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Mind Over the Apocalypse

Why people buy into the end of the world


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Did a group of ancient Mayans sit around one day and forecast the end of the world, which just so happens to be roughly five months away? Some people think so, just as others were betting that Judgment Day would arrive on May 21, 2011, or--since deciphering cosmic calendars can be understandably tricky--Oct. 21, 2011.

Humans were predicting the end of the world long before those ancient Maya were a glimmer on the horizon. And all that time, other people have bought into the idea, absolutely convinced that they would witness the end of days.

It's safe to say that, at least until this point, they were all wrong.

But why do people across history and around the world continue to put their lot in with the self-proclaimed prophets who always seem to be predicting one apocalypse or another?

It might just be a matter of human nature.

Steven Lawyer, a clinical psychologist who teaches a class on science and pseudoscience at Idaho State University, said that people are often just looking for a little certainty in an uncertain world.

"Some people have a real intolerance for uncertainty," he said. "When you have this uncertainty, it is unsettling to you. ... People need to look for things that are going to lend them a sense of certainty that things are going to happen."

Just what has people feeling uncertain depends on the person, culture and what's going on in the world, but Lawyer said a reoccurring issue is mankind's understanding of death.

"Existentialists would argue that much of human behavior is based around the meaning of life and trying to understand what happens after death," he said. "If you grow up in a certain belief system, the idea of the apocalypse generates a certain level of predictability."

End-of-the-world fears and predictions aren't limited by geography or culture; in fact, they're rather widespread.

Whether it was the Ghost Dance (in which a group of American Indians believed that the world would be regenerated and their people returned to an idealistic existence) or the Cargo Cults of Micronesia (who believed that the higher powers would drop cargo from the sky and end their dependence on the white traders who came to their islands), such ideas often arise during times of turmoil within a society, according to anthropologist John Ziker, who teaches at Boise State.

Ziker said that during periods of great stress, often a self-proclaimed prophet will arise with a plan and begin attracting recruits looking for someone with answers.

That, too, falls in line with human nature, Lawyer said.

"We tend to think that there are certain people who have the market cornered on the truth," he said.

As like-minded people begin looking for their truth, they form a social connection, whether they know it or not, Ziker said.

It also doesn't hurt that mankind, as a whole, tends to be a bit narcissistic.

"Everyone thinks that the apocalypse is going to happen when they are alive," Lawyer said. "It's the notion that anything big will happen in our time, that this is the important time."

Both Lawyer and Ziker agree that while the end of the world has been predicted since the beginning of the world, the degree to which the world is connected has changed the way apocalyptic prophecies and beliefs spread.

"There's a much stronger and easier connection with other cultures," Lawyer said. "It allows us to be aware of events going on around the world that might feed into our beliefs in the end of the world."

He said people who believe tend to look for patterns and connections to support their beliefs while ignoring bits of information that are contradictory to those ideas.

Psychologists use the term "cognitive dissonance" to define that oh-so-human habit of making our beliefs fit what we want them to.

"It gets us into trouble all the time," Lawyer said.

But what happens when the predicted day of the apocalypse comes and the world just keeps rolling along? While it might be reasonable to think that those who bought in most whole-heartedly to the prediction would be the most angry, research has shown that they are actually the ones most likely to continue their belief, Lawyer said.

In the 1950s, social psychologist Leon Festinger made his way into a cult that believed a UFO was going to come and save a few chosen people from the apocalypse. When the mother ship failed to scoop them up, Festinger found that the most hard-core believers were the ones who found excuses for why things didn't work out as expected.

"They find ways to justify their beliefs," Lawyer said.

When it comes to the predicted Mayan apocalypse Friday, Dec. 21, Lawyer said it may be that some people have chosen to see the Mayans as a sort of mystical culture.

Like many other scientists--who have spoken out that the end of one Mayan calendar does not mean the end of the world and have found other Mayan calendars going beyond Dec. 21--Ziker just smiles in a shaking-his-head kind of way.

"There's a lack of critical thinking," he said, diplomatically.


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