preserve “security.” Others projected “conspiracy” motives onto us! How ironic, since our questions were pointing to a dark “conspiracy” within international elites – “the official conspiracy theory” (Griffin, 2007). Psychologists would call this projection on the part of the adherents of the official story.

Healing, as clinical psychologists know, comes through exposing the conflicts in our unconscious, experiencing the painful memories again, and catharsis of the emotions. This cleansing through facing the truth, bit by bit, is cathartic.

We as citizens bear a responsibility to face the truth about whatever happened on 9/11. Our wars have done so much horrendous damage to others – 6 million plus refugees, over a million dead through sanctions and war. It is almost too much to ask that we acknowledge through open inquiry, scientific and legal, that the 9/11 events have not been impartially investigated yet, despite the best efforts of volunteers. The movement needs professionals from all backgrounds, and the website Patriots Question 9/11 tell you who is on board in your discipline.

The outcome of such a psychological truth-telling could be curative for a sick soul – the soul of the United States of America and its close ally Israel. Without scientific truth, we will be condemned to live multiple lies – like addicts in the clutches of blind cravings. With the application of international law, the replacement of greedy resource wars with economic and social justice, we have the tools to expose the collective trauma and heal ourselves and the world community. We believe that encouragement of scientific inquiry about 9/11 has the power to transform the world into a cooperative community (Korten, 2007). So do the 1200 “Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth” (, along with hundreds of other professionals contributing to truth-telling (

Contact Professor Woodward at: woodward (at) unh (dot) edu

References (and a good reading list):

Ash, M. G. & Woodward, W. R. (Eds.)(1987). Psychology in twentieth-century thought and society. N.Y.: Cambridge University Press.

Chertoff, M. (2009). Homeland security. Assessing the first five years. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Evanston, Ill. Row Peterson.

Griffin, D. R. (2004). The New Pearl Harbor: Disturbing questions about the Bush administration and 9/11. Northampton, MA: Olive Branch Press.

Griffin, D. R. (2005). The 9/11 Commission report. Omissions and distortions. Northampton: Olive Branch Press.

Griffin, D. R. (2007). Debunking 9/11 debunking. An answer to Popular Mechanics and other defenders of the official conspiracy theory. Northampton: Olive Branch Press.

Kean, T. & Hamilton, L. (2004). The 9/11 Commission Report: Final report of the National Commission on Terrorist attacks upon the United States. N.Y.: Norton. (Actually written by Philip Zelikow).

Korten, D. (2007). The great turning: From empire to earth community. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler. Bloomfield, CT: Kumarian Press.

Ruppert, M. (2004). Crossing the Rubicon: The decline of the American empire at the end of the age of oil. Gabriola Island, B.C.: New Society Publishers.

Smith, L. & Woodward, W. R. (Eds.)(1996). B. F. Skinner and behaviorism in American culture. Bethlehem: Lehigh University Press.

Webster Griffin Tarpley, 9/11 Synthetic Terror. Made in USA. Joshua Tree, CA: Progressive Press.

Woodward, W. (2008). A mediatized event: Boundary work in the construction of 9/11 truth In T. Brandstetter, D. Rupnow, & C. Wessely (Eds.). Festschrift Mitchell G. Ash, Sachunterricht. Fundstücke aus der Wissenschaftsgeschichte (pp. 17-22). Vienna: Löcker Verlag.

Woodward, W. R. & Ash, M. G. (Eds.) (1982). The problematic science. Psychology in 19th century thought. N.Y.: Praeger.

Woodward, W. R. & Cohen, R. S. (Eds.) (1991). World views and scientific discipline formation. Science studies in the German Democratic Republic. Dordrecht, Holland: Kluwer.

1 comment:

  1. The Laws of Physics are incapable of giving a damn about psychology or patriotism.

    But physics determines how steel must be distributed in a skyscraper just so it can hold itself up against gravity. But it is certainly psychologically interesting that so many people who claim to comprehend physics have not been demanding information on the distribution of steel in the towers for NINE YEARS.