Folks speak blithely about their guilty pleasures. But if you get a little thrill when you contemplate the worldwide obliteration of society in a horrific Armageddon, have you crossed a line from "person with a guilty pleasure" to "person who is a dangerous psychopath"?
This was a question that wrecked most of one afternoon following a discussion of Ebola with some co-workers. We were brainstorming ideas for stories about the awful pandemic, and the topic of American preparedness came up. Although Ebola seems decently isolated on our shores, public health officials are girding our infrastructure for worst-case scenarios.
I made the following confession: Although obviously the West African Ebola crisis sickens and saddens me, and although I ofcourse don't want Ebola to run rampant ... whenever I hear about the idea of our nation crumbling in an apocalyptic plague, I get an amoral twinge of excitement. It's a tiny but unavoidable rush, not unlike the burst one feels when a rollercoaster begins to crest a hill, or when Darth Vader flicks on his lightsaber for the climactic battle of The Empire Strikes Back. I feel a similar frisson when it seems like a geopolitical crisis is bringing us to the brink of World War III (all summer, every time I read about ISIS’s march, I felt a jolt). I'm not proud of the way I feel, but it never goes away.
"If it's not in the hypothetical and you're seeing the devastation and you're more excited than distraught, then you're in the psychopathic range."
Surely, I thought, at least some of my journalist coworkers could relate. They could not. "Dude," one muttered to me. "That's kinda fucked up." Red-faced, I took to Gchat and iMessage to see if any non-work friends felt a similar electricity when they considered a real-world apocalypse. "Not really," said one. "I don't get scared, but I don't get excited, either," said another. "I don't even want to be homeless in America, much less experience The Road," said one of my dearest pals.
My pondering had turned to mild panic. Was I crazy? Or at least, in the immortal words of Matchbox 20, just a little unwell? I sought journalists' favorite kind of professional help: I called up some researchers, specifically, in this case, those who had studied humanity's fixation on end-of-the-world scenarios. I began each interview by asking if I was crazy for having my shameful thrills about apocalyptic news.
"I have that, too!" exclaimed University of Minnesota neuroscientist Shmuel Lissek (to my great relief). The idea of Armageddon "wakens your autonomic nervous system," he says. "Your heart starts beating faster, you start breathing faster, your sweat glands engage. There's a certain exhilaration from that idea, and one can enjoy that kind of arousal, especially if there's a part of you that knows it won't happen."
Lissek's research on the human fear-response suggests that apocalyptic exhilaration is actually the product of useful evolutionary traits. "We'd rather have a false alarm than miss a potential threat," he says. "Organisms endowed with brain circuitry leading them to take even minor threats"—such as the unlikely prospect of a worldwide Ebola outbreak—"seriously are more likely to pass on their genes." Plus, he says, "Life gets boring with the in and out routine of our daily lives, so having something like [the apocalypse] be a possibility is exciting."
Of course, cautions Lissek, some balance is in order here. "When the apocalypse is in the hypothetical, it's normal for the excitement to be stronger than the fear," he says. "If it's not in the hypothetical and you're seeing the devastation and you're more excited than distraught, then you're in the psychopathic range."
But University of California-San Diego psychologist Nicholas Christenfeld has a slightly different take. He agrees that my feelings were in the normal range for humans, but said that those feelings were the result of an irrational aspect of human cognition.
"If you hear about a horrible tragedy that kills 1,200 people, there's some part of us that thinks, Just 1,200? But 120,000 would be so much cooler!" Christenfeld says it's part of a quirky divide in human thought when we experience or hear about any kind of massive event, be it a natural disaster or a well-executed air-show performance from the Blue Angels. On the one hand, we recognize the valence of our emotions—a judgment about whether the thing we're experiencing is good or bad. But we also recognize the magnitude of the emotion—the degree to which it's big or rare.
"In humans, to some extent, the valence is secondary," Christenfeld says. "One could run up the magnitude and make things more exciting and engrossing, regardless of whether the thing you're thinking about is good or bad." He compares it to the experience of enjoying a tragic movie in which the protagonists die. "You'll say, 'It was so gripping! I wept!' It's not that you liked that they died, but you liked the intensity of the emotion,” he says. “These apocalypses are tapping into that same two-factor experience. The vast scale of the destruction would be awesome, in the literal definition of that word."
Other experts suspected my excitement might have to do with contemplating the world that would come after a society-destroying plague. "We're so stressed and overloaded, that you can start to think, Wouldn't life be simpler if things just broke down?" says Jeff Greenberg, a social psychologist at the University of Arizona. "As long as we're among the survivors, life gets simpler. In a world like ours right now, the idea of being heroic and doing the right thing is so complex that we don't know what it might even be. But in a post-apocalyptic world, we'd have simpler ways to know what the right thing is."
Along similar lines, University of California-Davis sociologist John R. Hall drew a parallel between my thinking and people's endless fascination with the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. "When you have a phenomenon like 9/11, it's literally a disclosure, which is the Greek meaning of the word," he says. "It unveils an understanding of the world that is beyond what any of us possessed before or could've imagined having. Apocalyptic events seriously draw into question people's taken-for-granted understanding of their worlds." In other words, the end of the world as we know it can show the world as it always really was, beneath the veneer of stability.
These conversations put me somewhat at ease about my own mental health (at least in this particular matter). And all of the experts I spoke with emphasized that, as long as I don't have a desire to bring about the end times (I don't), I pose no threat to society.
But a new question popped up: If humans are predisposed to find apocalyptic scenarios exciting, couldn't that numb our feelings of urgency about preventing the apocalypse? Even if we don't want to speed it along, would my (and others') desire for thrills subconsciously keep me from wanting to avert disaster? None of the experts I spoke with had a conclusive answer, though none of them seemed too worried about it. However, guilty creature that I am, I raced to the website of Doctors Without Borders and made a donation. I, like all sane people, continue to hope the crippling crisis in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea will come to an end soon.
Speaking of guilt, there's one last tidbit I should mention. Greenberg, the social psychologist, pointed out that my choice of profession might also predispose me to my extremely guilty pleasure. "You're in a business where bad news is exciting, right?" he asks. "The apocalypse would give you more stuff to write about." Touché.