2016: How to Turn a Year Into a Minor Deity

If you—like me—hated 2016 and want a congressional order that says it never happened, then you might have also found yourself personifying it when every piece of horrifying news from Syria was reported, the election results came in, or as depressing celebrity deaths hit the wire.

Also, you—like me—just invented a minor deity.

Here’s how it happens in two steps.

Firstly, Notice the Frequency of Things.

Ever hear a song or a term for the first time? I’m guessing you then heard it a thousand times the same day or week after that? Interested in buying a new vehicle? Suddenly you’ll see it everywhere.

This is called the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, also known as the Frequency Illusion, meaning that our brains evolved to notice patterns. The running joke is that as soon as you hear about the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, you’ll be seeing the term everywhere. So if you read about one celebrity death, then soon you’ll see another.

Secondly, Attribute a Mind To It.

Here’s the thing: the human brain never loves loose-ends; we need explanations for things when they occur and we hate a vacuum of purpose. Yes, people were driving a particular car before you bought it, but once you saw how many of them were on the road, then you might take that as a sign from God or the universe (or more likely, the marketing gods) that you need to buy it.

Surely nothing can be coincidental, right? Well, in the case of the vehicle, it is less coincidence and more successful marketing and peer-influence. But yes, actually, things can be coincidental. When someone wins the lottery twice, we might think they are lucky or blessed. But those studying the math of probability might tell you that if you pull back to a global scale, the sheer numbers are that it would be highly unusual if someone didn’t win the lottery twice.

But we do not like randomness, so we look for patterns, exclude information that might mess with what we think of as patterns, and craft purpose, fate, etc., as being behind it. (For an interesting take on this randomness, listen to the Radiolab podcast, “Stochasticity,” below).

Creating minds to fit the circumstances is something we do easily. One of my favorite examples is that of the Princess Alice experiment, where children who were convinced by researchers that an invisible person named “Princess Alice” was in the room with them cheated far less in a game. Alice did not actually have to exist to possess agency, a mind, a moral code, and the intention of watching for cheaters.

It isn’t a huge leap to do something like that with a year like 2016.

The 2016 Deity

For many people, terrible things happened in 2016. In fact, many of the same terrible things repeated themselves. We began to see 2016 as an enemy, looked for more terrible things, created memes saying as much, and—even if we wouldn’t actually say we believed it—treated it like a minor, but evil deity. It took from us a chunk of sane society, human lives, and the very essence of truth.

It isn’t a deity, of course. It is just a year—a terrible, rotten, no-good year. But it is a testimony to how easily the human brain can personify just about anything.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to watch John Oliver blow up 2016 again.

Photo: Dietmar Becker (CC0)

Written by Brandon Withrow
Freelance writer (The Daily Beast, The Guardian, RNS, etc.). Author of 9 books. Adjunct lecturer in religious studies. Lover of science.