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When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World

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In 1954 Leon Festinger, a brilliant young experimental social psychologist in the process of outlining a new theory of human behavior - the theory of cognitive dissonance - and his colleagues infiltrated a cult who believed the end of the world was only months away. How would these people feel when their prophecy remained unfulfilled? Would they admit the error of their prediction, or would they readjust their reality to make sense of the new circumstances?

"We've all experienced the futility of trying to change a strong conviction, especially if the convinced person has some investment in his belief. We're familiar with the variety of ingenious defenses with which people protect their convictions, managing to keep them unscathed thru the most devastating attacks. But human resourcefulness goes beyond simply protecting a belief. Suppose an individual believes something with a whole heart; suppose further a commitment to this belief, suppose irrevocable actions have been taken because of it; finally, suppose evidence, unequivocal and undeniable evidence, that the belief is wrong: what will happen? The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of such beliefs than ever before. Indeed, s/he may even show a new fervor about convincing and converting others to this view. How and why does such a response to contradictory evidence come about? This is the question on which this book focuses. We hope that, by the end of the volume, we will have provided an adequate answer to the question, an answer documented by data."

When Prophecy Fails is a classic text in social psychology authored by L. Festinger, H. Riecken and S. Schachter. It chronicles the experience of a UFO cult that believed the end of the world was at hand. In effect, it's a sociopsychological study of a modern group that predicted the destruction of the world & the adjustments made when the prediction failed to materialize.

"The authors have done something as laudable as it is unusual for social psychologists. They espied a fleeting social movement important to a line of research they were interested in and took after it. They recruited a team of observers, joined the movement & watched it from within under great difficulties until its crisis came and went. Their report is of interest as much for the method as for the substance."--Everett C. Hughes, The American Journal of Sociology.

264 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1956

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About the author

Leon Festinger

21 books40 followers
Leon Festinger was interested in science at a young age, and decided to pursue a career in psychology. He received his bachelor's degree from City College of New York and went on to Iowa State University for his master's degree and his Ph.D. (which he received in 1942). For the next several years he made his living teaching at different universities until he went to Stanford in 1955.

At Stanford, Festinger began to fully develop the idea he called cognitive dissonance. The original idea stemmed from his observation that people generally liked consistency in their daily lives. For example, some individuals always sit in the same seat on the train or bus when they commute to work, or always eat lunch in the same restaurant. Cognitive dissonance is a part of this need for consistence.

Essentially, Festinger explained, all people hold certain beliefs, and when they are asked to do something that runs counter to their beliefs, conflict arises. Cognitive dissonance comes into play when people try to reconcile the conflicting behaviors or ideas.

Cognitive dissonance soon became an important and much-discussed theory. Over the years it has generated considerable research, in part because it is one of a number of theories based on the idea that consistency of thought is a strong motivating factor in people.

Festinger continued his work at Stanford until 1968 when he returned to New York City to assume the Else and Hans Staudinger professorship at the New School for Social Research. He continued his research on cognitive dissonance as well as other behavioral issues. He was also active in professional organizations including the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He continued to work until his death on February 11, 1989, from liver cancer. He was survived by his wife Trudy and four children.

Taken from the the Encyclopedia of Psychology

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Profile Image for BlackOxford.
1,081 reviews68.1k followers
February 22, 2022
The Deadliness of Faith

When Prophecy Fails was written almost three quarters of a century ago. It has been criticised as incomplete in terms of theory and inadequate in terms of method since. But whatever its academic flaws, its central findings remain important. The authors pointedly avoid precise dates in their exposition. This is fortunate since it allows the reader to consider their findings in terms of recent events. And the relevance to these events is apparent - growing Christian evangelicalism, conspiracy theories, voter fraud rumours, the spread of white supremacism are all related to the phenomenon documented and analysed in the book. So I think it’s appropriate to generalise from the work described and draw some implications for current conditions.

The link among the apparently disparate groups is not any particular goal or state of affairs in the world. They don’t aim to achieve specific kinds of behaviour toward themselves or others. Rather, their motive is the acceptance of various ideas by others. They want others to share what they already ‘possess,’ namely, Faith in those ideas.

Faith, the unwavering commitment to an idea, is the morbid social disease of the age, and grows apace with the technology that promotes it. Faith extends trust and confidence from a disposition of conditional acceptance to one of obsession. Faith does not open a new reality but severely limits the reality that can be expressed, and therefore that can be experienced. Faith is literally unreasonable, not in the sense that it contradicts any particular definition of reason but because it abjures any reason except itself. And faith kills.

The authors pinpoint the factors which make Faith attractive. First it claims to be able to satisfy some social, psychological or spiritual need. Frequently Faith defines that need - fulfilment, social success, or salvation, for example - or it may simply adopt the inadequacies of the individual involved as the target of Faith’s remedial powers.

Second, Faith is always social. It only exists within a group. Such a group provides acceptance to an individual conditional upon their acceptance of a set of beliefs that are progressively established within the group. Faith is demonstrated by members of the group through the use of authorised vocabulary which may be expressed in credal statements as the group matures.

The interaction of obsessive commitment and enforcement of that commitment in a community is a well-known source of violent, often lethal, behaviour. Faith provokes the need to confirm itself by increasing the size of its community - voluntarily (through ‘missionary’ work), and coercively (through crusades). Resistance to both kinds of effort increases the strength of internal community bonds, and thus the intensity of commitment.

The object of Faith varies widely but is irrelevant to the sorts of behaviour Faith promotes. From the persecution of Jews and other non-Christians, to the literally unreasonable adventisms of the 19th century, to the space-alien cults of the 20th century, to Trumpism and QAnon of the 21st, Faith typically anticipates some event which promises to justify itself and its apparent irrationality - the Second Coming, the Apocalypse, the Thousand Year Reich, the arrival of extraterrestrials, or the outing and destruction of some global conspiracy (or election fraud).

The failure of such an event to occur is not considered as a failure of Faith but a failure of the commitment of the faithful. Failure is rationalised as a demand for increased Faith. The repeated ‘disappointments’ among the mid-19th century Millerite Adventists, for example, were explained ultimately as a sort of punishment for the celebration of the weekly Lord’s Day on a Sunday rather than the biblically correct Saturday. This was sufficient to convince a rather large cohort of the faithful to shift observances in the hope of a quick annihilation.

Faith has no antonym. The opposite of Faith is not opposition to Faith but its mere absence. Faith in nothing, nihilism, for example, has a long history and is one of its strongest forms. Nihilists seek the destruction of whatever social structures exist outside their own community. Nihilists take various forms - devotees to the idea of the independent ‘pioneer spirit,’ believers in the ‘Objectivist’ philosophy of Ayn Rand, economic liberalists like Rand Paul, or the disenchanted ‘Deplorables’ who make up a portion of the followers of Trump, to name but several. In the heart of every nihilist is an idea he or she seeks to impose on the rest of the world.

Faith is the antithesis of democratic politics. By restricting the range of legitimate interests, Faith undermines the inclusiveness that is necessary for democracy. By insisting on the absolute correctness of its ideas, Faith refuses to participate in compromise. And by perceiving that the rejection of its ideas by others as an offence and a betrayal, Faith becomes hostile, frequently violent, to the institutions of democracy. The effects of Faith - in a variety of disparate ideas - were demonstrated recently in the American riot in the Capitol. The QAnon motto of “Trust the Plan,” could hardly be a more explicit declaration of nihilist Faith since no one has any idea what the plan is.

