Cognitive Dissonance & the May 21st Apocalypse

By The Intersection | May 12, 2011 12:35 pm

This is a guest post by Jamie L. Vernon, Ph.D., an HIV research scientist and aspiring policy wonk, who recently moved to D.C. to get a taste of the action

In Chris’ recent Mother Jones article, he wrote of a case study in “motivated reasoning.”  The study involved a group of individuals called “The Seekers” whose members believed they were receiving an alien message that predicted the date that the end of the world would come: December 21, 1954.  Leon Festinger, a social psychologist, identified the organization as a good candidate for a study of disconfirmation, the moment at which a strongly held belief is unequivocally refuted.  Festinger wished to study the responses among the members of the group at the very moment when they were forced to acknowledge their mistake.  To get the whole story, you can read Festinger’s book When Prophecy Fails.

Out of this research came the principles of cognitive dissonance.  Today, we attempt to apply Festinger’s theory to various denialist movements and conspiracy theories, as I have discussed in previous posts.  Occasionally, we are given the opportunity to reflect on behaviors that carry the hallmarks of cognitive dissonance but, as in the case of the “deathers,” not all the criteria are met for classical cognitive dissonance.  For example, in order to truly exhibit traits of cognitive dissonance, the believer must be confronted with irrefutable evidence of disconfirmation.  In the case of the deathers, birthers, climate denialists, vaxxers and a group I’m now calling the “frackers,” no evidence will be sufficient to meet the sceptics definition of iron clad proof of their wrongness.  In each of these cases, the subscribers to these beliefs will seek and find ways to dismiss the evidence, by claiming forgeries and/or contesting the methods by which the evidence was collected, by questioning the motives of those who produce the data, etc.  We’ve seen it all.  Instead, the canonical disconfirmation event is represented by apocalyptic prophecies that fail to manifest, as with “the Seekers.”

Yesterday, it was brought to my attention by Sam Harris that a group of Christian activists have predicted that the world will end on May 21, 2011.  Bonanza!

This is a ripe opportunity for those of us who are interested in the psychology of denial to collect data.  Although I won’t be infiltrating the group, I will be watching from afar.  I hope the media will provide ample follow-up.  In my opinion, it is of equal importance in these cases to have a post-game as well as a pre-game show.

The group is a non-denominational Christian organization.  They have erected billboards, handed out pamphlets and paid for ads on subway trains that claim “Judgment Day is coming.”  Their leader is a not-so-youthful 89 year old radio host Harold Camping, who has a long history of doomsaying.  In fact, Camping has once before been forced to face disconfirmation when his prediction that the end of days would come in 1994 (accompanied by a book of the same name) was proven false.  In true cognitive dissonance form, Camping conveniently realized that he had overlooked the Book of Jeremiah. After recalculating, he concluded that May 21, 2011 was the actual date for the rapture.  And, oh boy, what a day it will be.  For a detailed account of what to expect, read the Slate.com article about the group.

Festinger’s theory predicts that, despite the warnings ahead of time, once the world is shown to still exist on May 22, we should expect Camping and his group to express increased fervor for their beliefs, likely accompanied by a new prediction.

My question is, “how do we intercede to relieve these individuals from being forced into a cognitive dissonant state of mind?”

Festinger says that the circling of wagons that occurs during the initial refutation of a strongly held belief provides support for those within the group to maintain their paradoxical beliefs.  Together they develop a response to the disconfirmation and together they defend their position.  He also argues that heckling and antagonism from the external community only serves to solidify their beliefs.  In the case of Camping and his followers, perhaps family and friends could intervene by offering them support and protection (without judgment) if they choose to step away from the group.

Looking more broadly, with the climate debate in mind, it would be reasonable to consider that individuals in close proximity to those with denialist beliefs, particularly those who share similar values, should be more vocal about their position on the issue.  This should not be done in an antagonistic way.  Rather, by simply expressing the opinion that is counter to the denialists’ opinions, the group think mentality can be broken up.  Try it when you go home for Thanksgiving or the 4th of July.

