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Mind

When Prophecy Failed

Neuroskeptic iconNeuroskepticBy NeuroskepticApril 3, 2012 3:59 AM

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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.

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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.

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