What happens when prophecy fails … do the believers still believe?


548624_570057906352974_791126089_nThe Unapocalypse is here and guess what, those Mayan’s were spot as, as predicted, the earth blew up and we are all now dead ….. er perhaps not, but then you never really thought it would actually happen did you, but sadly some did.

So now we bizarrely  have the fact that something that did not actually happen, and most knew that it would not happen, is now being reported in the news as not actually happening.

Mayan Apocolypse: the end of the world – live! – In the Telegraph

Mayan prophecies: Life after the (non) end of the world – BBC

… and so I shall now look forward to lots more stories from these media outlets reporting the news of stuff that did not actually happen :-) Well OK, it is not quite that bad, these stories are in fact valid and appropriate because the sad fact is that there were people out there who did, and still do, truly believe. It is not a binary black and white belief, but is far more complex with a vast array of shades of belief that runs from those that simply wondered if the Mayan’s were on to something, those who were quite nervous, and on through to those who sold their house, bought a bunker and stocked it with supplies (yes really).

You might indeed now wonder how the truly committed believers in that last category will handle the disappointment that life goes on without even one Mayan blip. What happens inside their heads, will they now think to themselves, “Gosh, you know what, that was all bullshit”? Apparently not, we have seen this before, psychologists have studied this and so we know exactly what will happen.

Back in 1956, Leon Festinger, an American social psychologist, wrote a book entitled When Prophecy Fails on this very topic. It starts with the discovery of a group of UFO believers who truly believed the world would soon end, and that a UFO would rescue just them. The cult leader, Dorothy Martin, was a Chicago housewife who had experimented with automatic writing, and out of this came her prophecy . In response to it, she and her followers had given away money and possessions to prepare for their departure on a flying saucer which was to rescue them, oh and you will get a kick out of this last bit, the date they came up with for their end-of-the-world was …. (insert drum roll here) … 21 December 1954, yep, once again 21 Dec.

When Dr Festinger and team came across stories about them they thought, “Oh, lets study these folks and see what happens after 21st Dec”, and so this now famous study was born.

So here is how Festinger and his colleagues that infiltrated Keech’s group reported the sequence of events:

  • Prior to December 20. The group shuns publicity. Interviews are given only grudgingly. Access to Keech’s house is only provided to those who can convince the group that they are true believers. The group evolves a belief system—provided by the automatic writing from the planet Clarion—to explain the details of the cataclysm, the reason for its occurrence, and the manner in which the group would be saved from the disaster.
  • December 20. The group expects a visitor from outer space to call upon them at midnight and to escort them to a waiting spacecraft. As instructed, the group goes to great lengths to remove all metallic items from their persons. As midnight approaches, zippers, bra straps, and other objects are discarded. The group waits.
  • 12:05 A.M., December 21. No visitor. Someone in the group notices that another clock in the room shows 11:55. The group agrees that it is not yet midnight.
  • 12:10 A.M. The second clock strikes midnight. Still no visitor. The group sits in stunned silence. The cataclysm itself is no more than seven hours away.
  • 4:00 A.M. The group has been sitting in stunned silence. A few attempts at finding explanations have failed. Keech begins to cry.
  • 4:45 A.M. Another message by automatic writing is sent to Keech. It states, in effect, that the God of Earth has decided to spare the planet from destruction. The cataclysm has been called off: “The little group, sitting all night long, had spread so much light that God had saved the world from destruction.”
  • Afternoon, December 21. Newspapers are called; interviews are sought. In a reversal of its previous distaste for publicity, the group begins an urgent campaign to spread its message to as broad an audience as possible.

Festinger had previously made the observation that … “If more and more people can be persuaded that the system of belief is correct, then clearly it must after all be correct.“, so he predicted that what would happen is that after the inevitable disconfirmation there would be an enthusiastic effort at proselytizing to seek social support and lessen the pain of disconfirmation, and that is exactly what happened.

The concept that describes all this is Cognitive dissonance, and came out of the above study. It is now one of the most influential and extensively studied theories in social psychology. Cognitive dissonance theory explains human behavior by positing that people have a bias to seek consonance between their expectations and reality. People engage in a process called “dissonance reduction”, which can be achieved in one of three ways: lowering the importance of one of the discordant factors, adding consonant elements, or changing one of the dissonant factors. This bias sheds light on otherwise puzzling, irrational, and even destructive human behavior.

As for those Mayan’s, well they did  get one aspect right, the world will indeed truly end. The only bit they got wrong was the actual date, they were off but many billions of years.

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