Faith is impervious to argument. As the authors point out, “when people are committed to a belief and a course of action, clear disconfirming evidence may simply result in deepened conviction and increased proselyting.” Faith provides a way to reduce “cognitive dissonance,” explaining the otherwise unexplainable even when that explanation makes outrageous and unverified claims about the state of the world. In other words, Faith, is therefore a fundamentally selfish activity through which an individual’s confusion, neediness, incompetence, or other inadequacies are assuaged at the expense of consideration of the wider community who do not share the ideology of the faithful.

The space-alien cult described in When Prophecy Fails can be dismissed as an amusing anomaly when considered in isolation. But as a phenomenon of Faith it is frighteningly typical - not just of fringe groups but also of large-scale movements. Faith is a dangerous thing. It destroys communities, inevitably creates hostility, often leads to violence, sometimes involving suicide and homicide. Isn’t it time to stop calling Faith a virtue and recognise it for what it really is: a way to exert power over others to make ourselves feel better?
143 reviews20 followers
February 7, 2013
I love cults. I have belonged to many and hope to join more in the future. Cults are a great way to meet new people. So imagine my disgust when I realized this book was not about a cult, but about a bunch of delusional psychologists who infiltrate a perfectly rational doomsday group so they can peddle their ludicrous "research" as a legitimate contribution to learning. I don't mind psychologists when they confine themselves to wondering why they themselves are crazy, but I do not abide them trying to make others feel discombobulated, which I think means confused.

Marian Keech, a Michigan housewife, received a message from the planet Clarion that the earth would be destroyed in a great flood on December 21, 1954. What a terrible thing to happen so close to Christmas. Luckily for Marian and her supporters an alien was going to pick them up the night before. In preparation, the group removed all metallic items from their persons, including zippers and bra straps. To my mind this sounds a little bit raunchy, but nevertheless essential before boarding a spaceship. I know from personal experience that metal infers with spaceship navigation equipment.

Come the appointed hour the alien does not turn up and the group is understandably discombobulated. Or at least confused. Then Marian receives another message informing her the god of earth has decided to call off the end of the world because the group did such a splendid job of spreading the light. I suspect this is a white lie Marian made up to raise morale. I also suspect that the real reason the alien didn't turn up is because it knew the group had been infiltrated by psychologists and aliens hate psychologists. If anyone is going to experiment on people it should be them, not psychologists. Furthermore, god probably decided against destroying humanity because it is a far greater punishment to leave a world with psychologists in it.

Five stars for Marian and her gang, minus four stars for psychology.
Profile Image for Mike.
299 reviews139 followers
January 22, 2021

This is an account of a small and relatively benign mid-century millenarian cult in Chicago. They believed that the world would end in a great flood on December 21st, 1954, and that they would be rescued by a spaceship- but what happens after the leader’s prophecy fails to come true? It turns out that while disconfirmation of the prophecy causes some members of the group to abandon their convictions, the convictions of others are strengthened- as is their desire to spread the word.

One of the authors is Leon Festinger, who developed the theory of cognitive dissonance. It occurred to me as I read that the experience of dissonance, as far as I understand it, is not necessarily a bad thing; if you're aware of experiencing it (and I guess that's the tricky part), it can work as a sort of alarm bell that lets you know things aren't lining up, that something's not right. You believed that the world was going to end on a certain date- fair enough, we've all been wrong before- but now that the date has passed and the world hasn't ended, how are you going to choose to interpret that? Are you even going to be conscious of making a choice?

In addition, there are some complicating factors. First of all, remember, you told everyone at the office that you believed the world was ending. Going to be hard to look those people in the eye now. Not to mention that in the age of social media, you've probably already told everyone on Facebook and Goodreads, as well. Going to be a lot of comments with laughing emojis when you log in again, aren't there? Maybe you ended a relationship. Maybe you quit your job. Maybe you donated all your money to the group. And furthermore, it makes sense to assume that this belief satisfied some personal need or longing you had. That must have been a good feeling. Besides, look how much you've given up for that belief already- was that all for nothing, a fantasy?

Your unconscious mind isn't going to let you give up this kind of conviction without a fight.

And Festinger and his co-writers show us how easy it can be to rationalize: the aliens gave us a second chance, a few of the group members think; we got the date wrong, turns out the flood is next year, we need to prepare even harder now; something we did helped to avert the flood, which means this is actually a miracle.

It's not being aware of dissonance that gets us into trouble, but rather the unconscious desire for what the authors call consonance, however we can get it.

While this is a case study, it's pleasurable to read; a bit novelistic, empathetic while at the same time finding some humor in what really is an absurd situation. Some other reviewers have suggested that the integrity of this study is compromised because the authors infiltrated the cult...and heck, for all I know they're right. But I am not a scientist, sociologist, psychologist or any combination of those things, so I did not trouble myself with the integrity of the study; I was just kind of amused that it reached the point where the cult seemed to be composed of about an equal number of observers/cult members, without any apparent suspicion or violent reprisal on the part of the latter.

Mrs. Armstrong's response was immediate and almost frightening in its initial ambiguity. "You've been sent", she declared. "They sent you." Fortunately for our observer's poise, Mrs. Armstrong went on to explain that "they" referred to the Guardians or people from outer space who were watching over the chosen on earth and guiding their actions.

The reader might start to wonder what kind of cult these people are running here, anyway. They should be ashamed of themselves. This is not exactly the Manson family.

But of course that's a good thing. These are relatively innocent people, lost souls searching for meaning. When I first read this book, however, a couple of years ago, I think I drew some very self-satisfied and snobby conclusions from it. The UFO angle makes that easy to do, both because it sounds kooky, and because it foreshadows the far less benign Heaven's Gate cult of the 1990s. Those poor saps who get drawn into things like this, I remember thinking.

But what's lingered for me is the simple idea that it is just very, very difficult to change your mind, to accept that you were wrong and to learn something from it. When a narrative sweeps across a country or the world, it's sometimes difficult to even remember that you have the right to make a conscious choice about how you're going to understand what's happened. None of us are immune from groupthink, or from believing things that aren't true. This is a book that should provoke not contempt, but a bit of humility and self-reflection.
Profile Image for Ross Blocher.
430 reviews1,372 followers
October 22, 2021
When Prophecy Fails is the classic work on the psychology of end times groups, and I'm glad to have finally read it. Leon Festinger (along with co-authors Riecken and Schachter), just a year before publishing his seminal work on cognitive dissonance theory in 1957, examines the fallout after a group prophesies a specific date for a cataclysm... and then nothing happens. His counter-intuitive prediction was that the disconfirmation of the group's belief would only lead to more proselytization, not less. Five conditions had to be met for this hypothesis (simplified here):

1. The belief must be held with deep conviction.
2. The person holding the belief must have committed himself to it.
3. The belief must be sufficiently specific so that events may refute the belief.
4. Such undeniable disconfirmatory evidence must occur and be recognized by the believer.
5. The individual believer must have social support.

The researchers present historic examples, such as the 19th century Millerites (who predicted the end of the world in 1843 and then doubled down on 1844) and 17th century Sabbatai Zevi (a fascinating Messiah figure I'd never heard of before). While history is replete with end-times predictions - including the inciting incidents of Christian sects such as the Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists and Latter-day Saints - the researchers noted that the literature was incomplete, usually one-sided, and insufficient to support their hypothesis. If only they could find a local end-times group in Michigan (a fiction for privacy; the groups and research were in Chicago)...

Just their luck! A local woman named Dorothy Martin (whom they refer to as "Marian Keech") had made such a prediction for December 21, 1954. After studying Dianetics and Theosophy, and practicing automatic writing, she began issuing dire predictions from Sananda (her name for Jesus, now in a higher-vibrational state) that the world would experience a great flood on December 21st, many would die, and a select few would be rescued by flying saucers. She had already recruited some followers, especially through a local teacher who promoted her writings at a college-level UFO/spiritual group and felt he had confirmed her veracity with the aid of a psychic.