I believe this is what has happened with the “birthers” and “deathers” of late.  Initially, they were looking to their community for support.  As long as they received that support, they were very vocal about their opinions.  Once those who supported their beliefs, albeit with less vehemence, were silenced (by the evidence), the denialist buzz was eventually silenced or at least quieted.  Those who have a costly investment in their beliefs, however, will continue to hold them.  They will likely seek out others who agree with them.  However, once the masses have been disseminated, the volume is significantly lowered.

***One interesting aside is how the internet has changed the interpretation of Festinger’s principles.  Whereas Festinger worked during a time without social media, the current environment does not reflect the community in which Festinger made his observations.  Festinger concluded based on the lifestyles during the 50’s and 60’s that an individual’s beliefs were shaped by those who lived and worked in close proximity to the individual.  Today, we know that is unlikely to be the case.  We now have the internet to flatten and shorten the planet.  We can create our own “proximal” communities that include individuals who agree with us.  We can also block out those opinions that contradict our own.

I have ideas here, but I’ll pose this question to you.

How shall we proceed?

Comments (28)

  1. CrazyJoeMalloy

    Perhaps a display of vintage signs, posters, etc of all the previous rapture predictions in chronological order followed by a final sign that asks “Are we there yet?” :)

    That’s probably not terribly productive, but it makes me smile at least. Which is more than I can say about this crowd. If memory serves the concept of the rapture itself is a fairly recent thing (recent as in the last few hundred years), hopefully that can be used as a means to sow seeds of doubt so the whole notion can be eroded away and we can grind our way to the next piece of nonsense.

  2. dirk

    Great analysis. It reminds me of the Norman Myers story. Fortunately, environmentalists have recently learned from past mistakes and have stopped giving specific dates… or at least not dates that will occur in their lifetime.

  3. I know that there are many, MANY Christians who believe that a “Rapture” is indeed going to eventually occur, and that at some unknowable date millions of people all over the Earth are going to vanish into thin air, leaving only their clothes and their dentures behind. This sounds nutty enough. All Harold Camping has done is set a date. Does that somehow make him NUTTIER?

    Not only is the so-called “Rapture” NOT going to occur on May 21st, it isn’t going to occur EVER. And I can promise you this with absolute 100% certainty. There will be no “Rapture,” no “Second Coming,” no “End Of Days.” There most certainly will continue to be wars, plagues, and natural disasters as there have always been, but there won’t be anything supernatural about them. And most importantly there is no such thing as “prophecy” … except for the self-fulfilling kind.

    In a perverse sort of way, I actually WISH that Harold Camping was right! What an interesting day that would be! What would be even more interesting is if the Apocalypse were to occur in a more spectacular fashion, not in the anthropomorphical sense the authors of the “Left Behind” series have portrayed, but as more of a Stephen Spielberg production, with boiling clouds, trumpets, angels descending out of the sky, Moon turned to blood, the whole nine yards. Imagine coming to the realization that it was all coming true, just as the evangelists had been warning for years, and that there was something more awesome than just the cold, hard, physical reality we inhabit. Imagine actually watching people disappear into thin air! Wouldn’t THAT be something???

    Yet in the final analysis, it’s that cold, hard, physical reality that I will content myself with. My life is not so meaningless that I need the fear of a “Rapture” and the “End Times” to make sense of it all … nor do I need Heaven or Hell to bribe me into behaving decently, thank you very much.

    Since the death of Jesus, people in every generation for over 2,000 years and hundreds of generations have wanted to be the one that experiences the end of days. None has. There must be a clue in there somewhere for you.

    If you waited at a bus stop for 2,000 years, at what point would you conclude that the bus wasn’t coming? Or would you just stand there … FOREVER … because somebody had stuck up a “bus stop” sign?

    • The Intersection

      Chuck,
      I’m not sure you read my entire post. You seem to think that I think the rapture is coming.
      Give it a second look.
      JV

  4. Nullius in Verba

    “Although I have yet to see any evidence that climate change is a sign of Christ’s imminent return, human pollution is clearly another of the birth pangs of creation, as it eagerly awaits being delivered from the bondage of corruption (Romans. 19-22).”

