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Morning Feature – Ends of the World, Part II: Ends and Odds

December 21, 2012

Morning Feature

Morning Feature – Ends of the World, Part II: Ends and Odds

If you’re reading this, the world did not end at 6:12am ET with the winter solstice, and the Mayacalypse predictions were wrong. Unless…. (More)

Ends of the World, Part II: Ends and Odds

This week Morning Feature explores the human fascination with doomsday myths. Yesterday we discussed the current buzz on how the Mayan calendar supposedly predicts that the world will end tomorrow. Today we look at some previous apocalyptic myths and how their study contributed to modern psychology. If tomorrow happens, we’ll conclude with theories on why we find doomsday myths so attractive.

Note: Yes, I started a three-day series on the day before the world is predicted to end. These myths are interesting cultural phenomena, but I’m still making plans for Christmas and next year. If the doomsayers are right and world does end today, I’ll update yesterday’s article tomorrow….


By the time you read this, the winter solstice will have already happened. That means the prophecies of a Mayacalypse were wrong. Yes, the Maya lived in Central America, and yesterday countless scholars noted that they would have been on what is now Central Time. Except time zones were a 19th century invention. If the Maya were like most other humans, they estimated the time of day by the position of the sun in the sky, and each Mayan city had its own local time.

Besides which, the winter solstice happens at a specific time, no matter where you are on earth. This year’s solstice is today at 11:12am UCT, which stands for Coordinated Universal Time, because the British can’t keep a three-letter acronym in order … or because they thought CUT might be mistaken for an end-of-time order shouted by The Great Director.

What’s more, the Maya didn’t actually write that the world would end at the winter solstice. Despite rumors to the contrary, the Mesoamerican Long Count Calendar does not have a long cycle synchronized with a galactic alignment at the winter solstice. Its longest cycle is 5125 years, and the cycle ending today began on August 11, 3114 BCE. Not a winter or summer solstice. Not a spring or fall equinox. Indeed that date has no astronomical significance. That this cycle ends today, on the winter solstice, seems to be sheer coincidence. And there is no special galactic or planetary alignment today.

So if you’re reading this, there was no Mayacalypse … unless it’s going to happen at the end of the day, because the Dresden Codex did not specify the time. So it might still happen at sundown. Or midnight. Central Standard Time. Or Chichén Itzá local time….

The worst is yet to come….

Social psychologist Leon Festinger was curious about rumors. Specifically, he was curious why, after an earthquake struck India in 1934, so many people believed and passed on rumors that even more severe earthquakes would hit soon. That seemed odd, as reason suggests people should have preferred comforting stories about the quake being over and life returning to normal. Rumors of more severe quakes about to happen seemed “fear-provoking.”

Or perhaps, Dr. Festinger reasoned, those rumors were “fear-justifying.” That is, the people were afraid, and their fear remained even after the quake ended. The result was what Dr. Festinger called cognitive dissonance, what we feel when hold two contradictory, mutually exclusive beliefs or emotions. On the one hand, the quake was over. On the other hand, many people in that area still felt profound fear.

Dr. Festinger theorized that believing the rumors of worse earthquakes about to happen helped people reconcile those dissonant thoughts. Yes, this quake has ended, but I’m still afraid – not because I’m irrational, or because emotional anxiety does not switch off the instant danger passes – but because another quake is about to hit. Those rumors didn’t make the people less fearful, but the rumors did provide a story to justify their lingering fear … and thus resolve their cognitive dissonance.

A New Enlightenment

As we discussed yesterday, some crackpots theorists prophesy that today will not be an apocalypse but rather the dawn of a new age of enlightenment. As it happens, they’re about half a century too late.

Enlightenment-era thinkers like René Descartes and Immanuel Kant proposed that humans are (or at least can be) guided by reason and evidence. We experience data and draw sensible conclusions (or should). Mathematicians like Thomas Bayes added statistical analysis of uncertainty, and we came to imagine ourselves rational: “working the numbers” and “getting to the bottom line” to make mathematically optimal choices. Of course we didn’t all do that all the time, but that was the ideal … and the assumption on which economics and even many laws were premised.

Published in 1959, Dr. Festinger’s studies of cognitive dissonance helped break the ground for rethinking our notions of how humans think. His work helped spawn the disciplines we now call cognitive science and behavioral economics. Over the past three years here at BPI, we’ve discussed several books that explore and apply what cognitive linguist George Lakoff calls “the New Enlightenment,” including Dr. Lakoff’s The Political Mind, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s Nudge, Robert Frank’s The Darwin Economy, Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, and of course Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow.

Each of those books explores how the Enlightenment ideal of reasoned, rational, evidence-based analysis is a very poor model for how humans actually think. Instead we make predictable ‘mistakes’ based on biases and heuristics that psychologists, economists, linguists, and other social scientists have spent the past half-century – and especially the past three decades – working to define and measure.

The resultant body of work should leave us less arrogantly certain about what we think we know and why we believe it to be true. It should leave us more willing to question our assumptions, listen to criticisms, and adapt our beliefs as we gain new experiences.

In short, the science of the New Enlightenment should teach us humility.

That did not dawn with today’s solstice. But, oddly, the New Enlightenment did dawn with rumors of an end of the world … an earthquake in India that, thankfully, did not happen. At least not then….


Happy Friday!

  • Jim W

    End of the world, 1965.

    • NCrissieB

      Thank you for that, Jim. 🙂

      For a louder take, I offer R.E.M.:

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::

  • addisnana

    Speaking of humility, David Brooks is teaching a course at Yale on “humility.” It was in yesterday’s tweets and I have no idea how to go find and copy it. Suffice it to say that he was being mocked as precisely the wrong person to be teaching humility.

    In short, the science of the New Enlightenment should teach us humility.

    If science doesn’t work, there is always David Brooks.

    • NCrissieB

      David Brooks teaching a course on humility is right up there with Speaker Boehner giving a course on coalition-building and Mitt Romney opening a charm school…. 😆

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::

  • winterbanyan

    I think the thing that most struck me here was “fear justifying.” Imagine the state of fear in which so many must exist that they are preparing for the end of the world. That’s really a quite horrifying idea.

    It also indicates a brain glitch. Scientific study has shown that even when presented with contrary evidence, the average person will forget it in favor of a more positive belief. As a species, we tend to maintain positive beliefs no matter what. Those who cannot are curious indeed.

    Unless you think the end of the world is positive.

    • NCrissieB

      A “positive belief” is, often, one that fits what we already think or feel. “Changing your mind” is not merely a metaphor; it involves making new neural connections in the brain, and that takes work. What’s more, although a new belief may help once we learn how to apply it to actual situations, that same new belief may render us less effective while we’re still in the learning curve. Add cognitive dissonance – the discomfort we feel when we hold conflicting emotions or thoughts – and confirmation bias and status quo bias are not (quite) as unreasonable as they seem.

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::

      • winterbanyan

        This study, as I recall, had specifically to do with optimism. So perhaps I should have used a different word. We humans tend to be optimistic even in the fact of contradictory evidence, to the point we will not yield our optimism to fact.