Mayan end-of-world prophecies 'all in the head' says Fresno State prof
December 12, 2012
• Belief in doomsday ideas not just for crackpots
• “We started wondering about the psychology of these beliefs”
End-of-the-world prophecies have a lot more to do with human minds than with the fate of humanity, says Matthew Sharps, a psychology professor at Fresno State.
“We started wondering about the psychology of these beliefs. What is it about human cognition, about the way people think, that inclines some people to buy into these ideas?” Mr. Sharpes wondered.
A lot of people are buying into them. Around the globe people are preparing for the world to end on Dec. 21, believing that’s the date the Mayans set for world destruction, not merely the date they ran out of calendar space.
After conducting a study of university students, Mr. Sharps and his research assistants were surprised to find that approximately 10 percent of the study population firmly believed in the end of the world but that more than half believed that something happening on December 21 was likely or possible.
“Over half the people we studied either believe in the December apocalypse, or are at least willing to entertain it seriously,” says Mr. Sharps.
His study of 110 university students was co-authored by Schuyler Liao and Megan Herrera, both graduate students in forensic clinical psychology at Alliant International University, Fresno.
The study further showed that dissociation – a psychological tendency to see the realities of the world as remote or diffuse – contributed to belief in the predictive power of the currently popular Mayan Dec. 21 “prophecies of doom.”
Mr. Sharps’ research suggests that the tendency to endorse or believe in prophecies of the end of the world was stronger when those predictions were not particularly specific. When specific details were added, such as “prophecies of Nostradamus,” or when specific scientific details were added (asteroid impacts, global warming, or alien involvement), beliefs were significantly diminished.
He notes that there are consequences to apocalyptic thinking, pointing to the economic turmoil following Y2K, and more seriously, to the Heaven’s Gate suicides.
But he believes there is good news in his study results. “This work indicates that you may be able to reduce these types of effects to a significant degree, through a rational scientific evaluation, at a detailed level, of whatever it is you’re being asked to believe,” he says.
Study findings agreed with Mr. Sharps’ previously published Gestalt/Feature-Intensive Processing theory of cognition. “Gestalt responses, in which analysis of details is generally absent, were associated in this study with credulity and superstitious belief, but feature-intensive thinking, which occurs when you think critically about the details of what you’re being told, was associated with a much healthier skepticism,” he says.
The researchers’ article, “It’s the End of the World and They Don’t Feel Fine: The Psychology of December 21, 2012,” will appear as the cover story in the January issue of the Skeptical Inquirer – assuming the Mayans were wrong.