Doomsday Scenarios, Conspiracy Theories, and Psychology

Gas mask sitting on cementSince the beginning of recorded history, people have been forecasting the end of the world. In biblical times, many people believed that Jesus would return in a few short years, and religions throughout the world have cautioned people to repent and prepare for the end of days for as long as there have been religions.

In modern times, with science gaining popular acceptance and doomsday scenarios falling outside the mainstream, such beliefs can seem highly unorthodox. But the Daily Mail reports that 22% of Americans believe the world will end in their lifetime, and the belief that a religious figure will return to “save” a chosen few is still commonplace. The National Geographic Channel has dedicated a popular television series to people who believe the world may soon end: Doomsday Preppers follows individuals—sometimes referred to as survivalists—and their families as they plan and prepare for the end of civilization.

Psychology can offer some insight into this phenomenon.

Risk and Preparedness
We live in an increasingly complex and often frightening world. Massive tsunamis can kill thousands, and electrical outages can cripple a city, state, or country. The threat of nuclear war is omnipresent, and protests around the world can make government and order seem increasingly unstable. Many people actively fear the prospect of terrorist attacks, pandemics, fuel shortages, and societal or economic collapse.

Most people prepare to some degree for “what-if” scenarios. People buy flood insurance, swarm the grocery store before a storm, and buy generators to ensure their businesses can keep running if there’s a power outage. The difference between those who take it to the extreme—such as doomsday preppers—and those who simply plan for a rainy day may simply be a matter of degree.

Trauma and Experience
People who believe in conspiracies and doomsday scenarios likely would caution that, if they’re right, they don’t look so strange after all. And when a person’s experiences are taken into account, their worries may even seem justified. A person who has experienced war might be more frightened that war could end the world, while trauma victims and people with posttraumatic stress may have more difficulty assessing risk.

Belief Systems
People tend to accept evidence that supports their belief systems and ignore evidence that doesn’t—a phenomenon called confirmation bias. In some cases, people may believe conspiracy theories because these theories support their most fundamental or earliest-established beliefs. A person whose mother claims to have been kidnapped by aliens might, for example, fervently cling to a belief in aliens because believing in aliens allows him to believe his mother. A highly religious person who believes she experienced a prophecy that the world will soon end is unlikely to abandon such a belief because doing so undermines her religious experience.

Once a doomsday scenario or conspiracy theory becomes part of a person’s belief system, he or she is unlikely to abandon it even in the face of conflicting evidence. This isn’t unique to doomsday preppers. We all have things we believe without evidence, sometimes even in the face of contradictory evidence.

Mental Health Conditions
Some people who believe in conspiracy theories and end-of-days scenarios may be experiencing a mental health issue. Conditions that can contribute to such beliefs include:

  • Schizophrenia, which can result in delusions and hallucinations that could convince a person the end of the world is near or that an entity is out to get him or her.
  • Paranoid personality disorder, which manifests as constant suspicion, often in the form of fear of the government.
  • Persecutory delusion, which may cause a person to believe that another person or entity is out to get him or her and will not stop until harm is done.

References:

  1. Cruz, N. (2012, April 3). National Geographic’s troubling, addictive show about survivalists. Slate. Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2012/04/03/doomsday_preppers_on_national_geographic_is_the_survivalist_reality_show_exploitative_.html
  2. Guyatt, N. (2007). Have a nice doomsday: Why millions of Americans are looking forward to the end of the world. New York, NY: Harper Perennial.
  3. Hanlon, C. (2012, May 2). 22% of Americans believe world will end in their lifetime (and 10% think the apocalypse is coming this year). Mail Online. Retrieved from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2138449/The-end-nigh–Americans-think-world-end-year.html

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  • 16 comments
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  • Koaki

    Koaki

    November 20th, 2012 at 11:32 AM

    Good posting and I look forward to reading future ones.

  • Ron Peters

    Ron Peters

    November 20th, 2012 at 1:49 PM

    While I do not want to comment on religion,a vast majority of these people who talk about the world ending do so just cause.Its more of a trend or fad for these people than belief or something that they have reached after some analysis.They do and say so because that is the cool thing to do,nothing else.

  • Kim

    Kim

    August 28th, 2018 at 10:35 AM

    Ron, so you are saying that our government isn’t allowing the illegal spraying of chemicals on all of us and it’s changing our weather . You’re saying it’s a trend to try to wake ignorant people up to the fact that we are F****** up when we allow the shadow government to run things behind the scenes and its more like organized crime. There’s no constitution upheld with shadow government. Shadow government is just a idea in my head? It’s just me wanting to be cool that we aren’t allowed to see the rulers of the world, the elite ones. The satanist. Those who are all the death and distraction in our lives! What we do get to see running things only are the ones who are playing the role as president Vice President and so on. You think it’s a trend to cool and be told your crazy when you know very well you’re not? I believe that our government is many years ahead of us and you can’t even wrap your brain around how advanced they actually are. The narcissist heads of countries laugh at you for buying into articles like this meant to keep people in the dark and divided. Look around. USE YOUR HEAD. Think for yourself. I realize the chemtrails have been sprayed more in the last few months than at any time before since it started. But try to open your mind to things that evidence has proven is really happening.

  • jo

    jo

    November 20th, 2012 at 4:03 PM

    What about these people who are prepping for armageddon like the end is coming tomorrow? Sorry but I kind of think that they are all a bunch of freaks.

