What will you do with your last day?
According to the Mayans (or rather, certain interpretations of their division of time into ages) apocalypse is coming on Friday, triggering the end of the world, the end times, or something along those lines. Details are sketchy, but it’s not going to be good news. It’s all rubbish, obviously (a statement I can safely make because in the unlikely event that I’m wrong no one will be around to point it out), but some people claim to believe it.
Despite that belief, which 10% of the global population claim to hold, we’re not seeing the sort of activity you’d expect. If you really thought you had days left to live, you’d be making the most of every minute. If you thought civilisation was about to collapse, you’d be stockpiling weapons, ammunition and long-lasting canned food. If even a small fraction of that 10% were acting on their beliefs, the markets would go into meltdown and the news would be full of little else.
But barring the occasional quirky story, everyone’s going on as before, with no discernible change in economic activity. People aren’t leaving work to live for the moment, and no one’s making a fortune from sudden massive distortions in the market for certain products.
Compare and contrast with the story of Marian Keech’s followers, as related in the book When Prophecy Fails. Relatively few people believed her alien doomsday predictions, so there was no prospect of global economic effects, but those that did took it seriously – quitting jobs, giving away possessions, leaving appliances unrepaired, and generally cutting all ties to their normal lives. They were still wrong, but they weren’t messing about.
People believe things, or claim to, without acting in a way that’s consistent with that belief. Horoscopes are written to be vague and open to multiple interpretations, but how many who claim to believe in them would take a personally costly action if Mystic Meg gave them a specific instruction? Somewhere between very few and none at all.
There’s a broad spectrum of belief, from holding open a minute possibility that there might be something in it to absolute 100% certainty. I wouldn’t expect people to abandon their entire lives based on anything less than total certainty, but if you claim to believe something like this, you must at the very least think it’s more likely than not, however subjective your measure.
The trouble is that we’re so good at rationalising. We rationalise certain beliefs, and we rationalise our failure to live as if those beliefs were actually true, or anything more than a fairy story. Our beliefs and actions don’t align, but we ignore that, or tell ourselves it doesn’t matter for some reason.
So when considering beliefs, especially when the people holding them express a high degree of confidence, ask yourself how much their actions match them, and how costly those actions would be if they were wrong.
Essentially, ask yourself how much they’re prepared to bet on their assessment. It’s rarely very much, especially considering the returns on offer, which may indicate something about the true confidence of those beliefs.