The authors pounced upon this opportunity and recruited observers to join the two groups meeting regularly in Lake City and Collegetown. This required at least two participants for each group, plus sometimes the authors themselves (I was never sure from the oblique references, but I assume it was Festinger who attended many of the meetings). This quickly became awkward, as often times the group size would dwindle, and the observers would make up a significant percentage of the assembled group, or be asked to initiate a prayer or stay overnight at Martin's house. The epilogue cracked me up because the various quandaries and discomforts they suffered trying to remain objective and keep notes so closely mirrored what my friend Carrie and I experience during our own investigations of related groups.

I don't think it's spoiling anything to reveal that there was no great flood, nor the end of the world, on December 21st, 1954. The proselytization in question was difficult to observe or verify, as this particular group was passive in recruiting members and was initially very shy about press coverage. Add to that other wild elements, such as a woman in the group who for a time claimed to speak on behalf of God the Creator and contradicted Martin, or frequent drills to remove all the metal from everyone's clothing before boarding a space ship, or failed predictions being spun as tests of faith, or visitors and callers who were identified as aliens in disguise... and it's hard to fit this group's behaviors neatly into the researchers' hypotheses, even if we overlook some of the problems inherent in the presence of the observers. The observed behavior certainly doesn't disconfirm the hypotheses, and this study's exploration of "consonance and dissonance" sets the stage nicely for Festinger's cognitive dissonance theory.

It's not a study that one could approve or run today, so it's fun to hear about this fascinating slice of history, both in terms of end-times belief and psychological research. The writing may be a tad, ehm... clinical, but it's a pretty engaging story if this topic interests you as much as it does me.
Profile Image for Ill D.
Author 1 book8,612 followers
January 2, 2019
In my very last year of college I decided to pursue a minor in religious studies. Not realizing how completely worthless it was, I took multiple classes concerning all sorts of religious phenomena. While some were interesting (Religions of India was great) others not so much (Jewish messianic movements was surprisingly boring.) In either case much like the seminal Mircia Eliade (who I found to be mind-mindbogglingly overrated) Leon Festinger's When Prophesy Fails was most usually muttered in the same breath or at least the same paragraph as the aforementioned by professors of all stripes.

Almost a decade later, with half the globe traveled, and multiple false starts under my belt, I finally read trudged through Festinger's prophesy about a doomed prophesy gone wrong.

Just like Eliade and his work I seriously have no idea why this piece of crap deserves the accolades it does. From a complete lack methodology, except a rubric set out at the beginning which conveniently matches the researchers future conclusions, to some highly questionable and irritatingly opaque actions made by the researchers/observers within, the only prophesy that failed here was that this book would live up to its high praise. Oh boy.

If that wasn't frustrating enough the vast majority of the book reduces to a boring record of the stupidity within. Since all names were changed to protect the not-so-innocent, basically the book embodies a mind numbing catalogue of... Peggy Sue got this dumb revelation, John Smith showed up and said this, and so on and so on and so forth. Without the real names, and places, and dates within we just get a series of highly generic records of dumb people believing in dumb shit. Which isn't much too different from the average day but for some reason this book has some super-duper status in the religious studies departments.

Perhaps most damning of all is the methodological contamination within. Since the researchers planted their grad-student-pretend-believers into the mix the experiment became unflinchingly distorted from the get go. This only gets worse as future plants and their appearances/actions basically confirm the dumb-dumb leaders belief. Ruining the experiment at best and partaking in academic fraud at worst, everything is pretty much wrong here.

Low on analysis and high on stupid details, this tale of a UFO cult gone wrong was damned from the beginning.

Profile Image for Adam Dalva.
Author 8 books1,552 followers
June 18, 2022
Ethically dubious and too repetitive, but there are some very striking revelations.
Profile Image for Chad Kettner.
41 reviews
October 20, 2012
In 1954 Leon Festinger, an experimental social psychologist, invented and tested the theory of cognitive dissonance. "Cognitive Dissonance" is today a recognized term for having a state of mind which seeks to deny an inconvenient truth - perhaps someone with a smoking habit denies the health risks of smoking, or someone with a gambling habit denies their overall losses, or whatever else. In Festinger's original study, "When Prophecy Fails", he discusses a cult who denies the continued failures of their prophecies that Jesus would return to earth on a flying saucer.

The study is quite clinical in nature, and therefore a bit slow throughout - but when it comes to driving home the point of cognitive dissonance it does an excellent job. The daily meetings of the deluded group were infiltrated by research students assigned by Festinger. The book records the students' observations - the prophecies that were made and the responses to the failures. The refusal to acknowledge the disappointment at Jesus' non-arrival (even in the midst of specific dates being passed by) and the world's continued existence gave rise to the term 'cognitive dissonance'.

Festinger points out the parallels with the Millerites from the 1840s, a much larger group whose End Times prophecy failed - but instead of acknowledging they were wrong, the prophecies were simply explained away and gave rise to the Seventh-day Adventist church. Festinger's core argument is that when nearly everything is invested in the hopes of a prophecy - even a blatant failure gives rise to new hopes and new interpretations - and larger cases of cognitive dissonance. As one character from the cult described in the book said during the study: "I've had to go a long way. I've given up just about everything. I've cut every tie: I've burned every bridge. I've turned my back on the world. I can't afford to doubt. I have to believe. And there isn't any other truth" (pg. 170).

It's important to point out that Festinger doesn't mock or make fun of the study group in any way - even though their beliefs are beyond laughable (Jesus was going to come on a space ship!). Instead, Festinger uses it as a touching account of what can happen to ordinary people under extraordinary circumstances, and clearly empathizes with the struggles the group endured for their failed beliefs.
Profile Image for Isidore.
439 reviews
March 12, 2012
As a glimpse into the largely unknown world of Eisenhower era mysticism, the book is fascinating. As an exemplification of cognitive dissonance, it is pretty much a failure. Festinger & Co.'s methodology was so flawed as to hopelessly compromise any conclusions they wished to draw.

Festinger heavily infiltrated and manipulated the cult. At one key moment, of the fourteen participants, no less than five were his secret "observers". Naturally, as even Festinger admits, the advent of so many "converts" into such a tiny group would have the distorting effect of greatly increasingly the commitment of the true believers. The observers were instructed to badger "Mrs. Keach", the leader of the cult, into firming up her very vague prophecies into an unequivocal prediction, so that Festinger could study the consequences of prophetic failure (at one point he alludes to the "awful possibility" that she might never make a sufficiently clear prophecy as to permit "disconfirmation"). In other words, he manipulated the cult leader into taking a position she would likely never have otherwise assumed. The fact that careers were ruined, that people were threatened with legal action and institutionalization, or forced to leave their homes to get away from the resultant public scandal does not appear to have raised any ethical qualms in Festinger and his associates.

Festinger went into this project with a preconceived theory about what would happen. When he reports what *did* happen, he downplays developments which are of no help to him, and plays up those which are, oversimplifying a complex situation. A vital part of his theory demands that the disillusioned cultists enter into active proselytizing as a means of averting the stress of cognitive dissonance. In this case they never did, and usually went out of their way NOT to proselytize. For the most part Festinger ignores this little problem. Toward the end, he concedes the expected proselytizing never occurred, but argues that the cult's decision to inform the media about their "message" following the failure of "Mrs. Keach"'s prophecy would fulfill his theory's requirements. The trouble is, the cult's recruitment of the media was atypical, measured, and brief in duration––scarcely the all-important emotional buttress his theory demands.

