Your Life is Meaningless

If you are like most people, the title of this article likely made you shudder. Perhaps you are already making a mental list of your life’s meaningful pursuits, like raising a child, writing a book, or being a good Christian. Whatever you do, there is one thing you must understand about your “meaningful” activities: they are merely a cure for the pain of randomness.

Throughout evolutionary history, our brains have been conditioned to avoid randomness and find patterns. Our ability to find patterns in nature (for instance noticing that the blueberries were tasty and the red ones made us sick) helped our ancestors combat the perils of life. Now the human mind is a pattern finding machine, and with good reason — our very survival depends on it. So what happens when we are moved by events that have no clear explanation?

Religion happens. It is extremely disheartening to think that the events of our lives have no inherent significance. Therefore, when faced with the issue of uncertainty, many of us turn to spirituality to comfort ourselves. Although there are numerous explanations for the existence of religion, psychological research shows that randomness aversion as a key factor in promoting spiritual beliefs.

In a paper in the Association of Psychological Science journal, “Randomness, Attributions of Arousal, and Belief in God”, psychologist Aaron Kay tests this theory of randomness aversion by answering two questions. First, do thoughts of randomness cause increased belief in supernatural forces? Second, if so, is this increase caused by arousal (anxiety, fear, etc.), generated from thoughts of randomness? The answers will surprise you.

Based on the premise that randomness causes arousal, participants were split into two groups. The experimental group was primed “randomness related words” and the control group was primed with negative words. Priming is a psychological implicit memory technique where exposure to one stimulus influences the response to another stimulus. After being primed with random or non-random words, participants were split up again and given a harmless pill to take orally. Half of the participants were told that the pill had no side effects, while the other half were told that the pill would cause “mild arousal or anxiety”. The purpose of this step is to determine whether or not their spiritual beliefs change when they have an explanation (in this case, side effects of the pill) for their arousal.

After taking a survey rating their beliefs about God, karma, and other supernatural forces, participants in the randomness/no side-effects group displayed significantly higher ratings in their reported religious beliefs. Equally shocking were the numbers on the randomness/side-effects group: randomness had no effect on their beliefs. These findings suggest that we can deal with anxiety arousal as long as we have something to attribute it to. If not, we turn to spirituality, for even witchcraft is more compelling than randomness.

Additionally, this study shows the magnitude of the human abhorrence of uncertainty. Even the word “chance” can get us to start favoring karma over reality. It is clear that one function of religion is to reduce the uneasy feeling that permeates our minds when we encounter uncertainty. At least, that’s what I think. I’m not sure.

References:

Kay, Aaron C., David A. Moscovitch, and Kristin Laurin. “Randomness, Attributions of Arousal, and Belief in God.” Psychological Science 21.2 (2010): 216–18. Web.