High on my list of guilty pleasures are the Terminator movies, especially T2, which I just watched again the other day. In a crucial scene in this futuristic thriller, hero Sarah Connor is close to despair in a Mexican desert camp, beaten down by the daunting responsibility of saving the world. Sitting alone at a picnic table, she dozes off and dreams of the nuclear devastation that has been foretold and of all the people who will perish. When she wakes with a start, she grabs her Bowie knife and begins carving into the table. She then jumps into action, as the camera lingers on the words she has scratched out: “No fate.”
This epiphany transforms Sarah. She realizes that her apocalyptic vision is only one possible future and that she has the power to alter events. She rejects fatalism, and everything else—presumably including humanity’s salvation—unfolds from this fundamental shift in belief.
Fatalism is a supernatural belief, and it can indeed have harmful consequences for the way we act in the world. Believing that whatever happens is predestined and inevitable—this view can undermine personal responsibility and coping and lead to paralysis. But it can also be tonic, at least for humans who don’t have to save civilization. It can let us off the hook a bit, diminishing the stress of living.
But where does fatalism come from? Some may be fatalistic for religious reasons, but for many of us, our sense of agency and control changes from situation to situation, depending on what choices and decisions we’re faced with. At least that’s the theory of Aaron Kay, professor in Duke’s Fuqua School of Business and in the department of Psychology and Neuroscience, who has been studying the link between decision making and fatalistic beliefs. Kay—with colleagues Simone Tang and Steven Shepherd, suspected that very difficult choices—dilemmas with no clear solution—shift us into a more fatalistic state of mind. That is, rather than make a decision in the face of paralyzing uncertainty, we defer to some other invisible hand to control the outcome.
The scientists tested this idea in two simple experiments, both focusing on voters’ thinking going into the 2012 presidential election. Choosing an American president is a daunting responsibility, with profound implications for many people, both in the U.S. and elsewhere. And importantly, even though Obama ending up winning convincingly, many voters remained on the fence even in the final weeks of the campaign. So Kay and his colleagues recruited a group of the 2012 voters and asked them, one week before the election, about the difficulty they were having in making a choice for president. Were Obama and Romney equally good, or was one far and away the best choice? Was it easy, or hard, to compare their plans for the country? These voters also completed an assessment of their beliefs about the role of fate in the 2012 election: Will fate make sure that the right man gets elected?
The scientists predicted, and found, that the voters’ level of difficulty in making a choice was linked to stronger beliefs in fate. Or, to put it another way, those who had a clear preference for president—Obama or Romney—did not trust in the invisible hand of destiny to deliver the best outcome. They trusted that the voters would do that.
The scientists wanted to double-check this finding, in a slightly different way. So in a second experiment, this one just two days before the election, they asked a group of voters to read policy statements by the two candidates. These were actual policy statements from the Obama and Romney campaigns, but some voters read statements that sharply contrasted, while others read statements that were harder to distinguish. Then, as in the first experiment, they measured the difficulty these voters were having in making a choice, and their belief in fate.
The results were the same as before. As reported in an article to appear in the journal Psychological Science, voters who read policy positions that blurred the difference between Obama and Romney—these voters were more likely to agree that everything happens for a reason—including election outcomes.
These findings are both illuminating and disturbing. Our country is becoming more and more polarized politically, so that even many independents are making their choices without much hand-wringing or hesitation. If that shrinking “undecided” group is effectively throwing its hands in the air and relying on some mystical force to choose, what does this say about the quality of citizenship? Doing so might ease the emotional burden of making a tough choice, but it does not necessarily deliver sound choices.
Follow Wray Herbert’s reporting on psychological science on Twitter at @wrayherbert.