On the whole, "Mrs. Keach" and her friends come across as likable, well-meaning oddballs, Festinger and his agents as cold-blooded and unscrupulous, treating human beings as if they were lab rats, and not terribly scientific into the bargain. As for cognitive dissonance, it's an interesting and useful theory, but this book does not make a convincing case for it. It does show that people will rationalize their way out of challenges to cherished beliefs: ironically, this is as much true of Festinger & Co as it is of the cultists.
11 reviews1 follower
February 20, 2009
On oft repeated chestnut in the perpetual debate between Christianity and its non-believers goes something like this: There are three possibilities about Jesus and/or the Apostles or Early Christians. They were either madmen, liars or telling the truth. Each of the former possibilities is then addressed with what might not be terrible arguments and, thus discounted, the third branch of the argument is arrived at as being true. I have never heard the previous two possibilities adequately dismissed, but the real issue with the argument, its real flaccidness, is that it is a false trichotomy. Humans are not either mad, liars or truth tellers - they slide effortlessly between the three states often within the span of single sentence, act or feeling. But most importantly, the argument fails to address the most complicating of factors: madness, lies and truth may manifest in a social group without any single person being obviously responsible for any of them. It is this phenomenon which makes "When Prophecy Fails" most interesting, since it describes the rise and counter-intuitive climax (after a prophesied global flood fails to occur) of a real UFO Cult in the Great Lakes area around the 1950s. The purpose of the work was originally scholarly - the authors wished to study whether disconfirmation - a shocking, undeniable reality which invalidates the beliefs of a group of people, can actually increase the fervor with which the believers prosylatize others into their belief system, as seems to be the case from several historical examples sited in the introduction (most notably the Millerites). Whether the observations of the authors, who infiltrated the cult by posing as believers, bear out this conclusion is of secondary importance (although the argument is good that they do, so far as these things can be born out). The real meat of this book is the fascinating insight it gives into group madness. We see the cult develop from a band of mystics and Scientologist housewives into a coherent, self deluding movement. For those into this kind of thing, the book also provides insight into the connections between Theosophy, Dianetics/Scientology, the 1950's UFO phenomenon, and the New Age Movement which are also fascinating. I recommend the hell out of this book.
Profile Image for Hadrian.
438 reviews221 followers
November 8, 2020
A 1956 study on a rather benign group centered around aliens and unidentified flying objects (UFOs). They believed - sincerely, fervently - that a UFO would take them away from Earth on a certain day, it didn't happen. What did they think and do after?

Festinger, one of the pioneers of the field of social psychology, uses the idea of "cognitive dissonance" to explain what he finds. In short, cognitive dissonance is what happens when a person's beliefs and actions contradict each other. The more committed a person is to their beliefs, the more discomfort they feel when there is a mismatch between their belief and their action.

To sum up - when the prophecy was proven false, some members of the group left, but others continued to believe, even more passionately, and refused to consider the new events - or made up some internally consistent reason for why they happened the way they did.

The methodology of the book is suspect today - Festinger's graduate students infiltrate the group and at times prod them with questions. The book's writing is more clinical and is at times just a rote listing of events. Yet even with these caveats, the book's ideas are intriguing and they have some explanatory power.
Profile Image for Esteban del Mal.
191 reviews64 followers
January 1, 2021
“God is dead, but given the way of men, there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown.” -- Nietzsche

I love stories about weirdos because they allow me to feel like much less of a weirdo than I am.

Some people like to get high. Whether or not that high comes about through peyote or transcendental meditation or wanting to be whisked away on a UFO to some utopia because you think you’re special enough to merit the time and energy for such a trip (that last one kinda seems narcissistic, doesn't it?), who am I to judge? In fact, I can sympathize. I like to think that I realized I wanted off this rock at the age of 6. Back then, my mother would watch TBN all the time. She watched it because she was poor and in a shitty marriage and she took comfort in the idea of a loving, omnipotent God. Me being an only child and close to my mother, I was attuned to her psyche, so I started saying things like, “I can’t wait to die so I can go to heaven.”

I told you I was weird.

But isn’t that a logical conclusion for a naif like my pre-prepubescent self to make? Have you read The Bible? Have you been around a frenzied preacher? The way to get to heaven is to die. Anyway, my proclamation rightly freaked my parents out, my mom connected the dots and stopped watching TBN, and she and dad told me to shut up about dying already. (Also, we were closeted Jews, but I won’t get into that here.) But these people? Geesh! They don’t even think they have to die to get the fuck out! What hubris! At least Gnostics despise all matter, but these pop sci-fi/polytheistic Jesus-ish quasi-cultists only thought you needed to cut the metal out of your clothes to be transported onto a flying saucer.

Sure, this can be criticized as a valid study because the group itself was infused with social scientists posing as members who, whether they like it or not, contributed to the group’s actions and directed it at least passively, so it’s not so much a valid study as a piece of investigative journalism, but who cares? They were weird long before the social scientists showed up. And if I was forced to hear about some peyote smoking weirdos from antiquity talking about burning bushes and whatnot secondhand, I sure as hell deserve to read about some housewife and her pals claiming to be in touch with aliens firsthand. Their weirdness is the soothing balm my weirdness needs.
Profile Image for Tom.
62 reviews5 followers
April 27, 2014
A fascinating and ambitious study but I can't really accept its conclusions because the method of study was so invasive. I mean let's work this out, we've got a cult of maybe a dozen people, six or seven of which are true believers (which is actually on the high side if you get right down to it). These people are horrible at recruiting new converts and aren't really interested in doing so. So you infiltrate this group with FOUR observers and sit back and watch. SUDDENLY the group adepts an attitude of assuming that people who are "chosen" to join them will come on their own accord. At least one of the observers relates a fictitious dream that echoes some of the groups fundamental beliefs in order to gain entry, and SURPRISE the group begins to gain confidence in some of its more outlandish beliefs due to outside confirmations... Are we seeing a trend here? The involvement of the authors tipped the scales in these people's kooky belief system, and very well could've been the catalyst for the sensational prophecies that soon followed. Obviously the only moral way to do a study of this kind is to have direct involvement, but I believe that the zeal of the researchers ultimately corrupted any kind of organic development this "cult" could of been capable of. This is especially true of the fifth mole who tried to join after the prophecy failed in order to gauge the resiliency of these people's beliefs. They treated this late stage addition attempter as if he possessed the answers to why their prediction failed. If that doesn't prove that outside involvement heavily influenced these people than what could? How about including a story about a prank caller telling the cult to come to his house because there is a cataclysmic "flood" starting in his bathroom, and then relating how the cult fell for this story and actually tried to visit the fake address this person left because they were so gullible and confused. Oh wait, that actually happened in this book. So clearly the researchers responsible for this book are at least partly to blame for some of the members of the cult selling of all their earthly possessions, being made a mockery of in the press, and ultimately being mind screwed, because no matter how you slice it they influenced this group of people. Again, I liked the idea behind this book and thought it was an interesting effort, but ultimately I kept reading because the whole thing turned into a bit of a train wreck. Also the middle aged lady who spoke with the voice of the "creator" and who was completely believed by the group made me crack up.
Profile Image for Chris.
341 reviews959 followers
June 3, 2011
You're a good person, right? Of course you are, I never doubted it for a moment. We all like to think were good people - fair, honest, generous, all that. Very few people, if asked, would say, "Well, I'm a right bastard and I don't care who knows it!"

So imagine that you - a good person - do something bad. Genuinely bad. You cheat on your spouse. You lie to a friend. You steal from your boss. You commit an act which, if someone else did it, you would roundly condemn them, forcing them into public shame and ignominy. What kind of heel, what kind of cad, what kind of a bastard would do such a thing?

Well, you, as it turns out.

