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Am Psychol. 2007 May-Jun;62(4):304-16.

The psychology of ongoing threat: relative risk appraisal, the September 11 attacks, and terrorism-related fears.

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Trauma Studies and Services Center, New York State Psychiatric Institute, New York, NY 10032, USA.


There are now replicated findings that posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms related to the September 11, 2001, attacks occurred in large numbers of persons who did not fit the traditional definition of exposure to a traumatic event. These data are not explained by traditional epidemiologic "bull's eye" disaster models, which assume the psychological effects are narrowly, geographically circumscribed, or by existing models of PTSD onset. In this article, the authors develop a researchable model to explain these and other terrorism-related phenomena by synthesizing research and concepts from the cognitive science, risk appraisal, traumatic stress, and anxiety disorders literatures. They propose the new term relative risk appraisal to capture the psychological function that is the missing link between the event and subjective response in these and other terrorism-related studies to date. Relative risk appraisal highlights the core notion from cognitive science that human perception is an active, multidimensional process, such that for unpredictable societal threats, proximity to the event is only one of several factors that influence behavioral responses. Addressing distortions in relative risk appraisal effectively could reduce individual and societal vulnerability to a wide range of adverse economic and ethnopolitical consequences to terrorist attacks. The authors present ways in which these concepts and related techniques can be helpful in treating persons with September 11- or terrorism-related distress or psychopathology.

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