  5. Mike H

    and a group I’m now calling the “frackers,” no evidence will be sufficient to meet the sceptics definition of iron clad proof of their wrongness.

    yeahhh … except for the part where you simultaneously used every logical fallacy you accused the “frackers” of while humiliating yourself with a laughably superficial display of the facts suitable for the most amateur of policy wanks.

    Good effort though.

    • The Intersection

      Mike says,
      “while humiliating yourself with a laughably superficial display of the facts suitable for the most amateur of policy wanks.”

      There are reasons why I haven’t gone deeply into the details of my scientific criticisms of fracking. Part of the reason is because I know others who are working on a piece that will do just that.
      Having said that, I do not share all the criticisms of fracking that the environmentalists have expressed. To give you a hint of where I stand, my concerns are not so dependent on the risks of the fracking fluids as much as they are with the effects of the process.

  6. Mike H

    And speaking of rapture, end times and environmentalists, how does this figure into your new found epiphany:

    The battle to feed humanity is over. In the 1970s, the world will undergo famines. Hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. Population control is the only answer -Paul Erlich

    If I were a gambler, I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000 -Paul Erlich

  7. Mike H

    Fair enough. Who are these “others”?

  8. Tom Mc

    Although the Bible does provide the conditions in which the “time of the end” would occur, Matt24:36 clearly states that, “Concerning that day and hour nobody knows, neither the angels of the heavens nor the Son, but only the Father.:

  9. Rand All

    I’m hosting a ‘Rapture Party’ on that evening. My friends and I are all going to eat burgers and wait to get lifted up to Heaven!

  10. DrRocket

    There is a principle in research that ideas don’t die because there is contrary evidence, but rather that science progresses when those who hold the outmoded views themselves die. Cynical, I know, but I think that this is part of the problem with these individuals. It’s true that you can separate people from the group and gently provide them with information outside of the groupthink environment and that could enlighten them, but there will always be people who, in hoping for something better, have these apocalyptic views. Humans seem to be hard-wired for this kind of thinking, otherwise why would it keep happening again over the centuries?

  11. Eric the Leaf

    So, just for consideration, a couple of thoughts:

    I could just as easily claim that those in favor of nuclear power are “nukers,” who deny the risks associated with nuclear power. Oh, you say that the risk is entirely acceptable given the benefits of nuclear power, or that those opposed to nuclear power have exaggerated the risk, so it is the anti-nuclear crowd that are the “denialists.”

    And what of opposition to nuclear power that has nothing in particular to do with the health risk. Are they “deniers” in the grip of “motivated reasoning?” Suppose those individuals are concerned with the EROI of nuclear power, the reserves of high-grade uranium, or future conflict that destabilizes large sectors of the electrical grid or the industrial infrastructure, and so on, all subject to informed debate. No, it was entirely the health risk posed by radiation that was the sole subject of discussion on this blog. Thus, informed opposition can be lumped with “motivated” opposition by those espousing a particular point of view. I believe this is a danger.

    I know you haven’t broached the subject of nuclear power. That is not my point, it was just an example. The point is the problem that can arise by labeling any opposition to one’s way of thinking as “motivated reasoning” that must be “dealt with” in some way. That’s not to say it does not exist, but what good does it do to shout it out at every turn?

    Far more problematic is your final comment, “how shall we proceed?” which I guess is related to your previous question: “How do we intercede?” Motivated reasoning does not provide any guide. OK, people rationalize, they hold on, they get defensive–I get it. To really find out “how to proceed” you need to understand how people come by their belief systems in the first place. That is a far more complex set of issues, and lacking that evidence is the reason why, while it sounds good, trying to “intercede” is unlikely to yield any hoped for results.

    Thanksgiving? Changing the world one turkey at a time, I guess. Why not.

  12. Grubal Muruch

    Harold Camping and his followers ARE NOT a Christian organization, but an, unorthodox group of cultist false teaching/heretics. Harold Camping is indeed, a “heretic extraordinaire,” with a charismatic presence that, produces a Svengali type of control over his minions. It’s truly a travesty, that this man has been allowed to perpetrate on family’s and other relationships. He has brought about divisions among husbands, wives, and children.