Now you have a problem. The vision of you that you carry in your head - the good, honest, kind, humble (let's not forget humble) person - directly conflicts with the nasty, dishonest thing that you have just done. They're grossly dissonant views, and there is no room for both of them in your head. So what do you do?

Your first option is to reduce your opinion of yourself. Maybe you're not that good a person. Maybe you are a bit of a dick. Maybe, when it comes right down to it, you're just a jerk who knows how to hide it. That right there is some painful truth, and very few people are willing to face up to it.

So you turn to your other option: justify what you did. The spouse you cheated on? Well, maybe if they paid a little more attention to you,you wouldn't have to do it. The friend you lied to? Well, was he honest about that "business trip" that made him miss your annual Memorial Day Meatapalooza Barbecue? Hell, no. He was "in the hospital," visiting "his sick mother." As for work, well if your boss actually paid you what you were worth, you wouldn't need to steal from the register.

You rationalize what just happened, which allows you to not only move on with your life, but paves the way for similar actions in the future, making it that much easier to cheat, lie, and steal the next time.

Welcome to cognitive dissonance.

The classical view of humankind was that we were, ultimately, rational animals. That if you show a person sufficient evidence, that person will alter his opinion accordingly. So, under that model, our Imaginary You (tm) would admit to your inherent badness when confronted with the evidence if your misdeeds.

In the 20th century, however, psychologists were noticing that this wasn't true at all. In fact, in a lot of cases the direct disconfirmation of a belief merely made that belief stronger. Show a smoker data on how dangerous cigarettes are, and she'll tell you that they help her relax, or they only take off the bad years at the end. Show a climate change denier data on the warming of the planet, and you know who you'll hear from only minutes after the first snowfall of the season.

Humans, as it turned out, were a lot less rational than we had suspected. By being able to hold two thoughts in our minds that are mutually incompatible, we set ourselves up for mental disaster, and the only way out is to fool ourselves.

In the mid 1950s, the authors of this book were looking into this phenomenon, especially as it applied to groups and millennialism – the belief that the world is rapidly in danger of ending. They looked at various historical examples, such as the early Christian church, who believed that Jesus' return was right around the corner, the Anabaptists of the 16th century, the followers of Sabbatai Zevi in the 17th century and the Millerites of the nineteenth. They all believed that the end of the world was at hand, they all collected groups of followers who believed wholeheartedly that they were right, and they were all, without exception, wrong. Despite that, not only were they not swayed from their beliefs, they actually became more convinced that they were, ultimately, right.

What could account for such patently irrational behavior? Festinger and his partners believed they knew what it was, and set out five simple conditions under which the phenomenon could arise. In brief:

1. The believer must believe implicitly and that belief must have an effect on how he or she behaves.
2. The believer must have committed him or herself to the belief, performing actions that are difficult or impossible to undo. For example, giving away all their money, quitting their job, etc.
3. The belief must be specific, related to the real world, and able to be proven unequivocally wrong.
4. Evidence disconfirming the belief must occur, must be undeniable, and must be recognized by the believer
5. (and most important) The believer must have social support for his or her belief system.

Under these conditions, Festinger hypothesized, not only would a person persist in their belief, but they would become more convinced, and likely try to convert more followers. After all, if more people believe that you're right, then maybe you are.

But how to test it out? Their best cases, after all, were at least a hundred years gone, and time travel hadn't been invented yet. Fortunately, they got wind of a group of UFO believers who held that the earth was going to be ravaged by floods and that aliens would rescue the faithful to make them the new enlightened rulers of the species. Led by a woman out of Chicago who was receiving messages through automatic writing, this group held that the event would take place before dawn on December 21, 1954.

Knowing a good chance when they saw one, Festinger and his colleagues managed to infiltrate the group and observe their progress, attitudes and beliefs up to, during, and after the event that never happened. In the book, they go through the timeline and touch on all the major players – names changed to protect the innocent, of course – and watched to see if their hypothesis would hold. Would the media-shy Mrs. Keech do an about-face once the disaster didn't show? What would happen to people like Dr. Armstrong, who sacrificed his job and his good name in order to assure that he would be picked up by the aliens? How would the group handle predictions that never came true, follow orders that never worked out, and rationalize this fundamentally irrational behavior?

The study does have some fairly glaring flaws, which the authors themselves point out in the epilogue. For one, they had barely enough time to get involved with the group, and gaining entry was a matter of brute force more than finesse. For another, it was almost impossible not to influence the group. Observers were taken as believers, and expected to act as such. Acting undercover, they couldn't record meetings or, in many cases, take notes until after the fact. Any meeting with the academics had to be carefully arranged so as not to blow their cover, and the long hours, erratic schedule and generally high tension of the group made being an academic double agent very difficult indeed.

Despite that, Festinger and his group present a textbook case of group cognitive dissonance that follows the pattern they expected it to. Believers who met all five criteria were much more likely to seek out new believers than the ones who, for example, were not with the group when the world didn't end.

Of course, the reason I picked up the book was because of the May 21, 2011 Rapture prediction by Harold Camping. He had the Rapture scheduled down to the minute, and had attracted followers who met the initial criteria set out by Festinger more than fifty years ago. Sure enough, when the Big Day came and went, Camping and his followers kept to the script. They saw that the Rapture hadn't come, then revised their predictions and went out looking for people to convince.

More interestingly, though, is how this can apply to other group dynamics. It can be applied to political parties, regional differences, racial differences, bigotry of every flavor and color. It can be connected to celebrity worship and religious fervor, to economic theories, institutional groupthink and scientific biases. Almost any common belief that can gather a crowd is an open invitation to Festinger's five criteria. Lovers of organic food. Adherents to market capitalism, homeopathy, religions of every size and shape. The antivaxxers, conspiracy theorists, Democrats, Republicans, Tea Partiers, Klansmen, environmentalists, educators.... The list is endless.

What slowly dawned on me the day after I originally wrote this review was the implications of the Internet on Point Five (the need for social support). Let's say it's 1956, and you have a favorite political candidate. For our purposes, let's call her, I dunno, Kara Whelan. You really believe she is a good candidate, and you've spent a good deal of time and energy supporting her. Maybe you've tried to convince friends and family – perhaps encountering resistance, maybe had a few arguments - donated money, or even worked on her campaign in the belief that she is smart and capable, thus fulfilling the first three of Festinger's requirements.

Then she says or does something that is breathtakingly stupid, thereby disconfirming your opinion of her. Point four. In the 1950s, it might have been harder to find people to commiserate with. In the book's case study, people who were away from the group when the flood didn't happen almost invariably gave up on their belief and went back to their lives. Being cut off, or only having access by phone just wasn't enough to keep their belief supported. So, our 1956 person might read the paper, think, "Holy cow, Kara Whelan is dumber than a box of dead ducklings," and have no one around to help fight against that realization.

But here in the 21st century, that kind of support is just a click away. You can go to the Kara Whelan website or supporters' forum and talk to dozens of people who are all busy rationalizing the boneheaded thing she just said and finding reasons why it actually makes her a stronger candidate. The Internet makes it easier to find support for whatever you believe, no matter how untethered to reality it may be, and it allows these beliefs to survive and propagate in a way that would have been unthinkable fifty years ago. Working together, your fellow supporters can elevate your belief and trash those who disagree, generating an internal logic that confirms your belief despite evidence to the contrary. If Mrs. Keech had had a website, this would have been a very different story.

So what does this do for us, other than make us skeptical of anything that more than five people believe at a time? Just that: it keeps us skeptical. When you know what to look for, you can figure out who is likely to be persuaded by reason and who is not. You know who is a valid source of information and who is not. You know who you want to trust, and who you do not.

