Science14 Jun 2007 07:59 am
Before publishing his general Theory of Cognitive Dissonance in 1957, Leon Festinger documented a particularly elaborate instance of the phenomenon: a Chicago housewife named Marion Keech received a message that the world was going to end in a gigantic flood on December 21, 1955 and convinced a large group that she was right. They gathered on the evening of December 20 to await a UFO that would fly them to safety. Midnight came. The deluge didn’t.
A group of researchers infiltrated the group of believers to observe how they would respond to this disappointment. (They rightly assumed that the flood wouldn’t occur.) According to the theory that he would formulate the following year, the participants would more readily come up with an alternative explanation than admit their mistake and act accordingly. That is exactly what occurred. Mrs. Keech received another message at 4:45 a.m. on December 21: “The little group, sitting all night long, had spread so much light that God had saved the world from destruction.” Their vigil was not in vain: it had saved the world.
Festinger described this experiment in a 1956 book titled When Prophecy Fails. It was a uniquely rigorous study of the phenomena, but it certainly wasn’t the first time that a time a widely publicized prophecy didn’t come true. In 1844, for instance, an American divine named William Miller and his followers convened on the mountaintops of America to await a flood that was meant to arrive on October 22. It didn’t. (Miller called this “The Great Disappointment.”) Of course, not all failed prophecies are so apocalyptic. After all, didn’t you avoid elevators on Y2K?
Read When Prophecies Fail here.
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