Belief in the immortal soul makes believers more accepting of end-of-the-world scenarios

People who believe in literal immortality may have an advantage over those who believe in symbolic immortality when it comes to the end of the world, according to October 2015 research.

The series of five studies, published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, aimed to determine whether certain worldview beliefs affect how participants react to news that the end of the world is imminent.

Symbolic immortality, typically associated with scientific or secular worldviews, is the belief that a person only lives on through the memories of other people—for example, through fame, works of art, or community impact.

Literal immortality, typically tied to religious beliefs, is the view that the soul itself lives on forever—transcending the physical earth and time itself.

Scientists hypothesized that those who believe in literal immortality would be less concerned by news that the world is ending.

“Those who do not believe in a soul would be more threatened by a scientific article predicting end of the world because it undermines their sense of immortality,” said Uri Lifshin, principal investigator and corresponding author of the study.

“However, people who do believe in literal immortality should be less threatened by such information because they can continue to live on nonetheless,” Lifshin continued.

Study 1

Study 1 sought to show a correlation between belief in an immortal soul and acceptance of an end-of-the-world scenario. Individuals were asked to participate in a study examining personality types and evaluation of scientific articles. To avoid suspicion, participants had answered questions regarding identified religion and level of religious fundamentalism as a part of a pre-screening survey weeks before.

The results showed that participants who believe in an immortal soul were less resistant to the end-of-the-world scenarios than those who believe in symbolic immortality.

Study 2

In the second study, scientists sought to rule out the possibility that soul believers are simply more prone to agree with scientific information in general than low soul believers.

81 individuals participated in Study 2.  They received the same screening and surveys as participants in Study 1, as well as another unrelated scientific article.

Consistent with the first study, participants with high soul belief were more accepting of the end-of-the-world article than participants with low soul belief.  Additionally, both high soul believers and low soul believers were roughly equally accepting of the unrelated scientific article.  The results show that the effect is indeed related to soul belief, not a general willingness to accept scientific information.

Study 3

Since it is likely that soul believers also believe in symbolic immortality—in other words, they would like to make an impact on the world beyond their lifespan—this study aimed to determine whether temporarily shifting soul believers to think about symbolic immortality would affect their responses to an end-of-the-world article.

80 participants completed the same questionnaires as those in the previous studies.  Before reading the articles, a portion of the participants also received a questionnaire that momentarily activated thoughts of symbolic immortality.

High soul believers who received the symbolic immortality questionnaire were less likely to agree with the end-of-the-world article than high soul believers who did not receive the symbolic immortality prime, confirming the team’s hypothesis.

Study 4

Study 4, which examined 144 participants, replicated the previous study regarding methods.  High soul believers were still given the symbolic immortality prime.  However, instead of a control group, two other groups were primed for either mortality salience—thoughts about one’s own life ending—and thoughts of severe dental pain—an aversive scenario unrelated to mortality.

Results confirmed the previous studies.  High soul believers agreed significantly less with the end-of-the-world article after the symbolic immortality prime than those who received the dental pain or mortality salience primes.

Study 5

In the final study, scientists sought to ensure that the end-of-the-world effects of the previous studies were due to the defined ideologies and not concern for friends or family members.

74 participants completed the same questionnaires as those in previous studies, except that the end-of-the-world timeframe in the article was extended to 50 to 200 years in the future.

“We lengthened the timeframe…so that participants’ friends, family members, and even projected children and grandchildren would not be killed by the world-ending event,” said Lifshin.

Consistent with the previous studies, the effect of high soul belief on agreement with the end-of-the-world scenario was still significant—as was the effect of the symbolic immortality prime.

“All five studies show that literal immortality beliefs in the form of an immortal soul can provide believers with psychological protection that enables them to accept end-of-the-world scenarios more so than people who do not have a firm belief in an immortal soul,” Lifshin said.