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Joanna Carver/MEDILL

Is the world going to end this year? Some smart people answer your questions.

Pay your taxes, the world isn't going to end this year

by Joanna Carver and Alexandra Gallucci
March 08, 2012

The Mayan calendar has predicted the world will end on Dec. 21. Are you scared?

Some people may be petrified about this prediction, while others aren’t fazed at all. That’s because the fear we feel towards an event equates to the level of threat we perceive in it, said David Castro-Blanco, professor of clinical psychology at the Adler School of Professional Psychology in Chicago. “The more afraid they are, the more they tend to shape what they do and how they think about that fear.”

But what purpose does it serve to fear the end of the world?

Apocalyptic thinking often comes about in times of instability, serving as a way for people to develop a sense of control, said Jason Washburn, a clinical psychologist who serves as director of education and clinical training at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University. “To suggest that there’s going to be an end to that instability can be attractive to people, even if that end means ending all of civilization,” he said.

“There are risks everywhere,” he said. “The reality is that we tend to downplay or ignore most of them to continue functioning with our lives in what we think is a normal way.” The idea that we are vulnerable to harm, rather than whether risk absolutely exists, is what drives a lot of fear.

David Slavsky, professor of physics at Loyola University, said that while as citizens of Earth we do live on the cosmic edge, being the spiral arm of our galaxy, the probability that an apocalyptic event will wipe out humanity is low. Among the common concerns he mentioned are rogue black holes, supernova events and giant solar flares.

“We’ve had life on Earth for several billion years,” he said. “Although there have been periods of mass extinctions and some of these mass extinctions have been related to cosmic events.”

In this time of economic hardship and an upcoming presidential election, people’s fears can easily be capitalized upon by apocalyptic theory, Castro-Blanco said.

One apocalypse panic that’s been prevalent in pop culture is the idea that the world will end in 2012, because the Mayan calendar ends on December 21 of this year. Cynthia Robin, a Mayanist and professor of anthropology at Northwestern University, said that this is incorrect—the Mayan calendar is just entering a new cycle. The Mayans never placed any significance on the date and made no mention of an impending apocalypse, Robin said, which would have been a pretty big deal.

She compared the hysteria to that of the Y2K concerns in 1999.

“We’re at a time in our society where people are looking at things and they’re wishing for better times. We’re in the middle of an economic crisis…so it’s an ideal time to think of this world as coming to an end,” Robin said.

On the other hand, the idea of apocalypse can be looked at from a religious perspective. After all, the idea itself is based in religion, and nearly every major religion supports some version of it, Washburn said.

The belief in the end of the world can go hand-in-hand with the belief that there’s a higher order and someone who’s invested in the whole universe, said Alberto Varona, a professor of clinical psychology at the Adler School. “That’s a very promising idea for a lot of people. It’s very hopeful,” he said.

Other people may be drawn to end of the world thinking because of biological factors. In people who are prone to develop phobias and anxiety problems, certain fear processes in the brain may be slower, said Castro-Blanco. When fear sets in, it overrides the ability to think clearly, he explained.

While one of the hallmarks of schizophrenia is delusional thinking, which could be used to describe apocalyptic thinking, it does not mean that a person who believes in these theories necessarily suffers from a psychiatric disorder, Washburn said.

Manifestations of apocalyptic thinking can be found in both the distorted thinking associated with psychiatric disorders, to normative ways of thinking seen in religious beliefs of the apocalypse, Washburn said.

But even after a cataclysmic event is predicted and passes, such as Y2K, people still hold onto the beliefs behind its prediction. “Rarely is there a re-evaluation of the beliefs themselves,” said Varona. Most often, the belief itself is more important than its reality, he said.

Another phenomenon, the availability heuristic, may also help to explain society’s preoccupation with the apocalypse. This principle explains that human thinking is guided by familiar events, making judgments of risk based on our own perceptions, Castro-Blanco said. “It’s the perception of something as being threatening and risky that really prompts fear,” he said.

If we think of an event as a risk, we are much more likely to regard anything similar as risky. On the other hand, events that do not resemble the risky one, are perceived as less risky.

“For people who are driven by concerns that their very existence is in peril and the world as they know it is in danger, a belief in the end times is going to be something that seems to make far more sense,” said Castro-Blanco.