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It’s the End of the World and They Don’t Feel Fine: The Psychology of December 21, 2012

Article

Matthew J. Sharps, Schuyler W. Liao, and Megan R. Herrera

Volume 37.1, January/February 2013

It's the end of the world as we know it, and they don't feel fine

Cognitive science research on belief in the 2012 “apocalypse” demonstrates that dissociative processes contribute directly to this belief through reduction of the “feature-intensive” cognitive processing that would engender appropriate skepticism.

The Earth’s rotation, angle of inclination, and passage around the sun result in astronomical and meteorological regularities. These regularities allow us to use a variety of relatively arbitrary mathematical systems to provide dates for all sorts of useful things, such as the proper seasons for agriculture. In view of the arbitrary nature of these systems, however, it is reasonably obvious that specific dates within any given system have no particular significance for sweeping change in the human or natural realms.

This leads to a fascinating psychological question: Why do such arbitrary dates cause so many human beings to become so hysterical?

We are currently being told by some media sources that the world will end on December 21 of this year. It is suggested that this was predicted by the Maya, given that this date coincides with the end of a specific calendric cycle, a baktun, within their “long count.” This date has also been suggested to coincide with a “galactic alignment,” a phenomenon that would seem to rely more on vague terminology than on actual astronomy for its very existence (Krupp 2009), but that would, even if valid, have no terrestrial significance whatsoever. It is also true that there is at least one Maya document that mentions this date without affording it any apocalyptic significance whatsoever (Bower 2012).

However, we are also told that the same date was of significance for the Hopi people of the American Southwest. Of course, the Mexican (Aztec) pochtecatl, or long-range merchants, maintained a trade network that reached from the Maya country at least to the southern reaches of the American Southwest. It is not an impossible speculation that a few calendric ideas, together with tourmaline, obsidian, and Central American parrots, might have been passed along these trade routes.

Although this possibility presents an interesting question for archaeology, the alleged Maya/Hopi coincidence in dates simply doesn’t provide sufficient cause to sell your house and move up into the mountains, away from this doomed civilization, with a rifle and a staggering number of canned goods. This is especially true in view of the fact that human beings have an abysmal record of predicting the future. Of course, this is not surprising, as the future hasn’t happened yet. Even so, from the oracles at Delphi and Cumae all the way through the surprisingly inaccurate predictions of the precise consequences of climate change in the modern world, people have always sought accurate knowledge of the specifics of the future. Human beings have repeatedly failed, and these failures have occasionally been horrendously consequential.

During the Greco/Persian wars, for example, the Delphic Oracle’s prediction that the Athenians would be safe behind their “wooden wall” did not work out so well for the Athenians, who built such walls around the Acropolis and were promptly slaughtered by the Persians (wooden walls are amazingly flammable). This prophecy of wooden walls was immediately fine-tuned by the admiral Themistocles to refer to his ships at Salamis (Herodotus 2006); admittedly, they were made out of wood, but a ship is not a wall, and to claim them as such was, and is, something of a stretch.

Apocalyptic dates have come and gone many times. In recent years, we have seen the “Heaven’s Gate” hysteria (Vick 1997), in which people sold their possessions, gathered under a charismatic leader, and prepared to leave Earth in a UFO apparently hiding behind the Hale-Bopp comet (a physical impossibility). Physics aside, the Heaven’s Gate devotees committed mass suicide so that at least their souls could travel to Heaven, Nirvana, or somewhere else, flying to this indefinable infinity in the company of hypothetical space aliens in their physics-proof starship.

The Y2K phenomenon provided another well-documented instance of apocalyptic revelation (Nolte 2009), in which many people sold all and headed for the hills because, somehow, all of our computers were going to fail, providing the basis for the death of civilization.

Obviously, these things didn’t happen.

Despite these facts, however, many people remain wedded to the idea of apocalyptic prophecy. We are currently inundated with cable-television programs on the forthcoming end of the world. The authors, together with the rest of the world, have seen numerous documentaries “proving” the apocalyptic significance of December 21, 2012. These programs have roped in everything from the Maya and the Hopi to the predictions of Nostradamus and even the influence of space aliens.

What is the psychological basis for this phenomenon? What do people actually think is going to happen on December 21?

We decided to find out.

End of the World 2012

The Psychology of 2012

One hundred and ten college students at a California university completed several surveys in which they were asked to rate the degree of their belief that major world changes would happen on December 21, 2012. They were also asked about the sources of this belief; about their beliefs in a variety of related areas, including various kinds of prophecies; about their specific beliefs concerning what, precisely, is supposed to happen on the infamous date; and finally about their own characteristics. One of these characteristics lay in the realm of dissociation.