Most importantly, it allows you to check yourself, to see if you're being as skeptical as you should be. None of us are exempt from this little psychological phenomenon, but we are all equipped with the ability to deal with it properly. Let Mrs. Keech and her UFO cult serve as an object lesson.


"When you stop and think of it, it seems rather cruel to drown all these people just to teach them a lesson, doesn't it? The way to teach people a lesson, or the way to educate people is to educate them slowly; you can't educate them with one big jolt. And it seems rather silly to drown people and hope to educate them in the astral life. It doesn't seem very logical, does it?"
"Fred Purden", in When Prophecy Fails
Profile Image for Michael Perkins.
Author 6 books356 followers
August 15, 2019
“A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.”

― Leon Festinger, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance

Profile Image for JK.
63 reviews43 followers
December 31, 2018
Required reading in the age of QAnon, Jordan Peterson and the catastrophic failures of neoliberal centrism.
74 reviews2 followers
December 2, 2021
This book was both fascinating and in desperate need of an editor. At the time it was written, the primary audience was academia. I think current events, however, would justify an abbreviated version for a general audience.

I discovered Prophecy Fails while reading commentary on QAnon believers reaction to President Biden's inauguration. The comparison could not be more relevant. Not because of UFOs, but because when faced with certain disconfirmation, committed believers often commit themselves even further.

Beyond this, it was fascinating to explore the depth of this group's belief system overtime and how their interactions evolved.
Profile Image for Dominic.
72 reviews26 followers
July 22, 2017

THE GOOD: "So what happens when the people in the book find out that the world hasn't ended?" The strong believers with social support rationalize it ("It was just a test of our faith!") and ultimately become stronger in their faith ("When the end of the world happens for real, we will surely be picked up by the benevolent extra-terrestrial beings who tested us since we passed with flying colors!"). Others, who lacked strong social support or remained isolated from other group members and had weaker beliefs to begin with, will simply come to see their faith dwindle until the give up completely.

Both these people (the strong believers and the weaker believers) experienced cognitive dissonance when their belief that the world was going to end on December 21, 1955 coincided with the cold hard fact that the world did not indeed end on that day. However, because of various factors, both groups resolved their dissonance in different ways.

THE BAD: Ultimately, this book goes to show you that when cognitive dissonance is present (that is, when people hold two or more conflicting beliefs which cause us to be psychologically uncomfortable), we are invariably driven to resolve these inconsistencies in ingenious ways.

Although the book uses a group of UFO-driven, God-fearing, Scientology-induced group to prove their theory, the lessons learned may well be applied to our every day lives as well. (For example, you are very environmentally-friendly. You buy a car and it turns out that cars spends a lot of gas. How do you feel? What do you do? Cognitive dissonance...)

THE UGLY: Overall a fairly lengthy book and somewhat dull, however. I wouldn't read an entire book about cognitive dissonance. I'd much rather a small article that summarize the findings, etc.
Profile Image for Samuel.
Author 2 books28 followers
November 22, 2013
What an odd, fascinating book this is! It comes from a time when the social sciences could get away with a lot of things that nowadays would be considered highly unethical -- many of the critiques of the book center on Festinger & co.'s covert infiltration of the Seekers, as well as the ways in which their doing so changed the dynamic of the group. As a proof of its scientific theories, it's interesting, though much flawed. But as a portrait of an intriguing group of people at that strange moment in American history that was the 1950s, it's remarkable. As other reviewers have noted, "Mrs. Keech" (aka Dorothy Martin) and her group actually come across very sympathetically -- there's none of the dangerous lunacy of Heaven's Gate or the sneering sociopathy of Jim Jones to be found here. And, for all his faults, Festinger writes clearly and is easy to follow, which isn't always the case with social sciences authors.

A perfect study? No, not at all. But a truly engrossing and interesting snapshot? Absolutely.
Profile Image for Andrew.
189 reviews12 followers
February 1, 2009
Nobody could write this book today. The researchers and their graduate students document their undercover penetration of a Apocalypse cult in pitch-perfect, meticulous detail; the only problem is that they violate just about every principle of scientific inquiry and social psychological ethics in the process. Despite its scientific shortcomings, the book is a fascinating and occasionally touching portrait of people who are desperately looking for self-validation in an impersonal world. The dry humor of the writers is evident throughout, particularly in the climactic chapter entitled "Four Days of Very Imminent Salvation" -- a chronicle of the time leading up to midnight on the prophesied last day. How does the cult deal with life when the world does not, in fact, end as expected? Read to find out, but keep in mind that their conclusions have been largely discounted by subsequent researchers.
89 reviews8 followers
March 30, 2019
Some reviewers have criticized this study for the fact that by infiltrating the cult in question the researchers influenced the events that took place within it. However, the authors do a good job of outlining just what kinds of influence their actions had, and I feel assured that it was as minimal as possible if any kind of deep observation of this group were to be conducted at all, and also that there remains an enormous amount of "clean" data from which one may pluck out very useful insights. If nothing else - it is a fascinating account.
Profile Image for Colin Loberg.
35 reviews1 follower
November 18, 2020
p. 137-38: “Only the chosen were eligible for instruction, and mere curiosity seekers or those who came to jeer were to be turned away. How to discriminate between chosen and heathen was a matter for one’s inner knowing. . . . There was no plan, no systematic indoctrination, but simply huge, indifferent chaos.”

Picked this up after seeing it described as a possible guide for understanding adherents of the loosely defined Qanon cult.

This cult is much more benign, concerning a small group of Chicago-area residents in the 1950s who were convinced that some of the group had contact with a higher, extraterrestrial power and were warned of a coming great flood. Over the course of the group’s time with one another, these predictions mutated to include averted earthquakes, visitors from other worlds and finally—peaceful abduction by flying saucer. Importantly, a prediction being proven false was not the end of the cult but just led to more outreach.

The researchers summarized their findings with five necessary conditions for increased faith after a predicted outcome fails: 1) there must be conviction; 2) there must be commitment to this conviction; 3) the conviction must be amenable to unequivocal disconfirmation; 4) such unequivocal disconfirmation must occur; 5) social support must be available subsequent to the disconfirmation.

The followers who were isolated from the other believers after aliens failed to show up in Illinois ended up leaving the group, rejecting their beliefs and returning to a quiet life.

So, what does this mean for 2020 when any potential cult adherent has internet access? I’m not a social scientist but I’m gonna say it can’t be good.

Profile Image for Stephen Lamb.
106 reviews9 followers
December 30, 2020
Do you, perhaps, remember being 10 years old, surrounded by thousands of white Independent Baptist preachers shouting their amens and glories as the preacher for the evening declared that in the soon-coming millennial reign of the messiah from a temple in Jerusalem, they were claiming the mayorship of Chattanooga? And that Brother Bob could be the mayor of Cleveland, and Brother Scott could be the mayor of Atlanta? Because I do. Vividly.

I've just finished reading When Prophecy Fails, first published in 1956 (this is a second edition I found, from ‘63) which I bought after a lunchtime conversation last year where a friend, in the midst of discussing formative religious experiences, mentioned the phrase “disconfirmed expectancy,” coined by these authors, he said, and encouraged me to read it. (His grandfather ghostwrote 19 of the first 25 Hardy Boys books, which gets a different reaction from people hearing that my great grandfather wrote Bobbed Hair, Bossy Wives, and Woman Preachers, but that’s a different subject.)

I was reminded of that preacher claiming mayorship of his desired city when I read here that “Mrs. Keech” (aliases are used throughout) was told by The Guardians that “those who are most ethereal will be taken to planets of the highest density and there trained to be the future rulers of a cleansed earth; those who are of a lower density will be left behind to suffer discomfort and bodily death, but their spirits will eventually be taken to planets of a (spiritual) density appropriate to their own development.”

