Classic book: “When Prophecy Fails” by Leon Festinger

Recently, a self-described evangelical preacher named Harold Camping received much media attention after predicting that, in line with his interpretation of the Christian Bible, the world would end on May 21. (As far as I can tell, the world’s still here). I’ve long had an interest in apocalyptic cults because of the incredible complexity with which members of such social groups look at the world – psychologically speaking, they’re fascinating.

It’s no surprise, then, that such group have received much scholarly attention over the years. One work stands out – When Prophecy Fails by Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken and Stanley Schachter. First published in 1956, When Prophecy Fails tells the story of Dorothy Martin, a Chicago homemaker who claimed to receive telepathic messages from the alien planet Clarion warning that the Earth would end on December 21, 1954. Led by Martin, a group of followers gave up their possessions, jobs, and family ties to follow Martin, who told her group that ‘true believers’ in the aliens’ warning would be evacuated from Earth a few hours before the end via flying saucer.

Festinger, the lead researcher and a social psychologist at the U. of Minnesota (later, he moved on to Stanford), used the Martin group as a case study of his theory of cognitive dissonance, which argued that humans tend to generate belief systems and worldviews that conform to their actual behaviors in order to reduce the dissonance – or conflict – caused by holding incompatible beliefs simultaneously. In the case of the Martin UFO group, after the world did not end (and they were not saved by a flying saucer), only some members of the group abandoned Martin. Others came to believe that their actions (spreading the word about the impending end of the world) actually caused the end to NOT happen – that is, rather than concluding that they had accepted a mistaken belief, many of Martin’s followers instead concluded that the end would have happened but for their actions.

When Prophecy Fails was recently reprinted and is available from various booksellers, including Amazon.

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