Facts So Romantic

Why We Love to Blame 2016

Image from HBO / YouTube

You may have noticed it by now: the—I guess I’ll call it an impulse—to anthropomorphize “2016.” It began gradually. First, we objectified it, likening it to a disturbing film, a force of nature, broken hardware. As Slate put it:

In trying to wrap our heads around 2016’s all-reason-and-logic–defying onslaught of tragedy and absurdity, we objectified the year. We gave it a shape and form, likening it to a melodrama, a malfunctioning machine, an unstoppable meteor, anything to get some small grasp on the year’s surreal and hellish parade of events.

Then we subjectified 2016. We wrote letters to the year, chastising its bad behavior (for, among other things, offing beloved celebrities). John Oliver went further, detonating a large “2016” structure in an arena. A recent Atlantic article ran with the title “‘Fuck You, 2016’: On blaming a year for the things that happen in it.”

But why are people blaming 2016 anyway? It could be that we’re anthropomorphizing the year to connect to it, and we need to connect to it because so many of our other connections are broken. In a study published in October, Jennifer A. Bartz, a psychologist at McGill University, with her colleagues described anthropomorphism as “a motivated process” that “reflect[s] the active search for potential sources of connection.” Bartz wanted to see if she could replicate, and extend, findings from a 2008 study by the University of Chicago social psychologist Nicholas Epley, and colleagues, who claimed that socially disconnected people may “invent humanlike agents in their environment” to help feel reconnected. Those researchers, Bartz and her colleagues write, “found that lonely people (compared with nonlonely people) were more likely to ascribe humanlike traits (e.g., free will) to an alarm clock, battery charger, air purifier, and pillow.”

This year, with its Presidential election, seems to have offered many occasions for Americans to question their sense of belonging. Neil Gross, a sociologist at Colby College, wrote in the New York Times recently that many people have been wondering, “Is this America?” “It’s a telltale sign of collective trauma, a grasping for identity when the usual bases for community aren’t there any more,” he writes. “For progressives, moderates and ‘Never Trump’ Republicans, the political order they long took for granted—defined by polarization, yes, but also by a commitment to basic principles of democracy and decency—is suddenly gone.” A recent Pew report, titled “A Divided and Pessimistic Electorate,” illustrated this: “Beyond their disagreements over specific policy issues, voters who supported President-elect Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton also differed over the seriousness of a wide array of problems facing the nation, from immigration and crime to inequality and racism.”

Much of this disagreement—between friends, family members, and coworkers—played out in real time online, especially on Facebook. Seventy-nine percent of online American adults, according to Pew, now use it (only 24 percent, by comparison, use Twitter). Perhaps because of this year’s focus on politics, more and more 65-year-olds and up have signed on: 62 percent of them now use Facebook, a 14-point bump from the 48 percent who reported doing so last year. Sixty-six percent of American adults on Facebook use it as a source for news

But Facebook isn’t the best place to discuss news if it deals with politics. “For the most part,” another Pew report states, “social media users try to refrain from engaging with the political arguments that enter their feeds: 83% of them say that when their friends post something about politics that they disagree with they usually just try to ignore it.” Since much of this year was about politics, friends and family members were presumably ignoring each other more than usual. Also, about a third of social media users this year tailored their feeds to filter out politics-related posts, and 27 percent have gone as far as to block or unfriend someone to that end.

Politics this year seems to have abetted social disconnection, and “an unmet need for social connection,” say Bartz and her colleagues, gives rise to anthropomorphism, “one of the more creative ways people try to meet belonging needs.” 

In the absence of a willing ear, what better way to feel like we belong than for us to agree—finally—on something, or someone, to blame? By scapegoating 2016, a move that offends no one (and some find funny), we achieve something resembling consensus, something the last year was conspicuously devoid of. 

Brian Gallagher is the editor of Facts So Romantic, the Nautilus blogFollow him on Twitter @brianga11agher.

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Watch: Nicholas Epley, a University of Chicago social psychologist, explains how we judge others’ views differently depending on whether we read or hear them.

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