Rapture Me Not

May 20, 2011 BY danariely

On my drive to Asheville, NC this past weekend, I passed a multitude of billboards like the one below. According to multimillionaire Harold Camping, tomorrow is Judgment Day. You may have heard.

The idea of imminent rapture piqued my interest, so I looked into the matter, filling my brain with more than I ever wanted to know about the mathematically-inclined radio broadcaster and his cult of hopeful followers.

Although Camping’s 1994 doomsday prediction (clearly) turned out to be false, he has no doubts that this time he is on the right track. And why not? As you can see, the bible guarantees it! The alleged proof in favor of tomorrow’s rapture not only comes from the bible, but also from “indisputable” evidence in the form of devastating natural disasters and war, technological advances, economic crises, global governments…and, of course, the rise of the gays.

However, I’ve compiled a list of my own — a compendium of evidence in support of the impending demise of humanity:

  • And, most notably, at this very minute I find myself wearing jeggings
On a more serious note, the real question that I’d like to tackle is this: why do we find correlational “evidence” like Camping’s or my own to be solid support for our opinions? I think that the answer has to do with confirmation bias, or our propensity to seek and interpret events that argue in our favor. So, someone who believes that the world will end tomorrow will search for confirmation of this view and construe events in ways that support this belief. The problem with this heuristic is that it leaves no room for failure. We simply can’t be wrong. When unfortunate things happen in the world tomorrow (as they do every day), they can easily be used as “evidence” supporting a doomsday hypothesis.Another wink from psychology comes in the form of cognitive dissonance, or the discomfort that we experience when we attempt to hold contradicting beliefs or actions. To avoid this kind of discomfort, we adjust our beliefs or actions so that they happily align. The classic instantiation of cognitive dissonance is seen in a case study of a group of pre-Scientologists who lived through their failed prophetic predictions, eerily similar to the case at hand. When (or if) Saturday comes and goes as usual, Camping and his followers will need to revise their story. Will they abandon their faith and move on? Or will they create justifications and strengthen their conviction even more? We won’t have to wait very long to find out.

Enjoy the rapture tomorrow, and have a lovely Sunday

~Aline Grüneisen~