A brief history of cognitive dissonance

567c77483bfb5754395516194c2b8534Cognitive Dissonance is of course the term used to describe the mental stress that will arise when an existing belief is confronted with information that conflicts with the belief.

It is perhaps logical and rational to assume that things should play out like this …

  • For example somebody declares … “The world will end tomorrow
  • When tomorrow comes and the world does not end, you would expect perhaps a confession along the lines of, “Oops, I was wrong“, but that is not what happens.

So where does our understanding of what actually happens come from?

Back in 1956, Leon Festinger, an American social psychologist, wrote a book entitled When Prophecy Fails. 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 on 21 December 1954.

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 the 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.

Judgement Day

Remember this?

So what happened?

The vast majority never accepted the idea … 

  • Non-believers would assert (quite rightly) that it was nonsense
  • Believers would point out that while Mr Camping might indeed believe in Jesus, his end-of-the-world assertion was wrong and so they would perhaps cite Bible passages such as “about that day or hour no one knows” (Matthew 24:36) to justify that stance.

But what about those that did embrace the idea, what happened after the big day?

  • On May 23, Camping stated that May 21 had been a “spiritual” day of judgment, and that the physical Rapture would occur on October 21
  • He made no comment after Oct 21 but the following year did admit that he was searching the Bible “even more fervently… not to find dates, but to be more faithful in our understanding.”

In other words the core belief became even stronger and was not reduced.


If you have debated with people who embrace crazy ideas then this is perhaps something that you will be familiar with. When faced with facts that conflict that an idea that has been heavily invested in, then the belief will be protected and the facts will simply be rationalised away.

For example …

  • Young Earth Creationist: The earth is only 6000 years old
  • Perplexed skeptic: Oh but what about all the dinosaur bones that are millions of years old?
  • Young Earth Creationist: God put them there to test our faith
  • Perplexed skeptic: (face-palm)


Carol Travis speaking at TAM about Cognitive Dissonance

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