The Sciences

Cognitive Dissonance & the May 21st Apocalypse

The IntersectionBy The IntersectionMay 12, 2011 4:35 PM


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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 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?

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