As part of some new research, I’m currently reading a classic in social psychology: When Prophecy Fails by Leon Festinger et al, 1956. Somebody may have assigned it to you in college.
If not, here’s the rapid-fire Cliff Notes: A team of psychologists infiltrate a group of space-age cranks who believe that beings from other planets are communicating with them directly, and warning them of a vast cataclysm that is going to rip the United States asunder (and yes, it involves the reappearance of Atlantis). The scientists narrate it all in clinical style, factual, detached, e.g.: “scarcely a day passed without a communique of some kind from outer space.” And: “Later, a few of the young people also attempted levitation of one another, though this venture also failed.”
The religious followers eventually come up with a very specific prediction of disaster, and they then begin to proselytize about it. And of course, the day comes, and they’re wrong.
So then what? That’s what’s so mind-blowing. Festinger came up with the theory of “cognitive dissonance” to explain how people reconcile contradictory ideas in their minds. In this case the contradictory ideas would be 1) “I believe strongly in my space-age sci-fi fantasy religion and the aetherial beings who have been communicating with me” 2) “the prediction they gave me, and that I made public to all the world, has been unequivocally refuted.”
So what do people do to make their minds whole in this situation? Well, I invite you to guess.
What a wacky species we are. Happy 2011. (Just one year short of 2012…)
Links to this Post
- Quick Links | A Blog Around The Clock | January 3, 2011