Your Facebook is ablaze with friends wishing 2016 a swift death. Twitter churns with year-oriented hatred. It took Carrie Fisher and George Michael (and Prince and David Bowie and Muhammed Ali). Trump rode into the White House. Civil war deepened in Syria. Zika exploded. America alone had 46 major natural disasters and over 340 mass shootings. “Yes, years are a human construct and that we all exist in a continuum, which we come in and out of in our time,” tweeted science-fiction writer John Scalzi. “With that said, fuck 2016.”
Like Julie Beck noted in an essay for The Atlantic last week, “Fuck You, 2016” is a sweary reassurance to reach for when the world offers few lines of clear causality. In this way, blaming the year is like blaming God. Our moral intuitions don’t quite fire unless there’s a victim and a perpetrator involved; when there’s an atrocity, people look for a higher power involved.
Contrast Fuck 2016 with Why, God?. Consider how 2016 took lives and gave disasters. “When there is no sign of human agency,” she writes, “superhuman agency will do.” This is compelling on two levels: First, why do people throw humanlike agency all over the place, and second, what are the consequences of doing so?
Anthropomorphization, or the attribution of a humanlike mind to nonhuman entities, looks to be happening with years (and gods) as it does with animals. It’s an impulse toward sense-making, whether or not it makes rational sense. Our only access to the world is through the experience of being human, and we can only clearly communicate with other humans, so the human mind is the most immediate referent for other agents in the world, for better or worse. We impute (human) agency when there isn’t a (human) agent.
This can obscure the humbling act of actually understanding things as they are, whether it’s the cognition of an octopus or the currents of human events. Indeed, a canny historian would argue that history, political history especially, isn’t something that simply happens by some working of more-than-human fate, but is caused by individual and collective human action. To chalk it up to 2016 or 1989 or 1945 or whatever, removes a degree of responsibility and its darker cousin, culpability. As well, lots of research shows that having an “interior locus of control” — or a belief that you are the author of the events of your life — leads to better academic and professional achievement over a lifespan, possibly because it’s associated with greater goal orientation and active problem solving. To say, Fuck This Year, is to place the locus of control outward.
A study published in Cognitive Science in January helps explain why agency-projection is such an automatic behavior. Larisa Heiphetz, now the principal investigator at Columbia University’s Social and Moral Cognition Lab, and her colleagues studied how children and adults conceive of God, and they found that most people ascribed to the deity a humanlike mind. A reason for this, they speculated, is that anthropomorphization is a handy way to “minimize” your “cognitive load,” or the amount of mental effort you’re exerting at any given time. The human body (which the brain is a part of) is constantly looking for ways to reduce costs, leading to our being miserly about cognitive load, and consciously or unconsciously transforming complex questions into simple ones. After all, having to decipher every aspect of every new being you encounter — animals you never heard of, characters in books and movies and shows, attractive strangers on the subway, presidential candidates — would take tons of effort, and there’s only so much energy you can expend in a day. It’s the mental equivalent of how people see faces in electrical sockets, plastic barricades, and mailboxes. To use the technical language, anthropomorphization is an “heuristic,” a rule of thumb that the brain uses to save energy — that works most of the time.
“Using the minds with which humans are most familiar (i.e., human minds) as a starting point is an effective shortcut, and the ‘human minds as a starting point’ theme runs through many God concepts,” they write. “If this heuristic account is correct, children and adults may anthropomorphize any object or agent if their attempts to understand that object or agent begin by (consciously or unconsciously) representing a human mind.”
Like, say, a tumultuous and irrational year. While human life is, according to a zillion different metrics, better than it ever has been before, the news all indicates that things are terrible and getting worse. Thus, “2016 is an asshole”: The quip reduces the complexity of unrelated events into a chatty, concise lament, perfectly suited to chatty, concise social-media-lamentation platforms. There’s hope embedded in it, too, since a single year appears so much less powerful than the almighty.
Yes, a new year is a symbol of open opportunity. Yes, saying, “Fuck 2016,” is fun to do. It shows you thought shitty things happened, too, thus signaling your group identity. Bidding it good riddance with a toast on Saturday will undoubtedly feel awesome. But with so much research indicating that a sense of personal agency leads to health and happiness, don’t give too much of it away.