Lead author Jae-Eun Namkoong, a marketing graduate student in Red McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin, said study findings showed in the wake of a negative event, people were more likely to find clarity by considering the larger picture to 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," Namkoong said in a statement.
"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."
As part of the study, the researchers presented 196 participants with information about the Sandy Hook shooting and altered their sense of time by framing the incident around different reference points.
For example, the shooting appeared to be much more recent when compared with the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. But in comparison with a similar incident that occurred just two weeks prior, the Sandy Hook shooting seems much farther away.
The study found the participants who perceived the shooting as farther away in time were more confident in their understanding about why the event happened, Namkoong said.
"As time passes, people naturally gain more certainty about events," Marlone Henderson, assistant professor of psychology and study co-author said.
"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."
The study, published online in Social Psychological and Personality Science, has important implications for mental health professionals, as well as for the media, Henderson said.
"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."
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