When Prophecy Fails

the seekers

When Prophecy Fails is a 1956 classic book in social psychology by Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter about a UFO religion that believes the end of the world is at hand. Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance (holding conflicting thoughts or feelings at the same time causes distress) can account for the psychological consequences of disconfirmed expectations.

Festinger and his associates read an interesting item in their local newspaper headlined ‘Prophecy from planet Clarion call to city: flee that flood.’ A housewife given the name ‘Marian Keech’ (real name Dorothy Martin, later known as Sister Thedra), had mysteriously been given messages in her house in the form of ‘automatic writing’ from alien beings. These messages revealed that the world would end in a great flood before dawn on December 21, 1954.

Mrs. Keech had previously been involved with L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics movement, and her cult incorporated ideas from what was to become Scientology. The group of believers, headed by Keech, had taken strong behavioral steps to indicate their degree of commitment to the belief. They had left jobs, colleges, and spouses, and had given away money and possessions to prepare for their departure on the flying saucer, which was to rescue the group of true believers.

Festinger and his colleagues saw this as a case that would lead to the arousal of dissonance when the prophecy failed. Altering the belief would be difficult, as Keech and her group were committed at considerable expense to maintain it. Another option would be to enlist social support for their belief. As Festinger wrote, ‘If more and more people can be persuaded that the system of belief is correct, then clearly it must after all be correct.’ In this case, if Keech could add consonant elements by converting others to the basic premise, then the magnitude of her dissonance following disconfirmation would be reduced. Festinger and his colleagues predicted that the inevitable disconfirmation would be followed by an enthusiastic effort at proselytizing to seek social support and lessen the pain of disconfirmation.

The believers met at a predetermined place and time, believing they alone would survive the Earth’s destruction. The appointed time came and passed without incident. They faced acute cognitive dissonance: had they been the victim of a hoax? Had they donated their worldly possessions in vain? Most members chose to believe something less dissonant: the aliens had given earth a second chance, and the group was now empowered to spread the word: earth-spoiling must stop. The group dramatically increased their proselytism despite the failed prophecy.

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