Were the Doomsday Preppers Right?

White plastic container on brown wooden table

Source: Photo by Garreth Brown from Pexels

Spoiler alert: the short answer is “somehow”.

Doomsday preppers are those who believe that a doomsday scenario or social breakdown is imminent and therefore spend much of their time preparing for survival. For example, they could store supplies and ammunition, and develop plans and infrastructure to defend themselves against others.

Before I discuss how the preppers were right and wrong, a little background on how I got into investigating this strange question. I am a professor of personality and social psychology at the University of Houston. My research has always focused on how people think and understand their social world. The best thing about this focus is that I can often look at people’s behaviors and beliefs in the real world (or on TV) as inspiration for my research.

When I was a PhD student at North Dakota State University, the National Geographic reality series “Doomsday Preppers” aired, as did the AMC show “The Walking Dead.” When I watched these shows, I was intrigued by the perception of what a post-apocalyptic world would look like and how people would behave, and the degree of doom some people are preparing for.

To be honest, I thought most of these beliefs and behaviors were irrational. Research shows that people are intuitively cooperative. So why the cynicism? Aside from the looming dangers of climate change, the notion that a biblical catastrophic event was affecting our access to resources seemed far-fetched. So, I wanted to learn more about these post-apocalyptic and preparatory beliefs about the end of the world.

After my doctorate, I moved to Germany for a postdoctoral position. There I had the resources and the freedom to research on topics of my choice and one of them was the post-apocalyptic belief and the doomsday belief. Some colleagues and I decided to complete a questionnaire on these beliefs and published our work in the European Journal of Personality.

What we found was that these beliefs have an overall component and three sub-components. The overall component is a general pessimistic view of a post-apocalyptic world – mostly that the end of the world is imminent, resources are limited and humans will not be cooperative. The three sub-components are 1) negative beliefs about human nature and the availability of resources, 2) beliefs about competition for survival, and 3) beliefs about the need to be prepared.

Each of these beliefs reflects a variety of personality traits (e.g., low agreement and high neuroticism) and beliefs (e.g., political ideology and conspiracy beliefs). We also found that major political events led to an increase in people’s beliefs that they needed to engage in behavior preparation. The general point, however, is that those who value these beliefs highly have a more cynical view of human nature, the availability of resources, and our ability as a society to deal with disasters.

The lessons of 2020

When we started the Post-Apocalyptic and Doomsday Preparation project, we thought that holding these hypothetical beliefs might be important in understanding some common everyday behaviors. We didn’t think they would apply to actual events. Then came 2020. Since we published our work in 2019, we’ve seen a global pandemic, mass protests for racial justice, a record breaking hurricane season, the storming of the US capital, and a record breaking freeze in Texas that left millions of people without electricity or electricity Water for days to name a few. The point is, we’ve had a number of ways to see if cynical post-apocalyptic and doomsday preparatory beliefs are warranted.

When it comes to concerns about human nature, a high level of cynicism does not seem warranted. While there have been some cases of questionable human behavior, for the most part people have been quite cooperative. For example, during the Texas freeze, many of the people who had not lost their electricity invited those who did to their homes, even though the threat of the pandemic continued to rage.

Resource availability concerns are a different story. At the beginning of the pandemic, many stores ran out of supplies. During the Texas freeze, supply chains collapsed, leaving many grocery store shelves empty by the end of the week. While concerns about human nature are likely to be too cynical, concerns about resource availability may be warranted in post-apocalyptic scenarios.

What about belief in the need to prepare? While the prep needs may not match the level of bunkering, drawing up bug-out plans, or stocking up on assault rifles, it seems pretty legitimate to have enough groceries and supplies to last at least two weeks. This reality became particularly apparent to me while living in the hurricane-prone city of Houston, Texas. For example, when we were threatened by a particularly strong storm in 2020, I realized how unprepared we were for food and supplies.

In the context of the pandemic, researchers in the US and Denmark have even found that fans of horror films were less stressed by the pandemic and fans of prepper films were better prepared for the pandemic. They suggest that fans of these movie genres get mental exercises for such global disasters. Hence some preparation seems to be required.

Overall, my thoughts on post-apocalyptic and doomsday-preparing beliefs shifted from hypothetical curiosity to reality. While taking any belief to the extreme is a bad idea and people don’t have to be so cynical and conspiratorial about human nature, it is probably a good idea to be prepared to some extent. It seems reasonable to have non-perishable groceries and supplies, provided you have no electricity or access to grocery stores for two weeks.

This is especially true for the future of climate change. In that case, we are likely to see more and more severe natural disasters. In addition, some aspects of climate change could affect food supplies if the climate becomes more irregular.

For those interested in being prepared for emergency situations, the CDC has resources related to a variety of emergency scenarios.