  • Tim.D

    Tim.D

    November 20th, 2012 at 11:26 PM

    Well some ppl just get into these conspiracy theories more easily than others..they want sensationalism n believe they r special to c d possible doomsday..not everybody can in their lives..science doesn’t mean a thing to them..look at December 21st theory. Nobody not science not even d Mayans said d world s ending but these ppl go around makin documentaries n spreading false info.

  • Layla

    Layla

    November 21st, 2012 at 5:08 AM

    While I believe in some conspiracy theories, I don’t think that I am the neighborhood nutcase because of that.

    I do believe that there are things that have been withheld from us that we should probably know. But I am not building an underground bunker in an effort to save myself from the end of the world either.

    You don’t have to have a mental issue to believe these theories- there are plenty of intelligent people who thoroughly believe in this. But there does come a point where your way of thinking can be a little odd to some people. That’s the time that you must seek out only like minded people to talk to about your beliefs. ;)

  • helena

    helena

    November 21st, 2012 at 12:05 PM

    Doomsday will arrive when it has to.And some sort of preparation isnt going to save me from it.So why bother at all! Let me love my life care free and you can too. No use in getting all paranoid about something that is not even proven. Because come on, even if it does happen, no one’s gonna be around to applaud when you say “I told you so” lol

  • Isaiah

    Isaiah

    November 21st, 2012 at 1:27 PM

    Seeing the broader brush stroke:~{)
    One can not honestly look at any social system or, capitalist investment without seeing a conspiracy. The attachment of ~ Theory, only serves to cast doubt upon & maintain the conspiracy. The colloquial combined usage & repetition of this phrase in the media is a form of defense-strategy. People learn with repetition. They make associations & these associations of doubt are easier to deal with, because if they choose to believe then the next step is into the rabbit hole. When their core beliefs are in jeopardy the fight or flight mechanism kicks in & familiarity with the accepted reality coupled with fear of all that acceptance of conspiracy entails, reconciles them again with the comfortable, known world.
    Face it, people are lazy & if it ain’t broken, why fix it.
    “People of the same trade, seldom meet together, even for merriment or, diversion, where the conversation doesn’t end in a conspiracy against the public”- Smith

  • Rian

    Rian

    November 21st, 2012 at 7:09 PM

    Just curious — what’s the difference between cartel and conspiracy?

  • Nobel

    Nobel

    November 22nd, 2012 at 12:18 AM

    There’s always going to be doomsday predictions and conspiracy theories.But before dismissing such theories,people need to take a look at the facts presented by those supporting it.Is it wrong that the world’s financial sector is controlled by a few individuals who will pump billions into failing corporations while people have a tough time putting food on the table?Is it wrong that several incidents throughout history have taught us that the rules are quite different for a select few?I would say no!And you don’t need to have a mental issue to see these facts.

  • Haley

    Haley

    November 22nd, 2012 at 3:09 PM

    Some ppl jus c too much in things. u know its ok if you think tht d worlds gonna end in a month, u can do whatever preps u wanna but hey dont try to push ur theory down my throat!

  • J

    J

    November 24th, 2012 at 10:40 AM

    Well said. But look at it from their Point of view. What would you do if one morning you awoke and everything about your life didn’t make sense down to the very place you were at the time and all you saw and heard nobody else did and up until that day you never saw or heard any of the things you were experiencing. What would you do? Just curious

  • Kyle

    Kyle

    August 27th, 2013 at 10:25 PM

    Zawn, thanks for the article! Some good info here and a concise perspective.

    However I was hoping for a little more info; particularly how to deal with people who hold these beliefs. You write that people who hold these views will maintain even in the face of contradictory evidence so I am curious how you can get someone in this mindset to “step back”. To reign in the insanity, as it were.

  • laura

    laura

    July 30th, 2014 at 4:22 PM

    I just went through a doomsday delusion that I relate to my ptsd and trauma. Coming out of this delusion was embarrassing as I completely believed in things like armagedon and believing I am Jesus etc. More education on the subject like the article is appreciated as some family members have stopped talking to me because of lack of understanding. It still hurts but the articles and spreading of knowledge helpful.

  • Brian

    Brian

    June 8th, 2018 at 10:01 AM

    On the contrary to what many of the above commenters say above. MANY preppers are quite rational and logical thinkers. They are not “sheep” or “Pollyanna” type people. They look at the possibilities and have stored supplies and plans on how to eek out a comfortable existence, should a disaster befall them, whether it be long or short term.
    Let me ask you… How many of you have insurance in case something goes wrong? How many of you have a fire extinguisher in your home? Why? There is a fire department to put out fires, isn’t there?
    As Preppers, we simply choose to provide our own “life insurance” against whatever disaster comes our way.
    Far too many people have watched the TV shows, “Doomsday Prepper” and all the other doomsday type shows and have formed a judgmental opinion based on Hollywood hype. When in reality, what they produced was a theatrical interpretation designed to show us as crazy. The producers did their job… They suckered you into thinking in a pre-designed direction. Congratulations!
    In retrospect… You would be surprised just how many preppers there are out here whom you would never know or suspect, that they are preppers… They are your normal everyday co-worker, neighbor, and yes, your family member.

  • Kim

    Kim

    August 28th, 2018 at 10:37 AM

    Great comment. I agree 100%

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