It has been nothing short of surreal to read this study by Festinger et al. this month, while watching so many of the people I grew up around, holding tightly to their cherished fantasies of voter fraud and other grand conspiracies, post incessant streams of alternative facts on social media, completely divorced from reality but cheered on by the community they’ve collected on Facebook (meeting the fifth condition Festinger sets out in his study, that the individual believer must have social support.)

Every piece of disconfirming evidence–showing that massive voter fraud did not happen, that we truly are in the midst of a pandemic, that Q is not the oracle they want him to be–serve only to persuade them to double down on their beliefs. Festinger: "It is reasonable to believe that dissonances created by unequivocal disconfirmation cannot be appreciably reduced unless one is in the constant presence of supporting members who can provide for one another the kind of social reality that will make the rationalization of disconfirmation acceptable."

Summary: for a head-spinning read, pair this book with a tour through the Facebook feeds of people you used to know.
Profile Image for Jaedon.
8 reviews
June 18, 2019
The subject material is fairly interesting, and the primary group of interest really a perfect fit for the authors to test their hypotheses regarding the impact of the provable disconfirmation of prophecy on prophetic groups. Their introduction to several such groups throughout history is interesting if dry, but my primary complaint about this book and the reason for dropping two stars off the rating is this: when it comes to discussing the main group, there seems to have been little to no editing of their first-hand accounts of the actions of the group. At it's core, their story is fascinating, if unsettling. However, after reading page after page of "A went to B's house and they called a meeting, then C went to his job and talked to a coworker, then 5 hours later..." I kept catching myself skipping entire paragraphs out of sheer boredom, looking ahead to see if anything interesting was coming up. Additionally, when you get to the end of the book you realize that something is missing; they seem to have forgotten that part of a 'Study' involves developing actual results. It can be inferred that they were satisfied that this group matched all of their initial conditions, but there is essentially no summary of or even formal statement of their conclusions. A better title might be "A (Possibly Unedited) Account of a Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World".

The authors are upfront about their concern that their active participation in the group for the purpose of gathering data could have contaminated the observation, and perhaps that is the reason they withheld any firm conclusions. I would still say this book is worth a read, but only if you go in prepared to work through what is essentially raw data.
Profile Image for Marc Sims.
233 reviews8 followers
April 14, 2023
A team of psychologist infiltrated a doomsday cult back in the 50’s to observe what happens to true believers when the prophesied end of the world comes to naught. The adherents on the farthest fringe fall away, but the most devout believers double down on their faith, reinterpreting events to make sense of the failure: “The aliens decided to abandon the plans to destroy the world because we were so faithful in our belief.” Most surprisingly, the disconfirmation took people who were medium in their belief and actually deepened their faith.

It’s an interesting study in confirmation bias and the natural desire for all people to simply *want* something to be true. I’m sure many atheists read this with glee. But, of course, they are just as susceptible to confirmation bias as anyone else, just as prone to reinterpret facts in any way so long as it justifies their priors.

If we want any hope of breaking out of the circle of subjectivity, we need an objective Outside who can break through.
Profile Image for Robert Parish.
11 reviews1 follower
February 15, 2021
A fascinating look at peer pressure and belief

The main premise of the study is that a disconfirmation of a prophecy will have results differing upon whether it’s experienced in isolation or among fellow believers. In the former case, belief is lessened, and the later, belief is strengthened as members help each other rationalize and reinterpret what happened. In both cases, the goal is to reduce the pain of cognitive dissonance.

I picked this book up to get some insights in to what may happen to the Q-Anon movement after their prophesies fail. I found it helpful. It was also a fascinating look at beliefs common to the post world war 2 era, from UFO’s, Dianetics, and the occult.
Profile Image for Liam Porter.
194 reviews46 followers
October 31, 2022
Supposedly a classic, but I found it dry and underwhelming. Perhaps we are "spoiled" by how malicious and mendacious cult leaders can be today, that the old fashioned UFO cult seems hopelessly quaint and noble. Also, it is aiming to be more of a scientific work, rather than something more popular and engaging. In any case, I found it lacking in style, and surprisingly lacking in tension. I wouldn't recommend it.
Profile Image for Pat Schakelvoort.
571 reviews25 followers
May 14, 2021
Psychological study on an UFO religion and their behavior when their prophecies didn't happen, treating the people strictly as subjects. It has some scientology and William Dudley Pelley references.
Profile Image for Diogenes.
476 reviews
August 11, 2019
Originally published in 1956, When Prophecy Fails is undoubtedly a powerful and vanguardist work of then-fledgling social psychology in the post-industrial era. It is referenced often and I just now got to digesting this dissection of the creation of a belief system, the proselytizing and promulgating of said system, and the bizarre ways homo sapiens warp their belief systems in the face of empirical hammer-blows of rational truths, or as the authors call them, “disconfirmations”, and what is now widely known as “cognitive dissonance”. What the authors witness and record with this group of Doomsdayers can easily be applied to every other belief system—political, philosophical, religious, cultural, theoretical, fad-based, lunatic-forged, etc.—throughout human history. Obviously some systems of belief, rooted in ancient mythology and chronic magical thinking, or proven by hard science and intellectual wisdom, have been galvanized into legal systems and nation-making. Here I’ll give a nod to South Park’s depiction of the origins of Mormonism for another, 20-some minute illustration of how absurdity can survive, despite all logic that contradicts it. From Charles Manson’s Family to the Obama Birthers, Flat-earthers to Jim Jones, Tyler Durden to Tucker Carlson, otherwise incomprehensible systems of belief appear to easily sway certain portions of any population, even after innumerable opportunities to question the validity of such illogic fail to sever the transfixing cords. This subject is truly fascinating, and with a somewhat morbid curiosity, one must read this book and ponder its significance with how humans behave overall. It can explain a tremendous amount in our current era, and I have to imagine such dynamics will only grow worse as the effects of a warming world take their toll on a greater number of people, and Alvin Toffler’s “future shock” predictions wrestle within the neurons of every mind. 

I can’t remember what book it comes from (I’ll take a guess at Network Propaganda by Benkler, Faris, and Roberts), but the authors quoted someone else talking about how the internet allowed every “village idiot” to communicate with one another and gather followings, leading to this tumultuous age we now exist within. This is what When Prophecy Fails portrays now in real time. It is mind-boggling, maddening, and potentially hopeless to think we can cure this. Several thousand years ago, believing in invisible deities and their storm-fueled rages, forests filled with monsters, the sea leading to the ledge of the world, was all rational given the context of the times. Now, it’s utterly mystifying. The authors summarize this dynamic well, despite the obvious patriarchal use of masculine pronouns (it was the '50s after all):

“A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.

We have all experienced the futility of trying to change a strong conviction, especially if the convinced person has some investment in his belief. We are familiar with the variety of ingenious defenses with which people protect their convictions, managing to keep them unscathed through the most devastating attacks.

But man’s resourcefulness goes beyond simply protecting a belief. Suppose an individual believes something with his whole heart; suppose further that he has a commitment to this belief, that he has taken irrevocable actions because of it; finally, suppose that he is presented with evidence, unequivocal and undeniable evidence, that his belief is wrong: what will happen? The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before. Indeed, he may even show a new fervor about convincing and converting other people to his view.

