If a credible source told you the precise day you were going to die, it would presumably cause a great deal of anxiety. So maybe you decide to take actions to minimize the chance of this happening. You watch what you eat more carefully, you exercise intensively to stay fit – just in case you need to act swiftly – and you otherwise change your daily routine to stay prepared for any possible difficulties that might befall you on your predicted date of death. This existential preoccupation may alone be the difference between life and death. For example, maybe you were mentally distracted while crossing a street and got hit by a car, or you worked out so much to keep fit that your heart failed because it didn’t have enough time to rest. Or perhaps you couldn’t take the suspense and decide to end your own life. Regardless of the details, it’s this type of anxiety that makes doomsday prophecies come true for individuals.
When you believe in something badly enough, sometimes it becomes true. It doesn’t become true because you believe it – life is not a fairy tale. But it may become true because your belief may unconsciously influence the way you behave.
This type of psychology is well-known to social scientists. For example, if you believe that Japanese people are nice, you may act in a way that promotes nice behaviour when talking to a Japanese person, without even being aware of it. This could manifest, for example, in smiling when you see them, because you expect that what they will say is something positive, thereby creating a situation (i.e., you smiling) that makes it more likely that they will be nice. The same could of course be seen with the opposite belief – that they are mean (i.e., you might scowl at them). This is called the self-fulfilling prophecy – it’s true simply because your belief in it makes it true.
Unfortunately, doomsday prophecies can also operate on the self-fulfilling prophecy. Back in 2008 when the LHC was being created, all that talk about there being a possibility of accidentally creating a black hole that will eventually kill everyone essentially scared one Indian girl to death:
Sixteen-year-old Chaya poisoned herself at her home in the central city of Indore, her father, Bihari Lal, said.
He said Chaya had been worried the “world would end” when the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) was switched on.
Such rumours about the end-times are actually very common throughout the world. Since they’re so common (most years see more apocalypse predictions than there are months) they can be a serious issue for non-critical thinkers (i.e., children, science illiterate or gullible people, etc.). So what are the details of the 2012 doomsday prediction? Try to follow along:
The planet Nibiru (which does not exist) is heading towards Earth and is going to hit and kill everyone tomorrow – December 21, 2012 (originally this was predicted for May 2003, but that didn’t happen… so presumably Nibiru will be slated to hit Earth again sometime around 2021 after nothing happens tomorrow). The date was decided as December 21 because someone decided that that corresponds with the end of the ancient Mayan calendar (actually the calendar continues just like every other calendar).
If you haven’t heard the word “Mayan” for a while, it’s probably because they are extinct (never mind the fact that they didn’t predict their own demise). So I don’t know why people would want to suddenly use their calendars to predict anything. But 2012hoax.org has an explanation text preserved as is):
The “2012 doomsday” is a hoax, a fraud, and an absolute con job. It is a cruel and disgustinglie being promoted by scam artists after money; First they scare people to death that something terrible is going to happen, then publish books and videos on “how to survive the apocalypse”. Get the scam?! You’re not going to fall for something like that… right?
The problem is that some people will fall for the scam. Some people will believe it. Some people will waste their money buying fake information on “how to survive”. Some people will buy worthless survival kits, and some will even buy spaces in shelters that are not going to be built – ever!.
One of the site creators gives astronomy talks to 5th and 8th grade classrooms, and ever since 2008, they noticed a dramatic change in the types of questions that were asked. This repeated experience just showed a need for this website:
Instead of the classic “What would happen if you fell into a black hole?” the questions were trending to subjects with a more apocalyptic theme: “What’s really going to happen in 2012?” and “Somebody told me a planet is going to hit us in 2012”. When the students were asked where they had heard this information, the top two sources named were Yahoo! Answers and YouTube.
The site persuasively shows why this is a serious issue. Because if you thought people didn’t take this 2012 hoax seriously, you would be wrong. Dead wrong. Meet Isabel Taylor, also sixteen:
Isabel had left Corsham School in Wiltshire and begun an animal science and management course at nearby Wiltshire College at Lackham. She was passionate about animals and ran a guinea pig sanctuary with a friend.
But within weeks of starting the course at Lackham, the teenager from Neston, in Wiltshire, was found hanging in her room by her mother, on September 24 last year.
Her father Gary, 51, [said] his daughter had talked to them about her fears the world will end. “We were aware of the 2012 issue,” he said. “As you would in conversation around the dinner table, she would mention it. We would take it on board and say we ‘didn’t think that was going to happen, Isabel,’ and try to make light of it and move the conversation onwards.”
Her mother told the coroner: “She talked to us about her beliefs the world was going to end in 2012. We did not believe that.”
Her Buddhist beliefs (i.e., she would move on to a better world in the afterlife) probably had something to do with her decision to commit suicide… but it was the famous 2012 doomsday prophecy that really set her off. So the question is… are these just two isolated events? Hardly. As the Daily Mail reports:
While some are throwing fantastical Doomsday countdown parties, The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is issuing grave warnings that 2012 Mayan apocalypse rumors pose a real-life threat to frightened children and depressive teenagers.
David Morrison, an astrobiologist at NASA Ames Research Center, said on Wednesday that he receives a large number of emails and letters from worried citizens, most often from young people. Some say they can’t eat, or are too worried to sleep, while others say they are suicidal, Morrison said.
It’s likely that other suicides that were committed were largely influenced by beliefs of tomorrow’s apocalypse, but last year’s suicide was the only one that we can confirm was linked.
So just like the thousands of armageddons that have been falsely predicted in the past, this one is going to pass over without a hitch. But they’re never going to stop. This is especially troubling when you have people talk about young children getting existentially pessimistic. One commenter talked about their 3rd grade student after she heard the rumours.”A small child is talking about how if its ending, and why she shouldn’t just end it now. This isn’t anywhere close to funny any more.”
Indeed; if the hoax could be described in one word, it certainly wouldn’t be “funny.” It’s just very very stupid.
The apocalypse is real… but only if you believe it.