Dissociation was measured by means of the Dissociative Experiences Scale (DES), which directly addresses this psychological attribute. Dissociation leads to a diminished critical assessment of reality. As discussed in an earlier Skeptical Inquirer article (Sharps 2012), dissociated people may feel “strange” about themselves and the world around them. They may have anomalous perceptions of the passage of time or of their own experience. The world may appear to be “not quite real or . . . diffuse” (Cardena 1997, 400). Practically everyone feels this way, to a limited extent, from time to time; dissociation per se is not a mental illness. However, the disconnection with reality might incline those with even subclinical levels of dissociation—levels typical of many people in the general population and in no way diagnostic of mental illness—to view impossible or highly improbable things with an enhanced level of credulity (see DePrince and Freyd 1999).

Is this supposition correct? In previous published work (Sharps et al. 2006; Sharps et al. 2010), including a recent article in the Skeptical Inquirer (Sharps 2012), our laboratory addressed the role of dissociation in paranormal beliefs. We found that not only are the dissociated likely to believe in ghosts, aliens, and “cryptids” such as Bigfoot, but they are actually more likely to see these things, to interpret ambiguous stimuli as paranormal in nature. Where others see a hoax, the dissociated see Bigfoot. It is important to reiterate that dissociative tendencies are endemic in the general population; anyone, in any walk of life, may possess dissociative tendencies that influence the accurate judgment of reality.

Given the relationship between dissociative processes and beliefs in the “paranormal” realm, it was anticipated that people with dissociative tendencies would be prey to paranormal beliefs, such as those surrounding the 2012 phenomenon, at a higher level than those without such tendencies.

Do People Really Believe in the 2012 Apocalypse?

The population for this research, college students, is continually involved in the scientific evaluation of textbook information and media sources, together with courses that emphasize critical thinking. Even so, this population gave evidence of unexpected levels of credulity in the case of the 2012 apocalypse. When asked if “major changes” would occur as a result of December 21, 44.6 percent stated that they anticipated no such changes, or that such changes would be very unlikely. However, 9.8 percent anticipated such changes as either very likely or certain. 45.6 percent endorsed such changes as possible, without a strong opinion either way. The inference is that over half of this population, 55.4 percent, is at least somewhat influenced by the 2012 hype, either believing or at least entertaining the hypothesis that this date may result in major changes to Earth and to human ways of life upon it.

Dissociative Tendencies

As suggested by our previous research, dissociative tendencies played a role in this phenomenon. A series of regression analyses was conducted, examining dissociation with reference to the variables discussed above.

There was some good news. Dissociative tendencies were not associated with belief that major changes, either physical or social, would occur. However, there was bad news as well: regression analyses showed that those with more dissociative characteristics tended to believe that Maya prophecies, together with the Maya calendar, predicted these changes if they in fact occurred.

More dissociated individuals did not endorse the predictive power of the Hopi prophecies, nor of biblical prophecies, nor such prophecies as those of Nostradamus. Nor were they more likely to believe in the return of Quetzalcoatl, other messiahs, or the advent of space aliens. Specific predictions of the apocalypse, including terrestrial causes such as global warming, also remained unendorsed. So did those of human origin (e.g., war, terrorism) and extraterrestrial origin (e.g., asteroids). However, dissociation did predict belief in the power of unspecified prophecies, including those that were “religious” or derived from “computer simulations.”

Taken together, these results provide a complex but revealing pattern. Although the dissociated did not evince belief in major physical or social changes as a result of December 21, they believed in the power of the Maya prophecies to predict these changes, an obvious cognitive incoherency. At the same time, no additional specific prophecies, other than those of the Maya, were endorsed. However, more general realms of prophecy (religious, computer, etc.) for which no specific features were provided were endorsed as having predictive power. How are we to explain this psychological pattern?

Gestalt and Feature-Intensive Processes

In previous research (Sharps and Nunes 2002; Sharps 2003; Sharps 2010) we discussed a continuum in human information processing. This continuum ranges from feature-intensive processing, in which a given concept is subjected to the consideration of its specific features, to gestalt processing, in which such feature-based considerations are absent and therefore moot, and in which the logical consideration of specific details is reduced in favor of a more global, uncritical acceptance of the given phenomenon as a whole.

This continuum is strongly relevant to the pattern of results observed here. In the present research, we see a statistically significant relationship between dissociative tendencies and the tendency to process the 2012 phenomenon as a gestalt whole, without attention to the details (feature-intensive processing) that might otherwise give rise to an appropriate skepticism. This interaction of gestalt and dissociative processes appears to be a major source of credulity and to the essential cognitive incoherency that makes apocalyptic beliefs possible.

What is the evidence for this pattern of cognitive processing? As mentioned above, a major incoherency is immediate and obvious; dissociation led to an acceptance of the Maya prophecies of apocalypse, even when there was no belief in the apocalypse predicted. Those with dissociative tendencies believed in the Maya prophecies, but not in the phenomena that those prophecies predicted.

