Decisions aren’t always easy. Sure, there are the choices we make instinctively, like which socks to put on or how many cats to own. But some choices demand our undivided attention, and for those, researchers suggest our brains respond in one of two ways: Either we accept the outcomes as legitimate, or we throw our hands up, letting Jesus take the wheel, and chalk it up to fate.

Over the course of time, we humans have developed a tidy catalog of phrases to keep ourselves comfortable with how things end up. A relationship turns sour? Don’t wallow: It wasn’t meant to be. Just submitted a job application? Why stress, it’s out of your hands now. Whether it’s out of fear of chaos and disorder or a genuine belief that an omniscient force wields some almighty power, fate plays a recurring role in keeping us from constant anxiety.

Accepting randomness just isn’t something we humans like to do, or are necessarily equipped for. Our brains are hardwired to see patterns, whether they’re faces, symbols, colors, shapes, or numbers. Put two dots above a line, and not only will nearly everyone report seeing a face; they’ll be unable to see anything else. The preference for pattern extends to clinical diagnoses, too. A chaotic brain is often considered a disordered brain, evidenced by the myriad ADHD sufferers who have described their internal states as jumbled, noisy, exhausting. Basically, our worlds are most easily dealt with when the information we take in can be neatly filed and categorized.

A new study from Duke University now suggests we often call upon fate to do this filing for us. “Fate is a ubiquitous supernatural belief, spanning time and place,” wrote researchers Aaron Kay, Simone Tang, and Steven Shepherd. “It exerts a range of positive and negative effects on health, coping, and both action and inaction.” Self-soothing, the team hypothesized, was most often achieved through a surrendering of control.

To test their theory, the researchers recruited 189 subjects to make a difficult decision between the two candidates of the 2012 presidential election, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Afterward, they asked subjects to what degree they believed in fate. Overall, the people who had a tougher time choosing which candidate they preferred also tended to believe in fate. But that evidence wasn’t enough to conclude that fate often acts as a rationalizing force.

To push their theory even further, they conducted a second online survey, which actively made the subjects’ decision harder. People read real policy decisions from each candidate, either comparing the two as similar or contrasting them as starkly different. As the team had predicted, when participants who read about Obama and Romney’s similarities — decidedly the tougher scenario for choosing who is better — they expressed a greater belief in fate. It was as if subjects were saying whomever won was already decided, and using fate was the best way to escape the self-doubt of being wrong.

“Belief in fate, defined as the belief that whatever happens was supposed to happen and that outcomes are ultimately predetermined, may be especially useful when one is facing these types of difficult decisions,” the team explained.

Of course, using fate as a scapegoat has its drawbacks. For one, the fate-blamer enjoys fewer responsibilities. A jaded spouse, tired of all the fighting and emotional pain, may finally resign herself to notions of fate, rather than actively analyze what went wrong. Or consider the hopeful job applicant, who sends off his resume with both hands over his eyes. Is a non-response an act of fate? Or is it a sign that he may have been unqualified, his resume ill-formatted? And for that matter, what role do luck and other supernatural forces play in how we feel about the decisions we make.

Such questions are poised to be the topic for future studies, the team says. “Belief in fate may ease the psychological burden of a difficult decision, but whether that comes at the cost of short-circuiting an effective decision-making process is an important question for future research.”

 

Source: Kay A, Tang S, Shepherd S. Do Difficult Decisions Motivate Belief in Fate? A Test in the Context of the 2012 U.S. Presidential Election. Psychological Science. 2014.