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When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of A Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World is a 1956 classic book in social psychology by Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter about a UFO cult that believes the end of the world is at hand.
Festinger's theory of cognitive dissonance can account for the psychological consequences of disconfirmed expectations. One of the first published cases of dissonance was reported in the book, When Prophecy Fails (Festinger et al. 1956). Festinger and his associates read an interesting item in their local newspaper headlined "Prophecy from planet clarion call to city: flee that flood." A Chicago housewife, Mrs. Marion Keech, had mysteriously been given messages in her house in the form of "automatic writing" from alien beings on the planet Clarion, who revealed that the world would end in a great flood before dawn on December 21. The group of believers, headed by Mrs. Keech, had taken strong behavioral steps to indicate their degree of commitment to the belief. They had left jobs, college, 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.
Premise of study
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 Mrs. 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 Mrs. Keech could add consonant elements by converting others to the basic premise, then the magnitude of her dissonance following disconfirmation would be reduced. Festinger et al. predicted that the inevitable disconfirmation would be followed by an enthusiastic effort at proselytizing to seek social support and lessen the pain of disconfirmation.
Sequence of events
- Prior to December 20. The group shuns publicity. Interviews are given only grudgingly. Access to Mrs. Keech's house is only provided to those who can convince the group that they are true believers. The group evolves a belief system—provided by the automatic writing from the planet Clarion—to explain the details of the cataclysm, the reason for its occurrence, and the manner in which the group would be saved from the disaster.
- December 20. The group expects a visitor from outer space to call upon them at midnight and to escort them to a waiting spacecraft. As instructed, the group goes to great lengths to remove all metallic items from their persons. As midnight approaches, zippers, bra straps, and other objects are discarded. The group waits.
- 12:05 A.M., December 21. No visitor. Someone in the group notices that another clock in the room shows 11:55. The group agrees that it is not yet midnight.
- 12:10 A.M. The second clock strikes midnight. Still no visitor. The group sits in stunned silence. The cataclysm itself is no more than seven hours away.
- 4:00 A.M. The group has been sitting in stunned silence. A few attempts at finding explanations have failed. Mrs. Keech begins to cry.
- 4:45 A.M. Another message by automatic writing is sent to Mrs. Keech. It states, in effect, that the God of Earth has decided to spare the planet from destruction. The cataclysm has been called off: "The little group, sitting all night long, had spread so much light that God had saved the world from destruction."
- Afternoon, December 21. Newspapers are called; interviews are sought. In a reversal of its previous distaste for publicity, the group begins an urgent campaign to spread its message to as broad an audience as possible.
Festinger stated that five conditions must be met, if someone is to become more fervent in a belief even after its disconfirmation:
- A belief must be held with deep conviction and it must have some relevance to action, that is, to what the believer does or how he behaves.
- The person holding the belief must have committed himself to it; that is, for the sake of his belief, he must have taken some important action that is difficult to undo. In general, the more important such actions are, and the more difficult they are to undo, the greater is the individual's commitment to the belief.
- The belief must be sufficiently specific and sufficiently concerned with the real world so that events may unequivocally refute the belief.
- Such undeniable disconfirmatory evidence must occur and must be recognized by the individual holding the belief.
- The first two of these conditions specify the circumstances that will make the belief resistant to change. The third and fourth conditions together, on the other hand, point to factors that would exert powerful pressure on a believer to discard his belief. It is, of course, possible that an individual, even though deeply convinced of a belief, may discard it in the face of unequivocal disconfirmation. We must therefore, state a fifth condition specifying the circumstances under which the belief will be discarded and those under which it will be maintained with new fervor.
- The individual believer must have social support. It is unlikely that one isolated believer could withstand the kind of disconfirming evidence we have specified. If, however, the believer is a member of a group of convinced persons who can support one another, we would expect the belief to be maintained and the believers to attempt to proselyte or to persuade nonmembers that the belief is correct.
- Staff Leon Festinger, School: Cognitivist. Candle In The Dark. candleinthedark.com. URL accessed on 2007-11-17.
- Festinger, Leon; Henry W. Riecken, Stanley Schachter (1956). When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World, University of Minnesota Press.
- Pargament, Kenneth I. (1997). The Psychology of Religion and Coping: Theory, Research, Practice, Pages 150-153, 340, section: "Compelling Coping in a Doomsday Cult", Guilford Press.
- Petty, Richard E.; John T. Cacioppo (1996). Attitudes and Persuasion: Classic and Contemporary Approaches, Page 139: "Effect of Disconfirming an Important Belief", Westview Press.
- Prilleltensky, Isaac (1997). Critical Psychology: An Introduction, Pages 35, 37-38, Sage Publications Inc.
- Newman, Dr. David M. (2006). Sociology: Exploring the Architecture of Everyday Life, Page 86, Pine Forge Press.
- Stangor, Charles (2004). Social Groups in Action and Interaction, Pages 42-43: "When Prophecy Fails", Psychology Press.
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