Menus Subscribe Search

Findings

fortune-cookie-fate

(Photo: Chursina Viktoriia/Shutterstock)

Belief in Fate: A Way to Avoid Making Tough Decisions?

• February 12, 2014 • 4:00 AM

(Photo: Chursina Viktoriia/Shutterstock)

Surveys taken just ahead of the 2012 election suggest voters having trouble making up their minds are more likely to believe the outcome is predestined.

“It is what a man thinks of himself that really determines his fate,” declared Henry David Thoreau. “Men are not prisoners of fate, but only prisoners of their own minds,” echoed President Franklin Roosevelt.

Such statements exemplify the American attitude that we’re in charge of our own destinies. But even in this country, many still cling to the idea of fate—that belief that important outcomes are predestined and beyond our control.

Why do we resign ourselves to that state of powerlessness? Newly published research provides one possible answer: It helps us avoid the emotional pain of making tough choices.

“When our voters found it harder to choose between Obama and Romney, they perceived a greater role for fate in the election. Belief in fate may ease the psychological burden of a difficult decision.”

Two studies published in the journal Psychological Science “provide consistent and converging evidence that decision difficulty can motivate increased belief in fate,” write Duke University researchers Aaron Kay, Simone Tang, and Steven Shepherd. “These results offer a new understanding of a ubiquitous and consequential belief system.”

The first study, which featured 189 people recruited online via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, was conducted one week ahead of the 2012 presidential election. Participants began by responding to nine assertions designed to measure the difficulty they were having choosing between President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

Afterwards, they responded to three statements assessing their belief in predestination regarding the election, such as: “Fate will make sure that the candidate that eventually gets elected is the right one.”

The result: Those who expressed greater difficulty choosing between the candidates were also more likely to believe the outcome would be determined by fate.

The second study featured 182 people, similarly recruited online. It took place two days before the election.

“Participants viewed a website that presented real quotes from the two candidates on six issues,” the researchers explain. “To manipulate decision difficulty, we asked participants to read quotes that emphasized either the candidates’ similarities or their differences.”

Afterward, all responded to four statements about destiny and the election, including “Everything happens for a reason, and the results of the election will, too.” Finally, they reported how difficult a time they were having making up their minds.

People who read the similar-sounding statements found their choice more difficult to make, and—more importantly—“reported greater belief in fate” than those who read the statements that emphasized the candidates’ differences.

“When our voters found it harder to choose between Obama and Romney, they perceived a greater role for fate in the election,” the researchers conclude. “Belief in fate may ease the psychological burden of a difficult decision.”

While conceding that further research will be needed to determine how far this effect extends, the researchers find these results at least potentially troubling. We all have many difficult decisions to make in our lives, and finding excuses to avoid them hinders us from developing the emotional maturity necessary to comfortably deal with ambiguity.

And as the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus observed, “A man’s character is his fate.”

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 25 • 2:00 PM

Trophy Scarves: Race, Gender, and the Woman-as-Prop Trope

Social inequality unapologetically laid bare.


July 25 • 1:51 PM

Confusing Population Change With Migration

A lot of population change is baked into a region from migration that happened decades ago.


July 25 • 1:37 PM

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.



July 25 • 11:07 AM

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.


July 25 • 10:00 AM

Shelf Help: New Book Reviews in 100 Words or Less

What you need to know about Bad Feminist, XL Love, and The Birth of Korean Cool.



July 25 • 8:00 AM

The Consequences of Curing Childhood Cancer

The majority of American children with cancer will be cured, but it may leave them unable to have children of their own. Should preserving fertility in cancer survivors be a research priority?


July 25 • 6:00 AM

Men Find Caring, Understanding Responses Sexy. Women, Not So Much

For women looking to attract a man, there are advantages to being a caring conversationalist. But new research finds it doesn’t work the other way around.


July 25 • 4:00 AM

Arizona’s Double-Talk on Execution and Torture

The state is certain that Joseph Wood’s death was totally constitutional. But they’re looking into it.


July 24 • 4:00 PM

Overweight Americans Have the Lowest Risk of Premature Death

Why do we use the term “normal weight” when talking about BMI? What’s presented as normal certainly isn’t the norm, and it may not even be what’s most healthy.


July 24 • 2:00 PM

California’s Lax Policing of the Fracking Industry Has Put the Drought-Stricken State in a Terrible Situation

The state’s drought has forced farmers to rely on groundwater, even as aquifers have been intentionally polluted due to exemptions for the oil industry.


July 24 • 12:00 PM

What’s in a Name? The Problem With Washington’s Football Team

A senior advisor to the National Congress of American Indians once threw an embarrassing themed party that involved headdresses. He regrets that costume now, but knows his experience is one many others can relate to.


July 24 • 11:00 AM

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that’s fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.


July 24 • 10:58 AM

How the Supremes Pick Their Cases—and Why Obamacare Is Safe for Now

The opponents of Obamacare who went one for two in circuit court rulings earlier this week are unlikely to see their cases reach the Supreme Court.



July 24 • 9:48 AM

The People Who Are Scared of Dogs

While more people fear snakes or spiders, with dogs everywhere, cynophobia makes everyday public life a constant challenge.


July 24 • 8:00 AM

Newton’s Needle: On Scientific Self-Experimentation

It is all too easy to treat science as a platform that allows the observer to hover over the messiness of life, unobserved and untouched. But by remembering the role of the body in science, perhaps we humanize it as well.


July 24 • 6:00 AM

Commercializing the Counterculture: How the Summer Music Festival Went Mainstream

With painted Volkswagen buses, talk of “free love,” and other reminders of the Woodstock era replaced by advertising and corporate sponsorships, hippie culture may be dying, but a new subculture—a sort of purgatory between hipster and hippie—is on the rise.


July 24 • 5:00 AM

In Praise of Our Short Attention Spans

Maybe there’s a good reason why it seems like there’s been a decline in our our ability to concentrate for a prolonged period of time.


July 24 • 4:00 AM

How Stereotypes Take Shape

New research from Scotland finds they’re an unfortunate product of the way we process and share information.


July 23 • 4:00 PM

Who Doesn’t Like Atheists?

The Pew Research Center asked Americans of varying religious affiliations how they felt about each other.


July 23 • 2:00 PM

We Need to Start Tracking Patient Harm and Medical Mistakes Now

Top patient-safety experts call on Congress to step in and, among other steps, give the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wider responsibility for measuring medical mistakes.


July 23 • 12:19 PM

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.


July 23 • 12:00 PM

Why Do We Love the ‘Kim Kardashian: Hollywood’ Game?

It’s easy enough to turn yourself into a virtual celebrity, complete with fame and mansions—but it will likely cost you.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that's fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.

Modern Technology Still Doesn’t Protect Americans From Deadly Landslides

No landslide monitoring or warning systems are being used to protect vulnerable communities.

The Big One

Today, the United States produces less than two percent of the clothing purchased by Americans. In 1990, it produced nearly 50 percent. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.