When Prophesy Fails

When-Prophecy-Fails-Festinger-Leon-9781905177196Title: When Prophesy Fails: A social and psychological study of a group that predicted the destruction of the world

Author:  Leon Festinger, Henry W Riecken, Stanley Schachter

ISBN: 9781905177196

Description:

Why do people in cults like Scientology believe such bizarre things, if they are not ‘brainwashed’? This book provides one alternative explanation. It describes a study of a small and short-lived UFO cult by a social psychologist who ‘infiltrated’ the group with observers (his students).

Cult members can to the conclusion that ‘the end of the world was nigh’, but wise aliens would save the faithful (i.e. them) by taking them up in spaceships before the world was destroyed. What’s more, they set a date. Some members disposed of everything they owned in the  expectation that they would soon be starting a new life on another planet.

The world did not end. Althoug   most observers would expect the believers to lose their faith, the social-psychologists theorised that the exact opposite would happen – that believers would invent an explanation for the delay, and recruit with renewed fervour – that the failure of their prophesy would actually reinforce their faith.

They were correct, and their explanation was developed into a general theory widely used in psychology – cognitive dissonance.

The theory states that, if we hold two conflicting ideas in our heads at the same time, we suffer from a state of psychological discomfort – ‘cognitive dissonance’. A simple example is a person who smokes. On one hand, they know they can’t stop. On the other hand, they know that smoking is a considerable health risk. This conflict creates great psychological discomfort.

There are two ways to resolve this conflict. The obvious, rational, way is to stop smoking, and some people do this. However, humans are not all rational creatures. Some of us are rationalising creatures. The other way to resolve the conflict is to rationalise it away. This can be seen in the excuses that smokers use for not stopping. In the same way, people who have joined cults, and do not receive the benefits they expected can leave.

However, believers may have made a considerable investment in their beliefs, not only in  money but also in  time and self-esteem. Many of the people in the UFO cult described in the book had sold all their possessions in expectation of the end of the world. When they are faced with a conflict between their belief in the end of the world and the fact that it is, obviously, still here, it is easier for them to rationalise this  failure away than it is to accept the truth.

The believers described in this book decided that they had ‘raised the consciousness’ of  many other people,  so the aliens postponed the end of the world in order to send for more ships with which to ‘harvest’ these new converts. the cult only collapsed after several more failures in prophesy.

Cognitive dissonance is one of those ideas that works by opposites. It says that whenever a cult fails to satisfy a believers expectation, some people will rationalise this failure away so enthusiastically that they subsequently  become more committed.

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