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Folks speak blithely about their guilty pleasures. But if you get a little thrill when you contemplate the worldwide obliteration of society in a horrific Armageddon, have you crossed a line from “person with a guilty pleasure” to “person who is a dangerous psychopath”?
“I have that, too!” exclaimed University of Minnesota neuroscientist Shmuel Lissek (to my great relief). The idea of Armageddon “wakens your autonomic nervous system,” he says. “Your heart starts beating faster, you start breathing faster, your sweat glands engage. There’s a certain exhilaration from that idea, and one can enjoy that kind of arousal, especially if there’s a part of you that knows it won’t happen.”
Of course, cautions Lissek, some balance is in order here. “When the apocalypse is in the hypothetical, it’s normal for the excitement to be stronger than the fear,” he says. “If it’s not in the hypothetical and you’re seeing the devastation and you’re more excited than distraught, then you’re in the psychopathic range.”
Other experts suspected my excitement might have to do with contemplating the world that would come after a society-destroying plague. “We’re so stressed and overloaded, that you can start to think, Wouldn’t life be simpler if things just broke down?” says Jeff Greenberg, a social psychologist at the University of Arizona. “As long as we’re among the survivors, life gets simpler. In a world like ours right now, the idea of being heroic and doing the right thing is so complex that we don’t know what it might even be. But in a post-apocalyptic world, we’d have simpler ways to know what the right thing is.”
But a new question popped up: If humans are predisposed to find apocalyptic scenarios exciting, couldn’t that numb our feelings of urgency about preventing the apocalypse?
Speaking of guilt, there’s one last tidbit I should mention. Greenberg, the social psychologist, pointed out that my choice of profession might also predispose me to my extremely guilty pleasure. “You’re in a business where bad news is exciting, right?” he asks. “The apocalypse would give you more stuff to write about.” Touché.
To really enjoy a scary situation, we have to know we’re in a safe environment. It’s all about triggering the amazing fight-or-flight response to experience the flood of adrenaline, endorphins, and dopamine, but in a completely safe space. Haunted houses are great at this—they deliver a startle scare by triggering one of our senses with different sounds, air blasts, and even smells. These senses are directly tied to our fear response and activate the physical reaction, but our brain has time to process the fact that these are not “real” threats. Our brain is lightning-fast at processing threat. I’ve seen the process thousands of times from behind the walls in ScareHouse—someone screams and jumps and then immediately starts laughing and smiling. It’s amazing to observe. I’m really interested to see where our boundaries are in terms of when and how we really know or feel we’re safe.