By Emily Reynolds
“The only absolute knowledge that man can achieve is that life is meaningless,” wrote Leo Tolstoy in A confession, a brief summary of the nihilistic worldview. As oppressive as it may be, nihilism seems to be on the rise, with the importance of a meaningful worldview steadily declining over the past decade.
But how are other people? view Nihilists? This is the question asked by Matthew J. Scott and Adam B. Cohen of Arizona State University in a new article published in The Journal of Social Psychology. They find that stereotypes about nihilists are overwhelmingly negative – and unlike stereotypes about atheists, people don’t seem to have any positive views about nihilists at all.
In the first study, 464 participants viewed a short profile of a fictional man or woman that included a picture and some information, including occupation, favorite food, hobbies, and preferences for cats or dogs. The profile also outlined the person’s “pet philosophy”: he had either a nihilistic attitude (“We are here because of random events. Our life is no use”) or a meaningful attitude (“We are all fulfilled for a reason here in our lives.” a purpose ”).
Participants then rated the extent to which the person embodied certain traits: the Big Five personality traits, “popular social values” which included “fun,” “energetic,” “educated” and “trustworthy”, and the ability to perform social tasks fulfilling, including self-protection, being a good friend, attracting romantic partners, caring for families, and caring for children.
Profiles that indicated that life had a purpose were rated as more enjoyable, conscientious, sociable, and open-minded than nihilistic profiles, which in turn were rated as more neurotic. Similarly, people’s social values were all more closely associated with meaningful profiles than with nihilistic profiles. Nihilists were also considered to be less competent in all social tasks with the exception of self-protection.
The team also found that participants viewed nihilists as less religious, more depressed, and less planning for the future – and that these perceptions might help explain why they judged nihilists more negatively than those with more informative attitudes.
A second study, enrolled in 312 students, repeated the first and came to many of the same conclusions. This time, the team also found that people had negative views about nihilists, regardless of how they themselves believed about the meaning of life.
In three final studies, instead of profiles of people who were nihilists or not, the team showed participant profiles of people who were described as religious or non-religious, depressed or happy, or good or bad in future planning. Each of these factors was associated with negative judgments: Among other things, non-religious profiles were seen as less socially competent and less conscientious; depressive profiles were viewed as less extroverted and pleasurable, and less able to avoid illness, attract romantic partners, and care for children; and those with less planning for the future were viewed as less conscientious, less virtuous, and less intelligent, and less likely to be able to take care of themselves and others. Taken together, the results of the final studies suggest that these three factors are indeed the main reason nihilists are negatively stereotyped.
Overall, the results don’t paint a rosy picture when it comes to views of nihilists. Also, in contrast to previous research on atheism, which found both positive and negative stereotypes of the non-religious, the results also appear to be very little positive – compared to people who have believed that life has meaning Nihilists seen more negatively across the board.
However, a closer look at different types of nihilism can produce different results – the team uses the example of someone who believes wealth accumulation is meaningless, which can be accompanied by more positive stereotypes. It is also entirely possible for someone to believe that life itself has no inherent purpose but that it has a purpose of its own. A closer look at people’s personal networks of meaning can reveal more differentiated attitudes and question broader stereotypes of how a “nihilist” thinks, feels and behaves.
– Nihilist stereotypes are mostly negative
Emily Reynolds is an associate at BPS Biomedarticles