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Social Influence at Ground Zero: A Review of American Ground: Unbuilding of the World Trade Center, by William Langewiesche

By Elaine Cassel

The only reporter to have unrestricted access to Ground Zero, the site of the World Trade Center collapse after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, William Langewiesche has written a riveting account of the society that came into being under the rubble.

Langewiesche, a writer for The Atlantic, slipped into the site of the tragedy and, with a photographer, chronicled the clean-up process that lasted for almost a year. His observations of the work of rescue and clean-up crews are a window into how many variations of social influence impacted life among the ruins. Among the influences detailed in American Ground are norms, deindividuation, social facilitation, conformity, compliance, obedience, interpersonal aggression, and leadership.

Norms are the socially based rules that prescribe what people should or should not do in various situations. Langewiesche details the norms that quickly became apparent at Ground Zero. The norms included deference to firefighters, who made up a large part of the work crew, and more respect being paid to the remains of firefighters than those of others who lost their lives.

While norms can lead to orderly social behavior, they can also lead to anarchy. In a section that has already been attacked by New York City firefighters, Langewiesche reports on his observation of firefighters who engaged in looting of expensive clothing and jewelry from stores inside the WTC towers. This resort to lawless behavior can be explained as a result of deindividuation, a psychological state in which a person becomes submerged in a group and loses a sense of individuality. When people experience deindividuation, they undergo heightened emotional arousal and intense feelings of cohesiveness with the group.

Deindividuation seems to be caused by two factors: (1) the belief that one cannot be held personally accountable for one’s behavior, and (2) shifting attention away from internal thoughts and standards and towards external environment. Both were evident in the firefighters’ looting. Langewiesche tells how the people working in Ground Zero developed a survivor mentality that surrounded them with an aura of "specialness." But the firefighters thought they were more special than others, especially police officers, with whom they shared a mutual lack of affection both within and without Ground Zero.

Deindividuation also leads to conformity and compliance, and all workers at Ground Zero, firefighters and non-firefighters, behaved similarly when faced when unexpected dangers. One of the high points of the book is when the workers journey deep within subway tunnels to check the status of the Freon units connected with the WTC’s huge air conditioning system. Langewiesche describes how, following a leader who was one of the engineers for the building of the WTC and who knew every detail of the towers’ infrastructures, each party in the search crew did exactly as the leader told them to do, demonstrating obedience to authority. Obedience is defined as the behavior change that comes in response to a demand from an authority figure.

The leader had warned that the first person who did not obey his orders would be sent back above ground. No one made him make good on his threat, for their very lives depended on the leader’s expertise, even if they had doubts about some of the tactics he used to get them to their location (where, it turns out, the freon had already escaped and was no longer a threat). Social psychologists tell us that uncertainty about a situation fosters conformity. Every day at Ground Zero was a day filled with uncertainly and ambiguity, and new threats to the health and safety of the workers were constantly manifest.

American Ground
portrays a world unto itself, completely cut off from the media—except this author and his photographer—the public, and politicians. The workers had a job to do—clearing away 1.5 million tons of metal and steel and searching for the remains of thousands of victims. Though the task began with no one in charge and with no real plan, leaders and strategy emerged. Indeed, people emerged as leaders who were just everyday firemen, cops, and heavy equipment operators, challenged by unimaginable tasks. The leaders were task-, not person-oriented. Indeed, there was little room or time for concern with group members’ feelings. Workers not willing to follow the plan and program were ostracized.

Given the frustration, pressures, and hellish conditions under which they were working and their history of inter-group animosity, it is not surprising that hostility and aggression broke out between the firemen of FDNY and members of the NYPD. The firemen employed a set ritual when they discovered firefighters’ remains, while treating others without much respect. This led to several physical fights between members of NYPD and FDNY. The modern view of the frustration-aggression hypothesis helps explain their aggression as the result of unpleasant emotion caused by frustration and stress. The polluted atmosphere in which they were working could also have contributed to their aggression, as environmental psychologists have found proof that air pollution, a source of stress, can influence whether people display aggression.

William Langewiesche writes of this subterranean world borne of the first terrorist attack on American soil with detached respect. The details of the grim clean-up task are neither sensationalized nor sentimentalized. Students of psychology will find much to like about this elegant book, which is sure to be a contender for major book awards.

Elaine Cassel, Marymount University and Lord Fairfax Community College