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

3.84  ·  Rating details ·  748 ratings  ·  110 reviews
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 pr ...more
Paperback, 264 pages
Published January 1st 1964 by Torchbooks/Harper & Row (NY) (first published 1956)
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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 evangeli
Feb 07, 2013 rated it did not like it
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 tryi ...more
Feb 01, 2018 rated it really liked it
Recommended to Mike by: mark

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 au
Ill D
Jan 01, 2019 rated it it was ok
Recommends it for: Wannabe Gentlemen and Scholars
Shelves: reviewed
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 ...more
Ross Blocher
Dec 31, 2020 rated it really liked it
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, no ...more
Chad Kettner
Feb 25, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: religion, science
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 o ...more
Feb 19, 2009 rated it really liked it
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 dismisse ...more
Mar 11, 2012 rated it it was ok
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 "conve
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 c
Apr 25, 2014 rated it liked it
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 attit ...more
Esteban del Mal
“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 ki
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
Dec 31, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Required reading in the age of QAnon, Jordan Peterson and the catastrophic failures of neoliberal centrism.
Aug 09, 2015 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition

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 we
Sep 25, 2013 rated it it was amazing
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 momen ...more
Jan 31, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction
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 h ...more
Francis Bezooyen
Mar 29, 2019 rated it really liked it
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. ...more
Michael Perkins
Jan 01, 2017 rated it really liked it
“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
Colin Loberg
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 Chica
Stephen Lamb
Dec 19, 2020 rated it really liked it
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 publi
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 editi ...more
Robert Parish
Feb 14, 2021 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Pat Schakelvoort
May 14, 2021 rated it really liked it
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. ...more
Aug 11, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
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 no ...more
Maggie Emmett
Feb 02, 2021 rated it really liked it
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 e ...more
Aug 13, 2014 rated it it was ok
Shelves: psychology
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
Ryan Denson
"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."

"The degree to which such a dissonance can be reduced depends in good part upon the degree of outside support the individual can muster."

Festinger's classic social psychology study has gained renewed attention owing the proliferation of far-fetched conspiracy theories like QAnon and others among Trump s
Jan 30, 2016 rated it it was ok
Dnf at 33% (read three of ten chapters). As several other reviewers have noted, this study absolutely does not follow today's psychological ethical guidelines and so can never be repeated. A very small cult/group is infiltrated by several participant observers. No attempt is made to inform the group members of the study or to gain their consent to be studied (and then written about in a book!). Through the participant observers and the actions of the researchers themselves, the group seems to ha ...more
Gary Daly
Jul 15, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Published in the early 1950s this psychological study of 'dissonance' (look it up) straight from the coal face of people (the subjects) peddling busllshit at the expense of logic, rationality and sensitivity to the real world around them. A group of pie-holes in isolation who wait for their UFO's and mystical 'space-men' to beam them up (on one occasion whilst sining Christmas Carols on a suburban street corner) as well as the channeled truths (beamed in from the planet Clarion) about an end of ...more
John Petrocelli
Nov 28, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Review: Completely blown away by this incredibly insightful book, which must have been painstaking to compile. Very engaging, and interesting account of a cult. Festinger and his crew were very timely and opportunistic in finding a group that was specific about a prophecy that was sure to fail. Succeeded in infiltrating and studying the cult, which proselytized selectively and infrequently before the prophesized date of the worldwide flood and rescue by aliens, but proselytized more than ever af ...more
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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, F

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“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.”
“If more and more people can be persuaded that the system of belief is correct, then clearly it must after all be correct.” 0 likes
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