When Prophecy Failed

By Neuroskeptic | April 2, 2012 6:59 pm

I’ve just been reading the classic psychology book When Prophecy Fails.

Published in 1956, it tells the inside story of a group that believed the world was about to end – and what they did when it didn’t. Here’s a good summary over at Providentia.

The investigators, led by social psychologist Leon Festinger, infiltrated a small group (too amateurish to be called a ‘cult’ – see below) surrounding a Chicago woman called Dorothy Martin, or “Marian Keetch” as they dubbed her to protect her identity.

Martin, a classic 50s housewife, had a long-standing interest in the occult and dianetics. One day, she woke up with a strange sensation in her arm, and soon decided that she was receiving messages from spiritually advanced extraterrestrials by ‘automatic writing’.

After several months of rather generic religious guidance, the aliens informed her that a flood would destroy Chicago, and much of the US, on the 21st December 1954. This was part of a cosmic plan to “cleanse” the earth. She, and a number of other believers, would be evacuated by UFOs shortly before the calamity.

Festinger and co learned of the group through a newspaper ad warning of impending doom; spying a  chance to field-test his ideas, Festinger assembled a crack team of sociology and psychology students to go undercover. Considering that the group only had perhaps 10 real core members, plus another 20 or so less committed sympathizers, the fact that no fewer than 4 investigators became involved is rather remarkable.

When the 21st dawned and Chicago remained, the core members of the group were upset, but rationalized the failure – the spacemen had called it off, because of the positivity shown by the group. In the days following the non-event, the previously secretive group became eager to spread the word. The media picked up the story a few days before the 21st, but the group refused interviews and actively avoided trying to convert people. Afterwards, that all changed. But the group broke up shortly afterwards.

Festinger et al’s slant on this was that it supported their cognitive dissonance theory; essentially, having to face up to the fact that they’d been wrong would have been painful, so instead they chose to believe that they’d been fundamentally right all along, and sought confirmation for this by trying to get more members. They make much of the fact that those individuals who’d made more concrete commitments to the group (e.g. by selling their possessions or losing their jobs) were subsequently more faithful.

I wasn’t convinced by this, though. Apart from the fact that it’s just an isolated case, the group did, after all, break up, just a few weeks after the prophecy failed. While Martin herself seemed genuinely unfazed (and went on to lead a long life in much the same paranormal vein), there’s little evidence that the rest remained believers for more than a few days, even the most committed.

When Prophecy Fails is an amazing human interest story, though. The group is just adorably naive and homely. It’s all charmingly 1950s and about as far from the deadly fanaticism of the 1990s Heaven’s Gate group as you can imagine.

It’s full of details like the spirit of Jesus solemnly telling the group to take a break for coffee; the declaration that some new mountains formed following the rearrangement of North America would be called the “Argone range” (in honour of the fact that the Rockies etc. “are gone”); and the high school pranksters who phoned the group and announced that they have “a flood in their bathroom, do you want to come over and see it?” – they did.

Indeed, I couldn’t help feeling that the least savory thing about this group was the investigators themselves.  Festinger et al notably don’t discuss the ethics of their study at all, unlike Stanley Milgram in his classic work from the same era.

Was it ethical? At least some of the investigators actively lied to gain entrance to the group, by making up stories of their own ‘paranormal’ experiences. Other than that, the observers seemed scrupulously careful not to encourage the group in their beliefs – but the very fact that they were there, going along with it, was surely in itself a kind of tacit encouragement. Martin herself sounds like her head was far enough in the clouds that she was impervious to any such social influences but I’m not sure about the other members.

There’s also the issue of whether it was unethical to publish the inner secrets of the group just two years after the event; they did disguise the names, but remember, this was all national news when it happened. It would have been easy to work out people’s real identities with a bit of digging.

Overall, I found the book’s story fascinating; but I’m not sure I agree with the book.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: books, ethics, history
  • Anonymous

    Unfortunately it's not recognized that “ordinary” religion (of whatever creed) is only a mild form of this insanity.

  • http://drvitelli.typepad.com Romeo Vitelli

    Contrary to Festinger's book, Dorothy Martin and her movement didn't fade away after being exposed. She eventually laid low in Peru for a few years before returning and founding a new organization to promote her religion (after changing her name to Sister Thedra). She died in 1992 and the organization she founded is still active.


  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    Thanks Romeo. Does anyone know if any of the original members stayed active in the Association? The impression from the book is that apart from Martin they moved on to other things… but would be interesting to do a 'follow up' study.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03092341400560653536 Jason

    Was it ethical? Not easy to judge ethics in retrospect (nor is there much point). The results promised to offer fundamental insight into human nature and therefore balancing the costs and benefits I'd say it was ethical (also, hasn't this study alerted individuals to the nature of cults?)

