“The only absolute knowledge attainable by man is that life is meaningless,” wrote Leo Tolstoy in A Confession, a succinct summing up of the nihilist worldview. Depressing as it may be, nihilism seems to be on the rise, with the importance of finding a meaningful worldview steadily decreasing over the last decade or so.
But how do other people view nihilists? This is the question posed by Matthew J. Scott and Adam B. Cohen of Arizona State University in a new paper published in The Journal of Social Psychology. They find that stereotypes of 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 either a fictitious man or woman, containing a picture and some information including occupation, favourite foods, hobbies, and preference for cats or dogs. The profile also outlined the person’s “pet philosophy”: they either had a nihilistic outlook (“We are here because of random events. Our lives have no purpose”) or a meaningful outlook (“We are all here for a reason. All of our lives serve a purpose”).
Participants then rated how much the person embodied certain traits: the Big Five personality traits, “folk social value traits” which included “fun”, “energetic”, “educated”, and “trustworthy”, and the ability to fulfil social tasks including self-protection, being a good friend, attracting romantic partners, caring for family, and being interested in having children.
Profiles that indicated life had a purpose were rated as more agreeable, conscientious, outgoing, and open-minded than nihilist profiles, which were in turn considered more neurotic. Similarly, the folk social value traits were all more closely associated with meaningful profiles than they were with nihilist profiles. Nihilists were also considered less competent in all social tasks except for self-protection.
The team also found that participants viewed nihilists as less religious, more depressed, and less likely to plan for the future — and that these perceptions could go some way to explaining why they had more negative views of nihilists than of those with a more meaningful outlook.
A second study, involving 312 undergraduate participants, replicated the first, and came to many of the same conclusions. This time, the team also found that people had negative views of nihilists no matter what their own beliefs were on the meaning of life.
In three final studies, instead of using profiles of people who were or weren’t nihilists, the team showed participants profiles of people who were described as religious or non-religious, depressed or happy, or good or bad at future planning. Each of these factors was associated with negative judgements: among other findings, non-religious profiles were considered less socially competent and less conscientious; depressed profiles were seen as less extraverted and agreeable, and less able to avoid disease, attract romantic partners and look after children; and those with lower levels of future-planning were seen as less conscientious, less virtuous, and less intelligent, and less likely to be able to care for themselves and others. Together, the results of the final studies suggests that these three factors are indeed the key reason nihilists are negatively stereotyped.
Overall, the results don’t paint a rosy picture when it comes to views of nihilists. Unlike previous research on atheism, which found both positive and negative stereotypes of the non-religious, there also seems to be very little upside to the results — compared to people who think life has meaning, nihilists were viewed more negatively across the board.
Looking more closely at different kinds of nihilism might produce different results, however — the team uses the example of someone who finds the accumulation of wealth meaningless, which may come with more positive stereotypes. It’s also perfectly possible that someone might believe life itself has no inherent purpose but has nonetheless developed their own sense of meaning. Looking more closely at people’s personal webs of meaning may reveal more nuanced attitudes, challenging broader stereotypes of how a “nihilist” thinks, feels, and behaves.