    His followers are truly brainwashed and deluded. Their at the mercy of a, “master manipulator.”

  13. Liath

    Well, it’s all perfectly true you know. Each and every doomsday prediction has come to pass just as predicted. Only we don’t realize it because our consciousness gets shipped out to the next brane to the left. Our bodies that are left behind are put to good use by the Great and Powerful Blue Throated Lizard God who sits basking on a rock at the end of all universes. This lizard god set up all the brane universes much like a bee farmer and like that bee farmer, harvests living creatures periodically for it’s own unknown ends.

    Geez, I hestitate to post this comment. Someone may actually take this seriously. There are some gullible folks around. But then gullible is not in the dictionary so what does it matter.

  14. bad Jim

    That the world will end in our lifetimes is one of the oldest beliefs in Christianity. That it’s been wrong for two thousand years doesn’t seem to be all that convincing. In fact, the people who hold that belief are certain that they’re rational.

  15. TTT

    The funniest doomsayers are the ideological right-wingers who always say that the latest environmental law is the one that will cause our economic and cultural extinction. And if it isn’t that one, why, it’ll be the NEXT one for sure!

    The CEO of Pennwalt, the third largest CFC manufacturer in the U.S., talked of “economic chaos” if CFC use was to be phased out (Cogan, 1988). DuPont, the largest CFC manufacturer, warned that the costs in the U.S. alone could exceed $135 billion, and that “entire industries could fold” (Glas, 1989). The Association of European Chemical Companies warned that CFC regulation might lead to “redesign and re-equipping of large sectors of vital industry…, smaller firms going out of business… and an effect on inflation and unemployment, nationally and internationally” (Stockholm Environment Institute, 1999).

  16. Mike H

    @ TTT

    Speaking of cognitive dissonance.

    That’s a rather selective reading of the sources. DuPont wasn’t arguing that the CFC ban would cost $135 billion, it was stating, correctly, that the Montreal Protocol would apply to $135 billion worth of installed equipment and that some would need to be replaced or modified.

    In September 1988 Du Pont announced plans to invest more than $25 million in the worlds first commercial scale plant to produce HFC-134a, the leading candidate to replace CFC-12 in the largest US market segment – refrigeration and air conditioning. This plant will be located in Corpus Christi Texas and will have the capability to expand to a much larger scale facility in the future. In 1988 Du Pont spent more than $30 million for process development, market research, application testing and small lot production of CFC alternatives it expects to spend more than $45 million for R&D in 1989.

    Our plan at Du Pont is to commercialize a series of new products during a three to five year period beginning in 1990. This schedule assumes favorable toxicology, process development and plant designs, a favorable business climate, and reasonable financial risks.
    Du Pont’s programs will be in adequate in the long term without global application and cooperation. Du Pont and all other firms must continue to believe in and support the international process established with the Montreal Protocol hoping all nations can, in fact, work together to strengthen the protocol to achieve a timely global phase-out.

    In the United States alone, there is now more than $135 billion worth of installed equipment dependant on CFC products. Virtually all of this equipment, some of it with a remaining useful lifetime of 20 to 40 years, could require replacement or modifications. For some industries the impact of change will be even more dramatic. Entire industries could fold and perhaps be replaced by others.

    Pretty Amazing what you can do with selective quotes.

  17. Mike H

    Speaking of cognitive dissonance.

    That’s a rather selective reading of the sources. DuPont wasn’t arguing that the CFC ban would cost $135 billion, it was stating, correctly, that the Montreal Protocol would apply to $135 billion worth of installed equipment and that some would need to be replaced or modified.

    In September 1988 Du Pont announced plans to invest more than $25 million in the worlds first commercial scale plant to produce HFC-134a, the leading candidate to replace CFC-12 in the largest US market segment – refrigeration and air conditioning. This plant will be located in Corpus Christi Texas and will have the capability to expand to a much larger scale facility in the future. In 1988 Du Pont spent more than $30 million for process development, market research, application testing and small lot production of CFC alternatives it expects to spend more than $45 million for R&D in 1989.

