Doomsday predictions as expressive behaviour

By Gordon Rugg

There was a classic article on Pharyngula recently about a group who donned bright yellow t-shirts to announce the imminent end of the world. It’s far from the first time that this announcement has been made; it’s probably not going to be the last.

So why do people keep making this announcement? Do they really believe that this time is going to be different, or is there something deeper going on?

As you might have guessed, usually there’s something deeper going on. The same underlying principle crops up in a wide range of forms, and is particularly prominent in politics, where it can cause a lot of problems.

The explanation begins with a topic that we discussed recently on this blog, namely expressive behaviour. It then moves on to systems theory, luxury, sex and power. The end of the world is a fine, rich topic…

end of world

Originally posted on:

(Image used under fair use terms, as part of an academic article about background theory.)

Expressive behaviour is about showing people what sort of person you are. That’s very different from instrumental behaviour, which is about getting something done. Sometimes, expressive behaviour happens to align with instrumental behaviour; often, though, the two go in very different directions.

So, in the case of wearing a bright yellow t-shirt while announcing to the public that the world is going to end, you’re engaging in highly visible expressive behaviour. Whether or not the world actually does end is a completely different issue. (In case you’re wondering, there’s a literature on what doomsday believers do when the scheduled date comes and goes without the world ending. In brief, the believers reduce their cognitive dissonance by re-interpreting reality so that their self-image continues to make sense, to themselves even if to nobody else.)

However, this raises the question of why people should engage in this particular form of expressive behaviour as opposed to any of the other forms they could choose; it also raises the question of what happens when the world doesn’t end. That takes us into the concepts of subsystem optimisation versus system optimisation, of in-groups versus out-groups, and of sex, luxury and power. It also takes us into the concepts of sensory homeostasis and of optimising cognitive load, but they aren’t as glamorous as sex, luxury and power, which might be why they’ve received less attention over the years.

Expressive behaviour, subsystem optimisation and groups

Sometimes, expressive behaviour is intended as a signal for the whole world. Often, though, it isn’t. Often, it’s a signal aimed at the in-group i.e. the group with which the person identifies.

When you look at the end of the world t-shirts and placards from this viewpoint, then everything starts making a different type of sense. Standing in a public place wearing highly visible clothing and carrying a highly visible placard is a very visible signal to the in-group of fellow believers.

What do you get from signalling to your in-group in this way? For a start, you get the standard perks of belonging to a group, such as social capital – having a reputation and a set of contacts that you can draw on if you encounter difficult times, such as needing a babysitter at short notice, or going through bereavement. Group leaders usually get more. A common feature of self-isolated groups is a cult of personality around a male leader, which often ends up with the leader having sex with female followers under one pretext or another. At a more socially respectable level, prominent evangelical figures in the USA are often multi-millionaires, as a result of donations from members of their evangelical group.

So, the individual can gain a lot by sending out expressive signals to other group members. Just because it’s good for the individual, though, doesn’t mean that it’s good for society in general.

This takes us on to the concept of sub-system optimisation (e.g. making things better for a group within society) not necessarily leading to system optimisation (e.g. making things better for society as a whole). Often, what works well within a group is disastrous when applied across different groups.

A classic example involves political strategies within a democracy. Usually, politicians can gain more support from within their own party by espousing views that show them as a True Believer in the most “pure” form of the party’s ideology. However, those same views will be a liability when campaigning at a national level, because they will be viewed by members of other parties as a sign of dangerous extremism. This is why, for instance, political wisdom in the USA presidential campaigns is to play to the extreme (= “pure”) wing when campaigning for party nomination, and then to veer to the middle after gaining the nomination, when you have to play to the country as a whole.

Expressive behaviour is a prominent feature of this type of within-party posturing; there are plenty of examples of politicians making extreme claims that will go down well with their supporters, even though those claims have no chance of ever being turned into instrumental actions like passing actual legislation.