How and why does such a response to contradictory evidence come about? This is the question on which this book focuses. We hope that, by the end of the volume, we will have provided an adequate answer to the question, an answer documented by data.” (p. 10)

They do indeed.
Profile Image for Maggie Emmett.
58 reviews10 followers
February 2, 2021
When reading Anthropology I at the University of Adelaide this was a text on the course. It was a subject I gave up, despite starting out wanting to become an Anthropologist! This book was one of my favourites. We had begun with Evans-Pritchard looking at belief systems & chicken beheadings; then we moved to the South Seas and exchange theories - where we applied our knowledge to Xmas giving in our society. The idea of reciprocity came in, and I re-applied the concepts to Drug company freebies enticing Doctors to prescribe drugs. Later, I wrote a lot about that idea.
But in Anthropology, we'd moved on to Sananda - I hope I got the name right after all these years, it was 1977! Frankly, it has informed my understanding of televangelists and all manner of cultish practices ever since. I am still surprised by the ability of people to suspend rational common sense, critical analysis and believe in ridiculous ideas & predictions, over & over again, despite evidence of failure in the predicted event.
I don't understand why every Sunday people gather in the little church opposite my home in Oz, and worship in a C of E church, knowing exactly how and why Henry VIII created their religion to facilitate a legal sexual relationship with Anne Boleyn.

I once believed fervently as a child in a Holmes Hunt Lantern-carrying Jesus, who rescued lambs and loved me; but the problem of evil - particularly in children dying, as I saw in my registered nurse training at the Adelaide Children's Hospital, was a jolt that knocked formal religious belief off its resting place.
Three glorious year of Classics (Roman & Greek) allowed me to see Gods anew like a Soap Operatic family; but Old English & my interests in poetry lead me to sagas and myths I found delightful.
But it was Feuerbach, & Philosophy I at Uni & a course on "The Existence of God" (taught by a devout gentle Christian, who not only believed, but also lived by his ethical values) enabled me more intellectual freedom.
I looked around for ideas/ beliefs in a range of cultures and systems (even formally studying, I'm ashamed to admit, Astrology; & even a How to read & Understand Tarot night course), but decided, thanks to Engels, Marx, Orwell, Camus & de Beauvoir (& a few others) that class theory, atheism, feminism & existentialism, were a better fit for me. I've been struggling & juggling with these ideas, their critical analysis and lived life reality ever since. I try to integrate and construct an ideology from these disparate philosophical perspectives.
Honours English Literary Critical Theory taught by the amazing Ken Ruthven (amazing theoretical mind) threw other raft of ideas into the mix, and the power of each idea has shifted and changed over time as my life moved on.
Each forward movement had its own big events like: love, passion, relationships, pregnancies, illness, family suicide & death (to name but a few). Bringing up a child, living with and enduring pain and the death/grieving process have been my most challenging trials so far. Throughout my life, I have never looked back to Gods for answers but I've never stopped critically asking questions.

I almost feel sorry for people who think they cannot go beyond an almost childlike belief system; who seem to lack the courage or initiative to make the effort to construct their own ethical code and values by which to try to live a "good life" featuring love, compassion, empathy, kindness and caring about other human beings (of all race, colour, creed, caste, nationality or gender), animals and the earth upon which we live and must sustain.

Throughout history & today, as cited byBlackOxford in his review, his list:- "the Second Coming, the Apocalypse, the Thousand Year Reich, the arrival of extraterrestrials, or the outing and destruction of some global conspiracy (or election fraud)." people BELIEVING and, like sharks in a frenzy, taking action that can be life endangering (Capitol insurrection/invasion) not only to the individual believer, but also to others around them (Jews, homosexuals, communists, epileptics etc under the Third Reich).

People will limit the scope and enjoyment of their lives in commitment to beliefs (e.g. Amish/modern life conveniences; Taliban/ the joy of Music; Sikhism/ the pleasure of a decent hair cut; Monks & Nuns / no sex & children !). Some beliefs are more unsettling and destructive than others e.g Orthodox Jews who enforce their laws above all other; steal land and farms from Palestinians (whom they call cockroaches); oppress women by stopping their education, forcing them to shave their heads, insisting they be alienated from their natural body & functions, calling them "unclean" for menstruating, and keeping them pregnant & in the home working while the holy men do nothing but pray! Nevertheless, similar ideas are found in other groups of believers:- Pentecostal & Evangelical Born Again & Mormons; Taliban in sharia Islamic law- based on Deobandi fundamentalism, and the militant Islamism and Salafi jihadism of Osama bin Laden mixed with Pashtun social and cultural norms known as Pashtunwali; Saudi Sunni Muslims; & Iranian Shi'a Muslims.
I don't actually care which mythical or imaginary being people decide to believe in as adults (as long as they do not harm others!) but, like Dawkins, I think inculcating children to limiting systems from birth is both abusive and cruel. Of course, I have no idea how to stop it in my own or other cultures.
But do people really choose belief? Culture, nationality and the random chance of birth determine so much about our life choices & opportunities. Science is always questioning the idea of a gullibility and whether it could be, as so much is, determined by our genes.
It's important to still keep thinking, remain curious, always questioning & comparing & trying to understand the world in which I live and the gorgeous mass of billions of humans.
But I will always smile about people trooping out to an airport waiting for Sananda, who fails to come, and how quickly any excuse (metal in their clothing) - secondary elaboration - emerges! Festinger's predictions (academic ones rather than apocalyptic) that inevitable disconfirmation would be followed by "an enthusiastic effort at proselytizing to seek social support and lessen the pain of disconfirmation".
{Festinger stated that five conditions must be present for someone to become a more fervent believer after a prophecy failure or "disconfirmation":
• A belief must be a deeply held conviction and must be relevant to action,
• Believers must be committed to it & have taken some important action which is difficult to undo. The more important & difficult the actions are to undo, the greater the commitment to belief.
• The belief must specific and concerned with the real world so that events may unequivocally refute the belief.
• Such "undeniable disconfirmatory evidence" must occur and must be understood by the believer.
• An individual believer cannot be isolated, but exists in a social group (albeit a closed one), this enhances the belief because the convinced group can offer support in times of crisis. Also, believers may try to "proselytize" or persuade nonmembers that the belief is correct.]

Think of all the research papers being written today (I read one only yesterday from MIT) about cognitive dissonance since this work was done.
Profile Image for Louise.
1,648 reviews290 followers
August 13, 2014
This is a now classic study testing the then fledgling theory of cognitive dissonance, the process by which people respond to evidence that conflicts with their deeply held beliefs. It begins with what little is known of past doomsday believers when their prophesies did not come to pass. From there it describes a 1950's group expecting the world to end in a flood and that they would be rescued by a space ship.

The text is not reader friendly. Its plodding may result from an attempt to present the group clinically, without developing the character of the individuals. A chart of participants would have been helpful. I read this over 3 days and was constantly flipping back to see who was who especially when different names are used, such as Marian for "Mrs. Keech" or "Thomas" for "Dr. Armstrong". The reader is never really oriented to place and time. No year is ever given and only towards the end when Minneapolis is mentioned can you guess where (are "Lake City" and "Collegetown" really the places?) this is taking place.

While this is a respected study, it seems that observers couldn't help but contaminate the results. There are 5 of them in the two groups that seem to have 10 key individuals. Observers are in close quarters with group members for long periods of time and their presence alone had to have bolstered the morale of the group. Quite a bit is made of signs derived from pranksters (the spacemen from Clarion and the flooded bathroom are two that come to mind), and it would seem that the observers themselves contributed similar signs. One observer entered with a cover story that re-enforced the group beliefs and was welcomed as a sign from their outer space advisers.

Even if the observers were hidden behind one way mirrors, this study does not seem valid. Can observations from a small group holding such extreme beliefs be applied to the wider population?

Members of this group behave as predicted by Festinger's theory. They become more intense in their beliefs in proportion to what they have sacrificed for them and how much contact they have with each other when they receive the disconfirming information.

The book has some interesting moments and in some points seemed like the basis for a TV drama. But as a research study, I had higher expectations.
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