By Nisha Krishnan
Doomsday predictors are people who believe that they can predict the end of the world. There are variations on what happens during this “end time” but the most common iterations are a “Judgement Day” conclusion, in which good people are raptured up to heaven while sinners perish on earth, and an end in which everybody on earth is extinguished (Wikipedia, 2012). The people who are most likely to believe in doomsday predictions are those who are religious, because there are many religious texts that seem to indicate an end of days. Information about the end of the world can be found anywhere on the internet, throughout Youtube and other video-sharing sites, and in religious cults. There have been many doomsday predictions spanning the course of history from 66 CE until as recently as last year in April (Wikipedia, 2019). Even today, people continue to make predictions about dates in the future in which the world will inevitably end. Doomsday predictions are important because they can lead to bad results, such as when people kill themselves or sell all of their worldly possessions in anticipation of the end of the world. It is an extraordinary belief because there is little proof to back these claims, and they are often the result of someone trying to interpret ambiguous information that is in religious or other ancient texts. It is also quite extraordinary to believe that you can pinpoint, to the exact day, when the entire world will end.
There is evidence that can be used for the idea of doomsday predictions. One source of evidence for doomsdayers is the use of astronomy. For example, David Meade, a prominent doomsdayer, used a rare alignment of the sun and the constellation Virgo as proof of the end of the world, because this was indicated as a sign of the end of the world in the beginning of Revelation 12 (Pappas, 2017). Another very popular source of doomsday predictions is the Mayan Calendar. One of the most famous end of world predictions was for December 21st, 2012. People took this prediction seriously, and they stocked up on food and read up on survival skills. The reason that the Mayan Calendar was proof of this end was because the most popular Mayan calendar abruptly ended on December 21st, 2012 (Zuckerman, 2012). Finally, many religious people claim that the world is going to end because our society has progressed. With this progress comes loose morals, technological innovation, the loss of privacy, and social problems. Since the world is not pious and does not value morals, these religious people believe that God will end the world because we deserve to be smited (Truthunited, 2018).
Many scientists tend to have evidence against doomsday predictors as well. One example of this is the true nature of the Mayan Calendars. Mayan calendars are actually cyclical in nature, which means that in the Mayan culture, the world would continue for thousands of years without anything changing. When calendar cycles end, new calendars are made that symbolize the continuation of time, and the idea of rebirth. The whole 2012 controversy was only started because the current Mayan calendar cycle ended on December 21st, 2012, and religious people believed that this meant the end of time (Zuckerman, 2012). Additionally, many of the “rare” astronomical events that happen are actually more common than doomsdayers suggest, and they do not affect life on earth at all. For example, eclipses used to be associated with the end of times, and yet human civilization has survived hundreds, if not thousands of eclipses, and lived to tell the tale (Pappas, 2017). Finally, there is the evidence that many doomsdayers tend to use the same information to predict the end of the world, even when this information has led to failed predictions. For example, David Meade used the same astronomical alignment of the sun and the constellation Virgo as proof of the end of the world for three separate predictions (Bryner, 2018).
There are some cognitive contributions that may lead to a belief system that supports doomsday predictions. One cognitive contribution is confirmation bias. This is when you actively seek out information that supports your belief and ignore information that doesn’t. Many doomsday predictors find “evidence” in astrology and in religious texts and interpret this ambiguous information to support their theories. They do not listen to people who try to prove them wrong, or pay attention to evidence that refutes their predictions. I don’t believe that these people are misinformed, per se, but rather that they are misinterpreting ambiguous information in the world around them. There might also be reasons for why people have made doomsday predictions, historically. Throughout the long history of human civilization, we have been plagued with crises like poverty, war, political issues, hatred, and violence. The cognitive contribution comes in to play with this information, because apocalyptic predictions have often been used to divert attention away from these more realistic issues. When you are constantly living in fear from the world ending someday, you don’t have time to worry about social problems that actively hurt you on a day to day basis. Finally, there is the cognitive contribution of the “true believer”. A true believer is someone who believes so strongly in something that even when contrary evidence is introduced, this can strengthen the conviction of the belief. Cognitive dissonance also plays a role in being a true believer when things fail. Obviously, every doomsday prediction has been wrong, since the world is still alive today. When the predicted end day comes and goes and nothing happens, cognitive dissonance occurs. On one hand, they believe so strongly that the end of days is upon us, but on the other hand, the end of the world did not happen. They change one of the beliefs to reduce this dissonance— for example, the religious text actually points to a new date as the end of times.
As mentioned previously, doomsday predictors and believers tend to come from the same community—people who are religious. This is because many different religions have information and predictions about the end of the world through religious stories and texts. Additionally, religious people tend to believe that there is good and evil in the world, and that as society progresses, the evil is beginning to overtake the good. When you believe that most people in the world are bad, but that you are good because you are religious and have morals, it can be easy to think that there is an end of the world for people who are bad, or that the world will end and everybody will die as punishment because of the sinners. This is what justifies and sustains good behavior, the idea that bad people will be punished. Social influences are also absolutely a part of this conviction of belief. When religious groups get together to face the predicted end of times, there is strength in the numbers. When the date comes and goes and nothing has happened, many people probably believe that there is no possible way that an entire group could have been wrong. This sustains belief as new predictions emerge. When every member of a group believes in something, group polarization can occur as well, which can lead to increased strength of conviction in the belief.
Whether one believes in doomsday predictions or not, it is hard to deny that it is a very common belief that has scared all of us at one point or another. While seemingly unproblematic as a belief, doomsday predictions can have some serious consequences. They create a sense of fear and panic in society. The people who believe in them may also attempt suicide or sell their worldly possessions in anticipation of the end of the world, which is obviously harmful. The psychological explanations for doomsday beliefs are endless and include cognitive dissonance, the “true believer” effect, apophenia, and confirmation bias. By examining the cognitive contributions that can lead to a belief in the end of the world, and how these beliefs are sustained through psychological explanations, we can understand why people have such strong convictions about doomsday predictions even in the face of such damning evidence against them.
Bryner, J. (2018, April 23). The ‘End of the World’ Is Today. Here’s Why We’re Still Here. Retrieved March 21, 2019, from https://www.livescience.com/62378-doomsday-april-23.html
Pappas, S. (2017, September 22). Apocalypse Now? Doomsday Predictions Are Just Recycled Bogus Theories. Retrieved March 21, 2019, from https://www.livescience.com/60499-ancient-theories-fuel-doomsday-predictions.html
Truthunited. (2018, April 09). 100% PROOF WE ARE IN THE END TIMES. Retrieved March 21, 2019, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zpHViFdHTTw
Wikipedia. (2019, February 19). End time. Retrieved March 21, 2019, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/End_time
Wikipedia. (2019, March 09). List of dates predicted for apocalyptic events. Retrieved March 21, 2019, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_dates_predicted_for_apocalyptic_events
Zuckerman, C. (2012, December 14). Maya Calendars Actually Predict That Life Goes On. Retrieved March 21, 2019, from https://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2012/12/121207-maya-truly-did-not-predict-doomsday-apocalypse/