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Psychology Reveals the Comforts of the Apocalypse

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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A scene from H. G. Wells's "War of the Worlds." (Illustration by Alvim Corréa/Bblackmoor/Wikimedia Commons)

December 21, according to much-hyped misreadings of the Mayan calendar, will mark the end of the world. It’s not the first “end is nigh” proclamation—and it’s unlikely to be the last. That’s because, deep down for various reasons, there’s something appealing—at least to some of us—about the end of the world.


Enjoy the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

University of Minnesota neuroscientist Shmuel Lissek, who studies the fear system, believes that at its heart, the concept of doomsday evokes an innate and ancient bias in most mammals. “The initial response to any hint of alarm is fear. This is the architecture with which we’re built,” Lissek says. Over evolutionary history, organisms with a better-safe-than-sorry approach survive. This mechanism has had consequences for both the body and brain, where the fast-acting amygdala can activate a fearful stress response before “higher” cortical areas have a chance to assess the situation and respond more rationally.

But why would anyone enjoy kindling this fearful response? Lissek suspects that some apocalyptic believers find the idea that the end is nigh to be validating. Individuals with a history of traumatic experiences, for example, may be fatalistic. For these people, finding a group of like-minded fatalists is reassuring. There may also be comfort in being able to attribute doom to some larger cosmic order—such as an ancient Mayan prophecy. This kind of mythology removes any sense of individual responsibility.

There’s an even broader allure to knowing the precise end date. “Apocalyptic beliefs make existential threats—the fear of our mortality—predictable,” Lissek says. Lissek, in collaboration with National Institute of Mental Health neuroscientist Christian Grillon and colleagues, has found that when an unpleasant or painful experience, such as an electric shock, is predictable, we relax. The anxiety produced by uncertainty is gone. Knowing when the end will come doesn’t appeal equally to everyone, of course—but for many of us it’s paradoxically a reason to stop worrying.

This also means people can focus on preparing. Doomsday preppers who assemble their bunker and canned food, Lissek believes, are engaged in goal-oriented behaviors, which are a proven therapy in times of trouble.


The Power of Knowledge

Beyond the universal aspects of fear and our survival response to it, certain personality traits may make individuals more susceptible to believing it’s the end of the world. Social psychologist Karen Douglas at the University of Kent studies conspiracy theorists and suspects that her study subjects, in some cases, share attributes with those who believe in an impending apocalypse. She points out that, although these are essentially two different phenomena, certain apocalyptic beliefs are also at the heart of conspiracy theories—for example, the belief that government agencies know about an impending disaster and are intentionally hiding this fact to prevent panic.

“One trait I see linking the two is the feeling of powerlessness, often connected to a mistrust in authority,” Douglas says. Among conspiracy theorists, these convictions of mistrust and impotence make their conspiracies more precious—and real. “People feel like they have knowledge that others do not.”

Relatively few studies exist on the individuals who start and propagate these theories. Douglas points out that research into the psychology of persuasion has found that those who believe most are also most motivated to broadcast their beliefs. In the Internet age, that’s an easier feat than ever before.


Lessons from Dystopia

Steven Schlozman, drawing both from his experiences as a Harvard Medical School child psychiatrist and novelist (his first book recounts a zombie apocalypse) believes it’s the post-apocalyptic landscape that fascinates people most.

“I talk to kids in my practice and they see it as a good thing. They say, ‘life would be so simple—I’d shoot some zombies and wouldn’t have to go to school,’” Schlozman says. In both literature and in speaking with patients, Schlozman has noticed that people frequently romanticize the end times. They imagine surviving, thriving and going back to nature.

Schlozman recently had an experience that eerily echoed Orson Welles’s 1938 The War of the Worlds broadcast. He was discussing his book on a radio program and they had to cut the show short when listeners misconstrued his fiction for fact. He believes the propensity to panic is not constant in history but instead reflects the times. In today’s complicated world with terrorism, war, fiscal cliffs and climate change, people are primed for panic.

“All of this uncertainty and all of this fear comes together and people think maybe life would be better” after a disaster, Schlozman says. Of course, in truth, most of their post-apocalyptic dreams are just fantasies that ignore the real hardships of pioneer life and crumbling infrastructure. He points out that, if anything, tales of apocalypse, particularly involving zombies, should ideally teach us something about the world we should avoid—and how to make necessary changes now.


About the Author: Daisy Yuhas is an associate editor at Scientific American Mind. You can follow her on Twitter, @daisyyuhas

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. LarryW 10:59 am 12/18/2012

    Why do we care whether the Mayan calendar was misread or not?

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  2. 2. karenalcott 2:28 pm 12/18/2012

    I’m 55 and I recall at least 6 different ends of the world. These folks surely must have a deep seated need, to keep believing in the next one.

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  3. 3. TTLG 3:21 pm 12/18/2012

    This question came up in the movie “Groundhog Day”.
    “What if there is not tomorrow?”
    “No tomorrow means no consequences, that means we can do whatever we want!”

    Seems like a good excuse to be completely self-indulgent. No wonder it is popular.

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  4. 4. 5:02 pm 12/18/2012

    Just because it has not happened yet does not mean it will not happen.

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  5. 5. obscurantist 5:19 pm 12/18/2012

    I think there’s another deep pleasure, the sense that after I die there will be nothing; the human race, or the earth or the entire universe will end when I do. That way (1) I won’t miss anything, and (2) even more important, my ego is hugely inflated as it becomes proportional to the entire universe. (Who needs professional psychologists to figure this stuff out? It’s in all of us.)

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  6. 6. karenalcott 12:02 am 12/19/2012

    Hi obscurantist, I think your on to something there, I mean, how can the creation really be all about me, if it just goes on without me when I die. I think we all know that barring a major cosmic or geologic event, or our own self destruction, mankind will die when the planet does, and it will at the latest, die when our star dies. Everything is temporary; but alot of us just can’t accept that it’s just not all about me.

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  7. 7. Cramer 1:26 pm 12/19/2012

    Surviorship bias and the fantasy (or delusion) of superiority, I believe, are the primary motivators for obsessing about an apocalypse.

    Many Christians divide the world into good and evil; and they believe they are the good people who will be raptured to heaven.

    Many people view themselves as the Mad Max character. Billions will die, but they will survive. Obviously, movies have to focus on the surviors — I don’t believe many people would watch a movie of a dead body decaying (or being eaten) for two hours.

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  8. 8. cccampbell38 1:43 pm 12/20/2012

    There are many references in the New Testament of the Bible to the “end of times” and the return of Jesus Christ to gather those who have accepted Him as Savior and take them to “everlasting life”.

    Every few years since the beginnings of this religion some of its adherents have claimed to see the portents of that “final judgement” and have proclaimed that it was about to happen. So far no luck, but I would imagine that many Christians who face the daily struggles and uncertainties of life would dearly love to see it end and to be gathered into heaven.

    Could this be playing into our apocalyptic fantasies?

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  9. 9. jgrosay 4:11 pm 12/20/2012

    Repeated warnings of an impending catastrophe, even when everybody with a basic edcuation level knows there’s nothing real in the warning, do make upset those who hear about this, and taking in consideration how our mind works, and how easy it is to put anybody in a very primary state of mind, when the repeated affirmation of something would make it enter the listener’s mind as a true fact, make me thing that the overwhelming media coverage of an impossible to become actual forecast may not be a fair way of earning money, and can be some kind of a serious aggression or offense to media reader’s, watcher’s or listeners. Please refrain from unnecessary alarming, have mercy of the rest of mankind, watch your step, somebody may finally blame somebody else for something!

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