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Swiss psyche undamaged by traumatic events

A new study shows that even after tragic events like the Zug massacre, the emotional life of the Swiss is surprisingly stable

(Keystone Archive)

The traumatic events of last year had little impact on the long-term emotional well-being of the Swiss. But a study has revealed intriguing disparities.

The study, conducted by Geneva University's Emotional Research Group, was the second into the emotional climate in Switzerland.

The first was conducted in 1997, but this latest one had the added interest that it was carried out in the wake of a series of shocking events - the September 11 terrorist attacks, the massacre of local politicians in the Swiss town of Zug, the financial collapse of Swissair and the Gotthard tunnel fire.


The researchers, led by psychology professor Klaus Scherer, discerned a surprising stability in the emotional life of the Swiss: this succession of traumatic events had had little impact on the way people experienced everyday life.

"We were told that nothing would be as it was before, so we expected to find some change, but we didn't," Scherer says. "To a certain extent this makes sense, because emotions are really more concerned with what's happening to us here and now."

Those questioned were asked to describe the emotions they had felt the day before, how often the experienced certain emotions, and whether they considered themselves to be in good health - and if not, what symptoms they had.

Despite the similarity between the 1997 and 2001 findings, there were nonetheless pronounced disparities between men and women and, between German- and French-speaking, something that surprised Scherer and his team.

The professor said the findings exploded some of the popular stereotypes about the different language groups in Switzerland.

"The popular image is that the German Swiss are solid and staid and they don't really show their emotions. The French Swiss are supposed to be more happy-go-lucky and friendlier. Our findings go against these stereotypes," he told swissinfo.

According to the findings, a large majority of Swiss are happy with their lives, and consider themselves to be in good health. But people in French-speaking areas suffer negative emotions like anger, irritation, frustration, anxiety and disappointment more often than German-speakers.

This would seem to have a knock-on effect for their health. French-speakers complained more often about problems like fatigue, back problems, sleeplessness and depression.

Health correlation

Scherer says that, while there is little empirical evidence, a strong correlation seems to exist between negative emotions - especially when suffered over a prolonged period - and certain physical and psychological symptoms. Conversely, positive emotions seem to have a beneficial effect on a person's health.

So, are French-speakers hypochondriacs? Do they suffer more emotionally and physically because their living conditions are worse than in German-speaking areas. Or is it simply more acceptable to speak about emotional and psychological problems in French-speaking areas? Scherer says to answer this will require further study.

There may not have been a lasting impact on Swiss emotions as a result of last year's tragedies, but those emotions that were displayed were governed to a large extent by the images that were brought to use by television.

Media manipulation

These events were genuinely moving, but it has become the norm for the media to try to manipulate the public to elicit an emotional response.

"News - and the way we evaluate it - comes to us via the media, not through social interaction. Now - more than used to be the case - news is presented in a very emotional fashion - which goes hand in hand with this general belief that one needs to show one's emotions," he says, pointing out that the public is made to feel that they should show more emotion than they actually need to.

"Emotions - both positive and negative - are emergency reactions. They signal that something is not as it should be and we need to adapt to it. If emotion is trivialised, we lose this important adaptive device," Scherer says.

by Roy Probert

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