Monday, May 23, 2011

When Prophecy Fails

To tell you the truth, I did not pay much attention to all the talk about the eccentric and rich minister who convinced a lot of people to believe that the rapture was going to occur last weekend.

However, an email message from a colleague of mine reminded me of a book that I had read back in college on this sort of thing. You probably have never heard of Leon Festinger, but you are probably familiar with the term "cognitive dissonance" which he coined. "Cognitive Dissonance" is a term that describes the uncomfortable tension we experience when our thoughts and actions do not match, or when we think two thoughts at the same time that are in tension with each other. According to Festinger's theory, we will seek out ways to eliminate the feeling of cognitive dissonance, whether by changing our attitudes, by changing our behaviors, or by seeking out new information that helps our cognition to move from dissonance to consonance.

Leon Festinger, a social psychologist, decided to test his theory in a fascinating way. In the mid-1950s he had a group of his graduate students go "under cover" and infiltrate an obscure religious cult in the Chicago area that was predicting the end of the world. This religious cult was led by a woman who believed that she received transmissions from aliens from the planet Clarion. These messages announced that a flood was coming that was going to wipe out the world, but that the aliens were going to come in their flying saucers and rescue the followers of this woman who received the aliens' transmissions. When the flying saucers failed to arrive and the flood failed to come, Festinger's graduate students studied the reactions. None of the cult members rejected their leader. They all stayed. They all accepted a clarifying transmission that announced that the date had been changed.

Festinger published these findings in his 1956 book When Prophecy Fails. What he basically said, if I remember correctly, is that it was a lot easier for the prophet's followers to accept a new prophecy with a different date than it was to admit error and that their actions and thoughts had been a mistake.

I would have to believe that Festinger's book was in heavy circulation at research libraries across the country during the last week. If Festinger is still right, here is how the most devout believers will respond to this most recent failure of prophecy: they won't reject their faith or their belief in the rapture or even their trust in the guy who said that the rapture was coming. They will embrace new beliefs in order to transform their dissonance to consonance. They will accept that this was done by God to test their faith and that they passed the test. Or, they will continue to believe that the rapture is coming; they'll just figure that date was a bit off. (Seemingly) paradoxically, they'll become more devout, more certain.