Also, there was a notable absence of feature-intensive processing in the cognitive systems involved. There was no endorsement of specific causes of change (e.g., war, global warming). In other words, when the specific causes of the apocalypse were “pinned down” in a feature-intensive manner, the dissociated were not inclined to believe that anything was going to happen. Even when the prophecies in question were specific (biblical, Nostradamus, etc.), no endorsement of the end of the world was forthcoming. However, when the prophecies were left without specificity (with only vague, gestalt references to “computers” or “religion”), dissociative tendencies predicted significant apocalyptic beliefs.

What Makes the Maya So Special?

This argument might seem to be contradicted by the specific endorsement of Maya prophecies observed. However, “Maya prophecies” are a major emphasis of the vast corpus of apocalyptic nonsense currently infesting television and the Internet. According to the availability heuristic (Tversky and Kahneman 1973), sources of information that are relatively available are likely to influence human judgment even when there is no factual basis for this influence; and nonspecific, quasi-mystical references to the Maya are nothing, at the present time, if not available. Also, the average believer in these prophecies is typically not a Maya scholar. Lacking the feature-intensive information characteristic of the relevant expertise, it would be anticipated that, in general, the Maya references to 2012 would be processed by the average person in a gestalt manner, with an absence of the feature-intensive considerations that would engender reasonable skepticism.

In Summary

In this study, we have seen that dissociative tendencies, at a subclinical level and in the general population, incline people to cognitive incoherency; the dissociated believe in prophecies of apocalypse, even when they do not believe in the apocalypse itself. There is a belief in prophecies of the apocalyptic future, even in the absence of belief that major physical or social changes will actually take place.

How is this incoherency possible? The answer lies in gestalt/feature-intensive theory. Those who tend toward dissociation generally fail in the feature-intensive dynamics that would lead to appropriate skepticism. Rather, they deal in gestalt processing, in which the relative absence of definable features and cognitive structure makes it possible to hold conflicting thoughts simultaneously. In the present study, this was demonstrated in the rejection of specific apocalyptic considerations, even by the relatively dissociated, in favor of more amorphous, general predictions of doom. This was highlighted by general dissociated acceptance of the Maya prophecies, both because of the availability heuristic (Tversky and Kahneman 1973) and because of relatively nebulous and ethereal understanding of the specifics of Maya thought and culture.

How to Promote Rational Skepticism

These results provide a scientifically coherent explanation of current beliefs in the 2012 apocalypse. These beliefs have their source entirely in scientific human psychology, rather than in parapsychology or in unknown mystical factors. Of potentially greater importance, however, these results may also point the way to the reduction of absurd, mystical, or apocalyptic thinking in the future. It should be noted that even those of high degrees of dissociation did not endorse “prophecies” when these were made explicit and amenable to feature-intensive processing.

The implication here is that the key to the avoidance of superstitious thinking, including apocalyptic thinking such as in the current 2012 absurdity, lies in the promotion and facilitation of feature-intensive processing. If concepts are dissected in terms of their features, elements, and processes, there is no room for the vague, gestalt ideas that lead to such nonsense as the uncritical acceptance of such ethereal concepts as “Maya prophecies” and “the end of the world.”

This idea is not unprecedented; a similar insistence on the specific (feature-intensive) definition of terms was demanded by Plato (Cornford 1957). However, in the present research, it is shown that such attention to detail, to the feature-intensive nature of argument, leads to the ability to reject such vague, gestalt concepts as “Maya predictions of the end of the world,” and thus to the beginning and basis of rational consideration.

The implication is obvious. Better education in the scientific basis of reality, in the precise, feature-intensive consideration of facts, can reduce vague, gestalt processing, and can even provide a defense against the superstitious inclinations inherent in dissociative tendencies. It is hoped that the present results will incline educators to provide such feature-intensive analyses of ethereal and apocalyptic concepts, such as those inherent in the current 2012 hysteria, thus reducing the cognitive incoherency of those caught up in the hype, and further enhancing the rational consideration of the realities of the natural and social worlds.


References

Bower, B. 2012. Apocalypse not written in stone. Science News 182(3): 15.

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Vick, K. 1997. The purgatory behind Heaven’s Gate: Ex-member breaks his silence on cult. The Washington Post (May 2): C1.

Matthew J. Sharps, Schuyler W. Liao, and Megan R. Herrera

Matthew J. Sharps is professor of psychology at California State University, Fresno, and serves on the adjunct faculty of Alliant International University in forensic clinical psychology. He specializes in eyewitness phenomena and related areas in forensic cognitive science. He is a Diplomate and Fellow of the American College of Forensic Examiners and the author of over 160 publications and professional papers, including the 2010 book Processing Under Pressure: Stress, Memory, and Decision-Making in Law Enforcement (www.LooseleafLaw.com). He has consulted on eyewitness issues in numerous criminal cases.

Schuyler W. Liao and Megan R. Herrera are doctoral candidates in Forensic Clinical Psychology at Alliant International University, Fresno. Their research deals with information processing in relation to eyewitness cognition and in relation to such processing in clinical and courtroom settings.