    Our plan at Du Pont is to commercialize a series of new products during a three to five year period beginning in 1990. This schedule assumes favorable toxicology, process development and plant designs, a favorable business climate, and reasonable financial risks.
    Du Pont’s programs will be in adequate in the long term without global application and cooperation. Du Pont and all other firms must continue to believe in and support the international process established with the Montreal Protocol hoping all nations can, in fact, work together to strengthen the protocol to achieve a timely global phase-out.

    In the United States alone, there is now more than $135 billion worth of installed equipment dependant on CFC products. Virtually all of this equipment, some of it with a remaining useful lifetime of 20 to 40 years, could require replacement or modifications. For some industries the impact of change will be even more dramatic. Entire industries could fold and perhaps be replaced by others.

    Pretty Amazing what you can do with selective quotes.

  18. Mike H

    With respect to Tuttle, the CEO of Pennwalt, he was arguing that an immediate ban on CFC’s without a non toxic or nonflammable replacement (as the only two known refrigerants were anhydrous ammonia and propane) would cause “economic chaos”. Pennwalt was supportive of a moratorium though.

    Within ten days of the release of the Ozone Trends Report, Du Pont committed to an orderly global transition to a total phase out of fully halogenated CFC’s, signaling drastic changes in markets and technology. The Pennwalt Corporation almost immediately seconded Du Pont’s position and urged that CFC production be halted as soon as practical.

    Sucks for you to be so stupid.

  19. Don

    I heard one of these nuts on the radio a few weeks ago. Supposedly the man made arrangements such as paying all his bills in advance (!?). He then told his 4-year old daughter to tell her friends goodbye because they were “going away” (!?!?).

    I seriously hope these people go away and make this earth much better for the rest of us.

  20. Bobby Elliott

    Beliefs that have no rationale or logical basis, cannot be disproved by facts or logic, so the passing of 21 May will make no difference. We see this in all religions when events disprove beliefs but the beliefs survive and simply ignore the event or evolve to incorporate the event. Science has essentially disproved all religions but the evidence is ignored or absorbed into the religion. Nothing – and I mean nothing – will change faith because, by definition, it is non-factual and illogical.

  21. Chris Mooney

    Great post! At some point we are going to need to unpack the relationship between motivated reasoning and cognitive dissonance….they are obviously closely related.

  22. David

    I quite like some of things on this post :’)
    The most rediculous thing i’ve heard…This calculation could have been done in a different way with the same result for every 1000 years.
    And the same for 2012.
    First of all, in no way of form can science of today predict the exact time and date of anything, They’re all rough predictions made through calculations and as much precision as they can.
    So this whole Noah’s ark thing. If the unlikely event of it even happening in history, and the Apocalypse was somewhat related for something that happen so long ago that science has no solid evidence of even occurring, who could even say that this calculation is correct? It could be days, months even years off. And if it was the calculation would be off aswell and therefore could be thousands of years out of range.
    Of course, it’s utter crap. I doubt that we’re even going to live to see the end of the world.
    the only thing that is even close to possible in this stage is all out nuclear war or global warming which i personally think is way off

  23. Matt B.

    Bobby Elliot, I think you mean that beliefs that are supported without a rationale or logical basis cannot be disproved by facts or logic. Illogical things can be disproven, but not to those who believe them for illogical reasons.

  24. Peter

    “I believe this is what has happened with the “birthers” and “deathers” of late. Initially, they were looking to their community for support. As long as they received that support, they were very vocal about their opinions. Once those who supported their beliefs, albeit with less vehemence, were silenced (by the evidence), the denialist buzz was eventually silenced or at least quieted.”

    sorry i had to quote that whole block, but i did –Here the author seems to insinuate here that there is some “evidence” that Osama Bin Laden was killed on May 1st, where there is none. Just Appeals to Authority, and cynical, contrived buzzwords. I’m not looking for proof here, just a shred of evidence. and to not be called a “deather.” a claim without evidence might as well be a lie to me. it means Nothing.

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