Congratulations, we’ve survived yet another failed doomsday prediction. Of course, it’s only a matter of time before we brace for another. It seems that humanity is truly fascinated by End-of-the-World predictions. A closer look inside our own minds may help to explain why this is.
The concept of the world ending in a catastrophic single event is nothing new, and plays a central role in Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Doomsday scenarios even predate organized religion—the oldest written story, the 5,000-year-old Sumerian text The Epic of Gilgamesh—relays a horrific sequence in which a Goddess threatens to raise the dead from the underworld to haunt the living. Welcome to your next Netflix binge watch.
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Clearly many humans are obsessed with the idea of doomsday, but why? To answer that question, Newsweek turned to some experts. Dr. Daniel Sullivan, a social psychologist from the University of Arizona, has done research on both what motivates people to believe in conspiracies and how religion affects how people think about negative events. According to Sullivan, this global fascination may stem from our desire to mentally reduce the actual danger and evil in the world.
“Obviously, the world is a chaotic place and people have trouble predicting what will happen to them,” Sullivan says. “Sometimes it is preferable to see danger as coming from one single identifiable source...than it is to simply imagine that danger is endlessly complex and simple.”
Dr. Jeff Greenberg, a social psychologist also at the University of Arizona and co-author of the book “The worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life,” which focuses on how humans deal with our own mortality, suggested that mankind’s fascination with the end of days may also stem from our innate love of things that scare us.
“It’s something we fear and things we fear we are also intrigued by,” Greenberg told Newsweek . “There is a natural interest into the things that we worry about and that scare us. There is a fascination with us.”
As for predicting the exact day and time of this unified evil act, Sullivan hypothesized that perhaps this compulsion derives from yet another basic human instinct: aversion to randomness.
“When I think about doomsday predictions, it reminds me of a classic study in which participants were told they were going to receive an electric shock,” said Sullivan. The majority of participants opted to receive the shock right away rather than wait for it to happen randomly.
Even doomsday predictions being wrong (which to date has always been the case) doesn’t quell predictors’ beliefs. According to Dr. Lorenzo DiTommaso, a professor of Theology at the University of Concordia who wrote a book on the history of apocalypse theories, in a previous interview with LiveScience, these believers blame the false predictions on their inability to properly translate celestial cues or ancient texts, and remain true to the cause no matter how many predicted doomsdays pass along.
Ultimately, it seems that doomsdays predictions, and the momentary buzz that follows them, are here to stay. In a world where catastrophe can strike at any given moment, perhaps obsessing over the biggest one of all is somehow ... comforting.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled Dr. Jeff Greenberg's name. It has now been corrected.