A review/summary of When Prophecy Fails by Leon Festinger, Henry W. Riecken, and Stanley Schacter

Belief is a resilient thing and often we wonder how some people can believe the things that they do (this puzzling wonder mostly stems from the fact that they believe differently than we do). Some belief systems are based on or include fantastic events or a profound disregard for scientific physical evidence. To a modern person rejecting well established scientific findings does not usually make sense and it is truly difficult to understand how large populations of modern folks can do so. Cognitive dissonance theory is a powerful lens through which seemingly strange beliefs can be understood, or at least the sustained convictions of said beliefs.

Space Gods and Flying Saucers

In the early 1950’s Leon Festinger and others were doing experiments designed to test cognitive dissonance theory. One of the most interesting and unconventional experiments was the infiltration of a religious group that believed the end of the world was nigh. A prophetess had received a revelation from higher density beings (one in particular named Sananda was believed by the group to be Jesus Christ residing on a distant planet, traveling throughout the cosmos, and communicating to special earthlings through revelation via automatic writing and the spoken word) in outer space that communicated the cataclysmic end of days to occur on December 21st of 1954[1], and that the faithful followers of this very small group would be picked up in flying saucers days or hours before the destruction of the earth and be taken to the planet Clarion in order to progress further from their earthly state[2]. With the specific predicted date of the cataclysm in hand and non-believing observers taking notes the researchers were able to study how various group members of varying levels of commitment and communal support respond to unequivocal disconfirmation of the revelation.

Increased or Decreased Commitment

A simple application of reinforcement theory would predict that negative experiences, such as having cherished beliefs disconfirmed, would cause a person to distance themselves from the belief by rejecting it and the group espousing such false notions. Cognitive dissonance theory allows for different responses. One response could be to reject the belief, in order to minimize the discomfort of the dissonance while another response could be to maintain commitment to the belief system and increase the proselytizing efforts. The latter response often involves some sort of reinterpretation of the original beliefs, despite creating contradictions in the record when before and after disconfirmation discourses are compared. Additionally, the increased proselytizing efforts, if they are fruitful, would provide ‘independent evidence’ of the validity of the belief system and therefore ease the tension in the believer’s mind. Cognitive dissonance theory basically allows for a range of responses and offers viable way to understand otherwise puzzling commitment to beliefs, that outsiders find little or no external support.

Historically this kind of response to disappointment can be found in the New Testament when Jesus’ followers go on missions following the unexpected death of their Messiah as well as increasing missionary efforts following the martyrdom of early apostles/saints/disciples. The Anabaptists experienced similar increases in commitment and sharing of the good word following a disconfirmation of the predicted apocalypse in 1533. More recently the Millerites, who believed William Miller’s biblical calculation that the end of times/day of judgement/rapture was to occur on October 22, 1844, responded in several ways. Some lost faith altogether. Some moved the goals posts by predicting a later “winding up” date. And for some, like Ellen White, it was a day of a new revelation according to which the Judgement did actually begin on October 22nd, which provided the spiritual foundation for the Seventh Day Adventist tradition.

The historical nature of the events I mentioned in the previous paragraph severely limits testing of cognitive dissonance theory due to limited extant documentation. In order to measure proselytizing efforts, and not just fruits of those efforts, a movement must be disconfirmed in real time and under observation, as Festinger and company were able to do with the small UFO religion that proclaimed doom and salvation on December 21, 1954.

2 Responses

In the UFO group there were two women who acted as the mouthpiece of God at different times. One is called Marion Keech and the other is Bertha Blatsky (both pseudonyms). I want to briefly describe their two responses because they are both examples of highly committed believers but differed in their social surroundings during the disconfirmation of predicted events (they also both had non-believing husbands). Marion had many other committed believers around her as the prophecies failed to come to pass, Bertha was separated from the main group.

Marian Keech

Mrs. Keech was the original voice of the advanced beings who earnestly believed in her abilities to receive communications from outer space. She had a history of being involved in dianetics (early versions of scientology beliefs and principles). Before the disconfirmation Marian had little to no interest in seeking out new believers and did not talk to outside groups except after diligent urging by others. She habitually resisted talking to members of the press about her communications or the group’s beliefs. At one point she was ‘told’ to have many of the written revelations and recordings of group discussions destroyed, the rationale being that the communications from Sananda were meant only for the group and only for that time. According to her Universalist philosophy all humans would get their due and eventually be saved in one way or another. There was no need to share the special communications or try to convince others of the purported validity of them. New members were welcomed into the group passively and sometimes interested persons were turned away.

