Why Do People Make Doomsday Predictions?


There's an old saying that tells us to live every day as if it's our last. A plethora of doomsday predictions have made some people act very strangely over the last couple of years. In 2011, preacher Harold Camping told us the world was going to end in May. When the due date came and went with no obvious sky falling or trumpet sounding, he shifted the end of the world to later in the year. And yet, here we all are today, no rapture, no fire and brimstone and no end of the world.

So why do people make doomsday predictions? The cynical would say that it is a moneymaking ploy, and there's some argument in favour of that analysis. But doomsday predictions date back much further than recent times, with some of the earliest dating back over 2,000 years to the Old Testament and the Book of Daniel. Lorenzo DiTommaso, associate professor of religion at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada, says that one of the reasons people predict the end of times is to develop an explanation of the world around us, and to 'know the unknown'. "Within its limitations, apocalypticism is very rational. It's a world view that explains time, space, and human existence. It's not science - it's not universal or repeatable - but it does explain things."

Doomsday for Dummies...

According to DeTommaso, the type of people who swallow the whole doomsday prophecy machine are usually intelligent people, and not just the bible-thumping evangelists that more cynical viewers would assume them to be. And even when the prophets get it wrong, it doesn't weaken their support but can actually increase it.

In the book When Prophecy Fails: A social and psychological study of a modern group that predicted the destruction of the world, Leon Festinger and other psychologists explained this as a fundamental human reaction called cognitive dissonance. It explains that people find it difficult to hold two fundamental and conflicting beliefs (the world will end and the realisation that it hasn't) at the same time and will convince themselves to believe that their rationale isn't misguided - rather that the prophet in question simply got his dates muddled up and that the apocalypse is still on its way. Whatever the reasons, it shows just how powerful the human psyche is, and how easy it is to convince people in the authenticity of a prediction.

We'll just have to wait until the 22nd December to find out how accurate or otherwise the Mayans were...

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