More Than Mortal

The science of the human quest for meaning, significance, and self-transcendence.

Why We Believe in Fate, Sometimes

If you believe things are meant to be, do you let yourself off the hook?

It was not meant to be.

Everything happens for a reason.

We make statements like these all the time. When life does not go our way, or we cannot make sense of a particular event or outcome, believing in fate can provide comfort. In other words, we often turn to a belief in fate after something has happened that we find undesirable or inexplicable.

But might we also turn to a belief in fate when we find it difficult to make a decision? New research says yes.

A team led by Aaron Kay at Duke University proposed that when people are struggling with making important decisions and see no clear right answer, they may be inclined to believe in fate, as a way to reduce the anxiety associated with not knowing what to do. That is, believing that whatever outcome occurs is the one that is meant to be may help us cope with the stress of uncertainty.

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The researchers tested this theory during the 2012 presidential election. In one study, they assessed the extent to which people found it difficult to choose between President Obama and Mitt Romney. They then assessed the extent to which people believed that fate would ensure that the right candidate became president. Supporting their hypothesis, the more people reported having a difficult time picking a candidate, the more they believed that the outcome of the election would be the result of fate.

In a second study, the researchers manipulated the difficulty of choosing a candidate. Specifically, some participants were presented with information highlighting the two candidates' similar positions on a range of issues—and some were presented with information highlighting their differences. Participants who received information about similarities between the candidates subsequently reported finding it more difficult to choose between them. And critically, these participants also later indicated having a greater belief that fate would determine who won the election. When people cannot decide who to support, they put their faith in fate.

In short, it appears that belief in fate not only helps us make sense of events that have already occurred. It also helps us feel better about the decisions we are struggling to make. This helps reduce the burden of feeling responsible for making the correct choice—by making us feel like the choice is really not ours to make.

Fate will decide.

 

 

Reference

S. Tang, S. Shepherd, A. C. Kay. Do Difficult Decisions Motivate Belief in Fate? A Test in the Context of the 2012 U.S. Presidential Election. Psychological Science, 2014; DOI: 10.1177/0956797613519448

Clay Routledge is an associate professor of Psychology at North Dakota State University.

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