  • omg

    It was unethical. Religious scholars have their ways in studying new religious movements. Alien manifestations and visions are spiritual observations and given the risks, aren't taught in conventional settings. Publicly funded researchers shouldn't be engaging in unlawful activities. Spying outside national security purposes is considered unlawful.

  • Anonymous

    A future version of “When Prophecy Fails” could be “When DSM-5 Fails.” The same blame projection and associated regressive manifestations of cognitive dissonance are on full display here in the States as the DSM-5 work-group responds to critiques of their proposed diagnostic “prophecies” and the long promised neuro-biological markers underpinning their fantasies of neuroscientific psychiatry, devoid of the “mind” and psychology.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    Anonymous: Hehe, good point.

  • Ivana Fulli MD


    ///Not easy to judge ethics in retrospect (nor is there much point)///

    Actually Voltaire said that history doesn't repeat itself but men do:

    Recently in France ,a 35 years old- previously unknown journalist- spied on the Front National (French far right) political party members and activists for 8 months.

    She published a book:

    The book gave her instant notoriety but she also received very harsh critics for being unethical:

    She is not a psychologist nor a MD but still she has been suffering harsh critics-due to the fact that the French journalists are under the spell of nepotism plus their idea of investigating politicians is to go to bed with them or being friends in order to win confidence.

    Another journalist published a biography of pdt Nicolas Sarkosy telling the world that pdt Sarkosy's foreign minister told her that in the G20 meetings there were two stars, Barak Obama and Nicolas Sarkosy!

    I found the critics ludicrous since she is a journalist investigating undercover and since the French chatting classes see no ethic problems with Female political journalists going to bed or even being the partners of life or the wife of top politicians and attacking the opponents of their darlings…

    But a psychologist can have done –and to my mind should have done -that work in order to understand what make French citizen join far right wing ideology in masses to the point that the final vote in the 2002 presidential election was a choice between the far right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen and old Jacques Chirac (right also but more moderate).As a foreign born living in France I would have encouraged for such psychology study of ordinary racism and xenophobia-if I had any power to encourage any kind of study that is.

    Fascinating read for a psychiatrist or a psychologist: not really a scoop that the Front National (FN) activists hate Arabs and immigrants but she gives evidence against an MD who is a “negationist” of the Jewish holocaust -not bad at a time when a French Jewish organization supports the FN.

    Plus, her portraits are not caricatures and she clearly feels empathy for some poor angry people that could have been communists militants decades ago.

    She also gave society the benefits of registering a conversation with a UMP(pdt Sarkosy right wing party) big shoot who said to FN activists (the journalist undercover included) that he takes care of preventing Arabs to be allowed social housing in his town: a criminal suit he got since the book has been published and rightly so. ( since it is unlawful in France to discriminate on the race or religion for renting a flat or whatever services).

    PS:She took the identity of her maternal grand-mother who had never tried to be a journalist and was blessed with very “Pure French” sounding name and surname. She used her grand-mother’s postal address, bank account and credit card (to pay for her registration fees to social events and to become a member of Front National).

  • Ivana Fulli MD


    Claire Chaccaglini said in interviews that she felt deeply ashamed when she had to distribute leaflets and tried to convince people to vote FN or give money to the FN on streets and markets and particularly when she gain one new activist through her “good work” of propaganda for the FN party .

    Have you any notion that the American psychologists undercover in a sect felt social unease about it?

    Also, I shared your unease reading it on the moral ground of abusing trust and friendship but in my case it was only for some of the activists.

    As ludicrous as the accusation against a journalist undercover might have been in France – in short giving the journalist a bad name and preventing politicians to trust them- I felt bad for some of the basic activists the journalist spied on.

    CC also clearly felt some strong affection and friendship for one of the activists -the only one she didn't name by his real name in the book. But she also clearly used his friendship for her like when he said to her – before her promotion up to the proposal of becoming an MP candidate for the FN- that she was incredibly motivated and she used that knowledge in order not to suffer suspicions and she “forgot” a few meetings.

    It is hard to escape the fact that that young man will have feel bad from that betrayal of friendship in addition to betrayal of a comrade activist. Plus I thought unethical of her to write so much about him in her book and her way of not putting his name do not stand scrutiny as a way of protecting him for outing since she told us for example that his partner in life is a black woman (of course it makes him atypical for a racist and it is interesting). May be she thinks that making him hopeless for a promotion like becoming a Front National MP candidate is giving him a favor…

    My unease was balanced by the usefulness of her outing of the UMP leader claiming to Front National activists that he prevented Arabs to get social housing in his town-that man is in the newspapers also because it was discovered that he gave his own privileged daughter a nice social housing flat!

