Functions of health fatalism: fatalistic talk as face saving, uncertainty management, stress relief and sense making

Sociol Health Illn. 2009 Jul;31(5):734-47. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9566.2009.01164.x. Epub 2009 Apr 9.


Much research on fatalism assumes that fatalistic statements represent a global outlook that conflicts with belief in the efficacy of health behaviours. Other scholars have suggested a more contextual approach, suggesting that fatalism fulfils personal and social functions. This study analyses 96 in-depth lay interviews in the US, most with low-income members of the general public, about four diseases: heart disease, lung cancer, diabetes and depression. Within these interviews, fatalistic statements always occurred alongside statements endorsing the utility of behaviours for protecting health. This usage pattern suggests that these statements may have useful functions, rather than being simply a repudiation of the utility of health choices. We examine four functions that are suggested by previous researchers or by the participants' comments: stress relief, uncertainty management, sense making and (less strongly) face saving. As these themes indicate, individuals often make fatalistic statements to express an understanding of locally or broadly limiting factors for health efficacy, including genes, spiritual agents, prior behaviours, personality, and other factors.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Affect
  • Attitude to Health*
  • Culture
  • Depression / psychology
  • Diabetes Mellitus / psychology
  • Health Behavior*
  • Heart Diseases / psychology
  • Humans
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Lung Neoplasms / psychology
  • Social Class
  • Stress, Psychological / prevention & control*
  • Uncertainty