Sometimes, though, the expressive behaviour does get turned into actions, which is where it can be a real problem; again, there are plenty of examples where laws have been passed purely because politicians were pandering to the most extreme members of their own support base, even though the overwhelming majority of the country were deeply opposed to the laws in question.

Sensory homeostasis versus sensory diet

A standard feature of supervillains in the movies is that they crave the good life and power. This is usually portrayed either from a moral viewpoint (that indulgence and seeking power are bad things) or from a taken-for-granted viewpoint that any sensible person would want the good life and power.

From both the moral and the taken-for-granted viewpoint, the story stops there. However, if you ask why people would want those things, then some interesting regularities emerge.

The first regularity involves the “good life”. When you strip away the surface features (e.g. fine wines and gourmet food) then the recurrent theme is sensory loading. The “good life” involves being able to adjust your sensory input to whatever level you want. If you start looking systematically across the whole range of human senses, including proprioception etc, then this regularity makes a lot of sense of a wide spread of human behaviour, ranging from music to sexual fetishes to drug use to sport and film.

In sport, for example, one regular feature is a desire for perceived speed. The phrasing here is important. If you want actual speed, then the easiest way to get high speed is via air travel, where passenger airliners routinely travel at hundreds of miles per hour. However, you don’t see any sporting tournaments involving competitors sitting on passenger airliners. What you see instead is competitors on motorbikes or in sports cars travelling in a way that looks fast, even if it’s much slower than an airliner. With a motor race, there’s a lot of sensory load; with an airliner, there’s no perception of speed worth mentioning once you’re at cruising altitude. So, it’s all about sensory input, and about achieving particular levels of sensory input.

One obvious, but inaccurate, analogy for this is the thermostat, which regulates the heating around a preferred average. It’s not a very good analogy, because thermostats usually try to keep the temperature as close as possible to the preferred average. This concept is known as homeostasis; it’s about a system regulating itself to stay around a particular value.

However, what’s going on with sensory loading is subtly but significantly different. People don’t usually aim to stay close to a particular sensory loading. Instead, they prefer variety, within a comparatively broad range around a preferred central point.

Sensory loading appears to be better described in terms of the “sensory diet”. The core concept here is that each individual will want to include a variety of items within their “diet” rather than staying as close as possible to one standard meal. One common pattern, for instance, is a working week which is low in sensory loading, interspersed with weekends of high sensory loading.

Cognitive load

The second regularity is the desire for power. Power makes sense in terms of giving more predictable access to sources of sensory loading such as food, drink, sex and excitement; it’s a useful means to that end.

However, there appears to be something more going on with power. The perception of control is a recurrent feature in a wide range of human behaviour that doesn’t involve access to sources of sensory loading. Examples include learned helplessness (where people fail so often that they eventually stop trying, even though they could now succeed) and risk-related behaviour (where being helpless makes a risk seem much more threatening than it would if you had some control, even though the amount of damage is the same in both cases). It’s also clear that a lot of people get substantial pleasure from being in control of other people and of situations.

Here, I think that a key issue is cognitive load. Having control means that you know what will happen next; knowing what will happen next means that you have less to think about, meaning less cognitive load.

As with sensory diet, it appears that people prefer to have a diet of cognitive load, rather than simple homeostasis. Again, this makes senses of a broad range of phenomena which would otherwise look disconnected. Crosswords and Sudoku, for instance, are ways of increasing cognitive load; familiar music and meditation are ways of reducing cognitive load.

When you start thinking about human behaviour from this viewpoint, it gives you a whole new way of assessing what’s going on across a broad range of phenomena, and of seeing the underlying regularities. We’ll return to this topic repeatedly in future articles.

Assuming that the world doesn’t end before then…

Notes and links:

You’re welcome to use Hyde & Rugg copyleft images for any non-commercial purpose, including lectures, provided that you state that they’re copyleft Hyde & Rugg.

There’s more about the theory behind this article in my latest book:

Blind Spot, by Gordon Rugg with Joseph D’Agnese

Overviews of the articles on this blog:




5 thoughts on “Doomsday predictions as expressive behaviour

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