Our Attraction to the End

in Article
February 22nd, 2011

Bookmark and Share

Since the beginning of time, there have been theories on how the world will end. One fairly recent theory is that the end of the world will occur on December 21, 2012 when the Mayan Long Count calendar ends. Although scholars reject the theory that any catastrophic event is scheduled for this date, arguing that the significance of the date has been misinterpreted, many people still believe it’s coming. Movies, countless online forums and a good number of books talk about the apocalypse that is supposed to be arriving.

It makes you wonder what makes people obsess over these end-of-the-world scenarios after they’re given facts proving that it won’t happen. In an article published in Scientific American, Michael Moyer suggests that we are constantly trying to predict our demise because we have a need to explain things that are not in our control. Our brains are always searching for patterns in order to interpret the significance of events that occur in the natural world. Sociologist, John Hall, explains in his book, Apocalypse: From Antiquity to the Empire of Modernity, that, “After events like 9/11 and the Great Recession, as well as technological disasters like the BP oil spill, people begin to wonder—not just people who are fringe zealots or crazies—whether modern society is any longer capable of solving its problems.” Therefore, Moyer suggests, people are more willing to believe that the end of the world is coming because of a psychological need to explain why these events are happening.
A book on how to survive the doomsday in 2012
Michael Shermer, editor in chief of Skeptic Magazine, agrees with Moyer, saying that the mind is always creating patterns based on events, meaningful or not. This explains why some people are so willing to believe doomsday scenarios when they hear them. He adds that people will opt to believe that a proposed danger is real when it actually isn’t because it is the safer course. He gives the example of Lucy the hominid who hears a noise while walking on the plains of Africa. She has two choices; she could assume that it was just grass rustling because of the wind or that is was a predator. The safer choice would be to assume that she was in danger, even if she wasn’t, in order to save her life. He suggests that this habit of assuming the worst to stay out of danger evolved into our pattern-seeking habits, causing us to predict catastrophic events based on potentially meaningless events. Research done by Jennifer Whitson, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin, supports this claim, suggesting that a decreased sense of control causes people to look for patterns in order to regain order and control as well as to find solutions to the problem.

Eternal Fascinations with the End: Why We’re Suckers for Stories of Our Own Demise – Scientific American
A video and transcript of Michael Shermer’s talk
Feeling Powerless? Do I have a Conspiracy Theory For You – Newsweek

2 Comments on Our Attraction to the End

  • “He suggests that this habit of assuming the worst to stay out of danger evolved into our pattern-seeking habits” – that’s called pessimism. Not everyone assumes the worst when they hear rustling in the Savannah grass; sometimes they’re right to not fear, and sometimes not.

    The point is, we’re not all pessimists. If there were any adaptive advantage to being afraid of everything, you’d bet that those who weren’t afraid wouldn’t be successful enough to pass on their genes and wouldn’t be around today. But they are here today – I would bet that most college students (at least in the North East) don’t believe in doomsday and the like.

    Michael Shermer may be a good skeptic, but he makes a lousy evolutionary biologist, based on what you write.

  • Hi, Neat post. There is an issue together with your website in internet explorer, may test this… IE nonetheless is the market leader and a large part of people will pass over your great writing because of this problem.

Post Your Comment