  • http://designs-article.blogspot.com/ ghulam sarwar

    thank you for sharing

  • Ivana Fulli MD


    ///The results promised to offer fundamental insight into human nature and therefore balancing the costs and benefits I'd say it was ethical (also, hasn't this study alerted individuals to the nature of cults?)///

    Do you not realize Jason that what you wrote means that a human being (or some )can be used as guinea pigs by psychologists without their consent for the benefit of other people.

    Ethical heavy stuff!

    To the psychologists,

    Thanks to the Nuremberg trials it has long been considered unethical not to inform a human being when a medical research he takes part into -as a subject of research- cannot possibly offer any direct benefit for him or not to let him know that he can be harmed by the research side-effects.

    What about the Universities psychologist study ethical committees position on privacy and spying in that kind of work?

    Anybody knows if psychology scientific journals -let just assume that there is a protocol for a work to be published in a scientific review and not in a book- have policy about undercover psychology work ?

    In other words, do you think such an ethically challenged undercover psychologists 'work will received the green lights?

    I suppose it unlikely but I just do not know the answer. I swear I am honest about it.

    If the answer is not , there is a funny side in this though:

    The psychologists and psychiatrists will have to contend themselves with commenting undercover journalists' work after so many wrong comments of journalists on psychologists and psychiatrists ‘work!

  • http://www.keenetrial.com/blog/ Rita Handrich

    While I have nothing particularly brilliant to say on this book, I think it sounds like a fun read. I've been reading 'The Brain that Changes Itself' lately and find it really intriguing to learn about actual brain science while at the same time, wondering if it really IS brain science.

  • omg

    Ivani.. ok.

  • omg

    At least she didn't punch a hole in her head for nirvana. Human history is filled with penance sadism. Even today places like India burn their eye sockets for nirvana, hack limbs off etc. There's more in our written history devoted to mythologies, alienish creatures, prophecies, visions – she saw aliens they saw gods. Zeus, Hercules etc. I feel for humanity.

  • omg

    When our world decays with the inevitability of mass culling, nukes, the world a wasteland, the elite in Mars or in bunkers.. Atlantis city, the left overs scattered around the globe might marvel at a time when science methodologies cured colds, botox for immortality. Imagine, thousands of years later what they'll say..

  • Ivana Fulli MD


    Please give us your politicaly educated point of view on that subject when you are in a better mood.

    I look upon you for the much needed “no psychologist nor psychiatrist political activist of sort” (a nice German word should be made to express my idea) ' s moral stand on tha tissue of spying for knowledge (and money and fame).

  • omg

    On this glorious Easter day I'm reading this book called “Cult Killers” by Frank Moorehouse. A common political connection is nascent neo-Nazism disguised as vampire culture. Not that long ago there were just as many French colonies as British colonies except the French ones didn't work. In Africa they tried to penetrate the “darkest” parts. Like I'm talking pygmies, ripping your heart out, Indiana Jones. The French learnt a lot I presume. Before the Third Reich reached Paris, the French were socialists. Most of Europe by the people's choice were socialists. When you look at the policies implemented by Chirac (worse than Bush and Sarkozy his pet project) it may as well be labelled 'vampire culture'. Of course the people reacted and some became underground activists – you see the fruits of their labors paying off today with waves of protests spanning the globe. Journalists have a duty to service the State or the people with information not knowledge. They're trained for it. They have licences, some enjoy diplomat privileges.

    A public official needs to be distinguished from a private citizen. The hens blogged by NS were private citizens, whereas the journalist you mentioned played a game with public officials. That's different, as elected representatives, free press can publish stuff about public officials. If they fabricate information for the purposes of political payoffs that's up to the law to decide. No-one elected those hens into office. So what those researchers did were unethical and should the 50s hens press charges they would've been slapped with a restraining order and told to pay up. Let the law deal with that book if anyone cares to take the matter up.

  • Ivana Fulli MD

    Thanks omg;

    I know think that the French nad the Italians should import German politicians and a hudge number of british voters.

    For a start I propose that the English living in the French countryside more permanently that-say 4weeks a year-and go to be treated for free in our hospital- should be made to vote in France in a mandatory manner- no matter if they can't speak French.

  • Anonymous

    Regarding the comparison between Festinger and Milgram viz. ethical issues, they might be from the same era (broadly speaking) but there is a 15-year difference between them (both in age and in the dates of their most famous research and publications).

    When Festinger publishes his results in 1956, Milgram hasn't started working on his obedience experiments yet.

    In the early seventies, before Milgram's book came out, the Tuskegee experiment had been leaked to the press and terminated and Milgram himself was coming under fire based on a previous report of his results. It seems that Milgram's thoughtful discussion of the ethical issues was written at least partly in response to this criticism and that, at the beginning of his work, he was not as careful as he makes himself to be in the book.



No brain. No gain.

About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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