After the disconfirmation Marian received a revelation that the faith of the group of believers had been sufficient to convince the powerful space men to spare the earth. The group had actually saved the earth from destruction. She then wanted to call the media outlets herself and share the ‘good news.’ As she went to call the press an observer asked if this was the first time she had ever called the newspaper herself. She responded by saying: “Oh yes, this is the first time I’ve ever called them. I’ve never had anything to tell them before, but now I feel it’s urgent.”

Bertha Blatsky

Mrs. Blatsky had also played the role of the ‘voice of god’ with her revelations being shared in audible form and recorded on tape. For a time she was favored as the ‘right’ prophet of the group but overall she played second fiddle behind Marian. Due to her husband’s orders she was not able to attend all the group meetings leading up to Dec 21st and after the disconfirmation she was not able to spend considerable time with any members of the group for more than two weeks.

While talking to an observer on December 18th she shared that “these doubts are the worst.” After the disconfirmation she was immediately filled with excitement and joy. She made lots of tapes for members of the groups, which showed increased conviction in her ability to receive revelations, and spoke to a news associate for her first time. Though in the time between then and meeting with the group two weeks later she was mostly alone with her doubting husband re-examining the events and rethinking her role. Her doubts had multiplied in isolation.

Marian’s experience with disconfirmation produced a lasting rejuvenation of her faith in her prophecy and ability as a medium while Bertha’s doubling down was only momentary.

Others Generalized

The experience of isolation causing increased doubt and decreased commitment is not limited to Bertha alone. There were two geographical centers for the group to congregate. The first and major location was Lake City where Mrs. Keech lived and held meetings in her home, the second location was a bit of a drive away in College City. Many group members who were students were not in attendance with the main group during the disconfirmation event because they went home to spend the holidays with their immediate families. They were still fervent believers and were assured that the space men would make arrangements to pick them up to save them from the cataclysm as well. Those in the College City group who were not in attendance for the sad then jubilant disconfirmation reduced the dissonance by giving up belief, while the Lake City members held fast and tried to create a supportive community of faith.[3]

So . . .

Overall this study exemplifies, in an extreme way, just how tenacious belief can be despite, or perhaps because of evidence to the contrary. We have believing brains and we feel better about our beliefs when we are not alone in them; community fosters faith (as well as a great many other very good things). This lens of cognitive dissonance theory can be applied to help explain the persistence of belief in a great many things beyond strange religious ideas. Any ideology, political view, or scientific and/or conspiracy theory can survive the bludgeoning blow of contrary evidence as long as the committed believer wants it to (perhaps subconsciously) and can find others who feel the same way. Over time many ideas do die (I’m pretty sure phrenology is pretty dead, I hope) but many ideas don’t. I think a big part of the persistence of belief can be explained by paraphrasing Nietzsche who claimed that there are no facts, only interpretations. Many of the claims of belief systems are somewhat ambiguous, as are many facts. Within that ambiguity a great variety of facts can be interpreted, or disregarded if need be, in order to continue supporting the system of belief.

After reading this (rather tedious) study I feel like I must give up all expectations on what reasonable belief is (and the assumption that my beliefs are in fact reasonable). It seems that in our minds anything is truly possible, whether you believe it or not.


[1] My reading identified three unique and unequivocal disconfirmations of specific beliefs. (1) An early revelation indicated that the group would be able to view the landing of a flying saucer in a specific field on a specific day, that event did not occur. (2) The December 21s cataclysm and flying saucer escape for believers, which also did not happen. (3) A later prediction of flying saucer landings for believer’s transport from earth on Dec 24th to occur while the group sang Christmas carols, which also did not happen.

[2] Commitment to the belief in cataclysm and salvation was exemplified by losing employment, and spending time away from other life commitments in order to attend group meetings. Additionally all group members expecting to be taken away in flying saucers removed all metal from their person, including cutting out zippers in pants and eyelets in their shoes, because a communication had warned them that metal would heat up and burn them while in the flying saucers.

[3] Many members of the group that had lower commitment lost faith in Marian as a medium and believed that the prophecy was wrong, only the very high commitment members increased their faith in Marian and the prophecy and increased their loyalty and proseletyzing efforts. Most of the members that lost faith in Marian Keech and the prophecy, as far as the observers know, maintained the same general worldview of space men/gods and flying saucers. The disconfirmation only affected the specific beliefs it was attached to and did not affect general worldviews.


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