Just How Irrational Can People Get?

By Chris Mooney | January 3, 2011 8:42 am

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…)


Comments (14)

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  1. “So what do people do to make their minds whole in this situation?”

    If it were today …

    They’d create a Wiki and declare their Wiki-Prophecy Neutral Point Of View.

  2. Well, scientists do this in their own way too so just to be clear: it is not just religious fanatics. (Though I admit it may be a slightly different category.)

    For example, the MOND theory of gravity every year or so has yet another observation going against it and yet every year it’s proponents (legitimate and in some cases respected scientists) try to find a way to tweak the theory to still fit observations only to find a few years later another setback. And so it goes.

    Or you have the steady-state proponents starting with Hoyle et al., etc…

    So, I agree we have an interesting species here but this type of thinking where you justify your pet theory even in the face of setback after setback happens both in and out of scientific circles.

    Now why are we this way? I don’t know but I think all of us fundamentally feel “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again,” and so we do.

  3. Chris Mooney

    It’s a continuum. Maybe everybody does it a little, but nobody does it like this particular religious group–where everyone in the community was trying to keep their kids away from them. There are degrees of reasonableness and degrees of openness to new evidence, I’d say.

  4. Mr Z

    I don’t think it’s any big mystery. If you were to dress a woman as a new mother and let people see her push a baby carriage into a busy street, what would the reactions of people be? I doubt your first reaction is that she’s stupid for scaring so many people. Now, imagine in the last moments of the fading sunset that a hundred yards from your house, couched in the dusk, you see a man on the front steps of a house. You don’t know the people that live there and the body is in a very odd position for a person to be in – completely uncomfortable. Do you conclude that this is a scare crow of some kind or a man dead of heart attack, or just some old clothes on the steps?

    When we see the world we judge it by what we know and understand. If we want that shape on the steps to be some decoration or old clothes we justify in our minds why it can’t be a dead man. The same happens for anything else. After a while it becomes habit, and habit eventually turns into dependency.

    In the case of religions, almost all of us are taught at a young age that the supernatural exists in some form or another. How many children never thought about a monster in the closet/under the bed? This is part of what we learned the world and life is. To change that takes training, learning, proof. Until you prove to them that there are no space aliens talking to them they will continue to believe there are. At least until they themselves admit it’s so unlikely as to be not possible and that their world view is completely fscked. Alcoholics and drug addicts can always fall back on the safe position that the substances made them crazy. The faithful have no such fall back. They have to admit they were crazy in the head.

  5. ThomasL

    I’m glad you are reading this book Chris. We have discussed in here (in the threads at least) the idea that people are not nearly as “rational” or “logical” as we like to think they are -> of course one might think the need to have classes to not only study, but actually learn what such a style of thinking is would be the first clue that we are not actually very “logical” or “rational” to begin with. One might add that it appears from the historical record that our species had been around for an awful long time before anyone bothered to write down what “rational” or “logical” might look like -> today we call it “Western Civilization” or simply “The Scientific Method”. Giving it a name implies it is not the only path available to us, and was not the path previously held in vogue…). The scientific method is wonderful for understanding how to manipulate inanimate objects and can even be useful (to a point) in manipulating living beings in the world around one as well.

    That last part has always lead to splits and misunderstandings in “education” (in quotes because here I mean formal education that has divided areas of knowledge into distinct sub categories such as “math”, “reading”, “history” or what not – in the real world there are no such clear distinctions and all areas of knowledge tend to overlap…).

    My only advice to you is that rather than reading it as a “what silly people *THEY* are” type thing, one would be much better served to realize that we are actually all very much like that, though perhaps we are better at using academic methods to make it less apparent.

    If you doubt such I suggest you start laying out all the “rational” and “logical” reasons for why two people in a relationship (any relationship – friendship, marriage or what have you) should or should not be in such. Make a bunch of logical rules about what such “is” (as in a friend would never cheat me, for example) and then see if there is a single real world relationship out there that hasn’t blown holes in almost all of those “rules”.

    Logic says the rules are the rules.

    Life says otherwise, and that we misunderstand ourselves in a very detrimental way if we miss that point.

    One of those things all those in the “hard” sciences seem to have a real hard time grasping as they point out to many of us why no one needs to study those social things…

  6. Two other sources of useful insights and data:

    Dewey, John (1929), The Quest for Certainty : A Study of the Relation of Knowledge and Action, Minton, Balch, and Company, New York, NY. Reprinted, pp. 1–254 in John Dewey, The Later Works, 1925–1953, Volume 4 : 1929, Jo Ann Boydston (ed.), Harriet Furst Simon (text. ed.), Stephen Toulmin (intro.), Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale and Edwardsville, IL, 1984.

    Sorrentino, Richard M., and Roney, Christopher J.R. (2000), The Uncertain Mind : Individual Differences in Facing the Unknown, (Essays in Social Psychology, Miles Hewstone (ed.)), Taylor and Francis, Philadelphia, PA.

  7. Matt B.

    A good example is the hitchhiker in There’s Something About Mary, who just has to ‘reset’ when his idea for 7-Minute Abs is ruined by Ben Stiller saying, “What if someone comes up with 6-Minute Abs?”

  8. gregorylent

    save to say, in the long term most concepts held dearly in the present will prove to be wrong. including, one’s self-concept

  9. vel

    ah, like the May 2011 end of the world Christians that have been infesting Pennsylvania’s highways with their crap? Always nice to see Christians going nuts as often as the other theists,a la the “Great Disappointment”. I’m sure though that they are sure that “those” people aren’t “TrueChristians”. That’s one way to try to remove cognitive dissonance, even though they do believe in the same nosnense, just not on what day it’ll happen.

  10. Chris Mooney

    Thanks everyone.

    This book is really hilarious, and I think it is partly intentional (although honestly, how could you fail with such material!). A few quotes, generally involving the details of the group’s preparations for the end of the world and being “beamed up”:

    “Early in the evening each member present was issued a ‘passport’ (a piece of blank stationery and a three-cent stamped envelope) to be shown when boarding the flying saucer that would pick him up….Some members were even assigned a numbered seat on a specified saucer.”

    “On December 10, she also asked the question of Bertha–i.e., the Creator. The Creator hesitated a moment before replying, then turned the question back to Marian, asking what light she had on the invitation.”

    “In one room downstairs there was an air of excitement. Dr. Armstrong was busily ripping the zipper out of the fly of his trousers…It turns out that all the members in their private consultations with Mrs. Keech had received orders to remove all metal from their persons and had zealously complied…”

  11. Mike H

    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.

    How does this notion of cognitive dissonance and the failed apocalyptic prognostications of religious prophets compare and contrast with the failed apocalyptic predictions of individuals like John Holdren, Paul Erlich, Donella Meadows etcetera? Is there a similar level of “cognitive dissonance” between these the secular and religious apocalyptarians?

  12. Matteo

    Mike H,

    I’m afraid your question simply does not compute in this crowd. Science! is by definition rational, truth-generating and self-correcting, but it seems only as long as the self-correcting is taking place somewhere else, at some other time, among some other people.

  13. Mike H


    If Science, by defenition, is rational, why are today’s scientific debates cluttered with so much irrationality? The demagogery I have seen from many people who claim to represent the “scientific” side of many technical isssues really confuses me.


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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