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A conversation with Adam Fetterman

An interview

We recently had a chat with Adam Fetterman, whose article titled, “On post-apocalyptic and doomsday prepping beliefs: A new measure, its correlates, and the motivation to prep”, recently got accepted for publication at EJP.  Adam currently works as an assistant professor at the Department of Psychology, University of Texas at El Paso.

Read on to learn more about Doomsday Preppers and the motivation to prep!

Picture Adam.jpg

Q: Hello Adam! Can you tell us a bit about yourself and what got you interested in personality psychology?

I grew up in the central part of Minnesota and attended St. Cloud State University, where I completed my B.A. in psychology. It was there that I grew interested in personality psychology. I did not go to university directly after finishing high school, as I had to work full time to support my family. However, once I did end up in school, one of the first classes I took was personality psychology and I was fascinated by it. Many people start off wanting to become a clinical psychologist, but after taking that personality class, I knew I wanted to focus on research.

After completing my undergraduate degree, I completed my M.S. and Ph.D. in personality and social psychology at North Dakota State University in Fargo, under the supervision of Michael Robinson. My dissertation focused on the consequences of metaphor use. In that lab, we were a mix of personality and social cognitive researchers. As such, my work developed from these two camps and my current work continues to be a mix of personality and social cognitive research. From there I did a postdoc at the Leibniz-Institut für Wissensmedien under the supervision of Kai Sassenberg. Here, I continued developing my areas of research. I then worked at the University of Essex and then the University of Texas at El Paso as an assistant professor.

In the summer of 2019, I am making a move to the University of Houston. Here, I’ll continue developing my programs of research and I look forward to mentoring more graduate and undergraduate students in psychological science. My lab focuses on the functions of metaphor use, in terms of understanding abstract things. Further, we are interested in the cognitive processes involved in the experience of nostalgia. Often times my lab takes on some interesting side projects, as well. For instance, the Post-Apocalyptic and Doomsday Prepping paper was one such side-project. Some other projects include wrongness admission (publicly admitting when you have held an inaccurate attitude), meaning in life, political correctness, and religiosity.

Q: What aspect of your job are you most excited about?

The thing that I am most excited about in my job is mentoring new scientists as they develop their research interests. In doing so, we get to ask fun questions about human nature and put theories to the test. In general, though, I very much enjoy working with others on research projects, even if they are not directly related to my programs of research.

I am also pretty excited about some of the new ways people are leveraging technology and statistics to test ideas. For example, a lot of the work coming out using language analysis is intriguing. Another example is using things like virtual reality and virtual environments to test things that were once unfeasible or, perhaps, unethical. As this technology is further developed, I think it will provide great insights and, perhaps, have great impact.

Finally, I am excited about the developments in transparency in our field. For example, in the paper that sparked this interview, we were able to report failed hypotheses and non-replicated effects without that being held against us. I think that being able to openly report our studies, even “failed” ones, will do a great service to our science as it grows. Science is rarely, if ever, clean. This is especially true when we are dealing with the social nature of humans, which will inevitably elicit small and finicky effects.

Q: What is your study about?

This project was inspired by a US reality show called Doomsday Preppers. My co-authors and I were fascinated by the views – e.g., how society will function in a post-apocalyptic world and ideas about human nature – expressed in this show and the sub-culture that surrounded it. For example, people portrayed in this show often felt it necessary to stockpile food, weapons, and ammunition, as they thought the doomsday is near and that humans will become violent and competitive. However, we quickly learned that many everyday people held similar views about what would happen in a post-apocalyptic scenario. Indeed, a lot of these views seemed to be reflected in popular culture (e.g., television series, video games, and novels). Of course, most folks aren’t concerned about zombies, like in the Walking Dead, but they do express views similar to how the world is portrayed in those shows. Further, many people expressed that it is rather rational to “prep” for a doomsday scenario. It seemed to us, then, important to understand how such views and beliefs impact people’s current behavioral tendencies and to maybe look at what underlies these beliefs.

Therefore, a couple of us collected observations from tv shows, message boards, and just talking to acquaintances, to gauge how everyday people thought about post-apocalyptic worlds and prepping. We noticed themes of fearing humans, worries over the lack of resources, and the need to be prepared. In some cases, we noticed that people actually somewhat desired a post-apocalyptic world to see how they would survive. So, we created a questionnaire called the Post-Apocalyptic and Prepping Beliefs Scale. This questionnaire can be scored as a total score, which represents an overall pessimistic view of post-apocalyptic worlds. It can also be scored as subscales that measure fears about humans and a lack of resources, social Darwinism, and beliefs in the need to prep.

Using correlational and daily diary designs, we found that these beliefs are, indeed, common in everyday folks. So, these beliefs are not completely fringe. We found that general pessimism about the post-apocalypse was related to personality factors like cynicism, daily prepping beliefs, conspiracy beliefs, and introversion, among others. Those who score high on fears about humanity and resources, also score higher on introversion, conspiracy beliefs, and cynicism, but also things like neuroticism, among others. Social Darwinist beliefs were positively correlated with social dominance orientation, cynicism, conspiracy beliefs, but also negatively correlated with humility and agreeableness, among others. Beliefs in the need to prep were associated with conservatism and conspiracy beliefs, but also God-belief and cynicism. Interestingly, we also found that daily prepping beliefs increased right after the Brexit vote and right after the election of Donald Trump. This suggests that controversial geopolitical events increase the belief in the need to prep for an apocalyptic event.

We did not have the ability to test for causal relations, so it is hard to say exactly what “causes” these beliefs. Even so, our work suggests that fear and anxiety about other humans underlies these thoughts. These beliefs might be reinforced by fictional and non-fictional media, as well. For example, many right-wing radio programs (e.g., Infowars) advertise goods for prepping and stoke the conspiratorial narratives (there are people out to get you) that might drive these beliefs.

Overall, though, post-apocalyptic and doomsday beliefs are probably often harmless. In fact, they may even be rational! There is very likely not enough resources should societies collapse. Small subgroups of people might form and cooperate together, but compete with other groups. We don’t know. However, we speculate in our article that these beliefs taken to the extreme might have further reaching implications. For example, a lot of the traits that correlate with our measure are seen by some as a recipe for extremist behaviors, prejudice, and the type of public distrust that might lead to the formation of militias.

Again, this is mere speculation, but further research into these beliefs are warranted. This is why we wanted to create this scale: to begin to understand the consequences of such beliefs, whether they be positive or negative.

Q: Where do you see yourself in the (near) future?

I am moving to the University of Houston. I’m excited about this change and I plan to continue my various lines of research. A couple exciting projects I have in the works involve investigating the construct of Meaning in Life. I don’t want to reveal too much, but I think that people have been thinking about this construct in a different way than non-scientists. The second thing I’m really excited about is the work I’m doing on nostalgia. Particularly, we are looking at the mental processes, as opposed to specific outcomes (though we are looking at those too). This work is bringing me into some new realms with new methods and I find that exciting. It also means that I am developing an awesome group of collaborators. This will allow me to settle in to my new position at the University of Houston. Of course, my work on metaphors will always be at the forefront of my research profile and we are doing some innovative work in that area.

Q: Do you have any tips or advice for young researchers?

I guess I am kind of a young researcher myself career-wise, but not age-wise. I’ve spent a lot of time on the academic job market, however. This is not a fun process. I’ve seen a lot of amazing people not get jobs. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to it. If I could go back in time, however, I think I would network more. Find collaborators. Chat with people at conferences. It seems that recognizability does play a role, but I don’t recommend getting recognized for the wrong reasons (e.g., being loud and obnoxious on Twitter). But, it is important to keep in mind how difficult our job market is and to have a plan for what you want to do and how you will achieve it.

Developing a clear research profile is something I think is important too. For a while, I kind of studied things in a variety of areas; whatever I thought was interesting at the time. This was fun, but it was hard to answer the question, “What do you study?” concisely. So, I think I would develop a clear research profile and save the “isn’t that interesting” stuff for later.

Also, try to be innovative in your work. Look at things from new angles, using new methods. I think we sometimes get caught up doing the same things over and over because we can be successful with it. However, it is important to try different things. At the same time, though, you don’t need to be complicated. Often it seems that newer researchers try to throw everything and the kitchen sink into a study; to test everything at once. The studies become so complicated, that it would be very difficult to replicate. Do simple and powerful studies. If you are thinking about a complex path, just pick some portions of it to test first. I’ve seen people try to test an entire conceptual model without establishing some of the simpler links first. The big complex model fails and then they give up. Start simple. Complex does not always equal better. Sometimes the simplest stuff has the biggest impact.

Q: Thanks for talking to us, Adam!

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