Wednesday, November 17, 2010

When Prophecy Fails

When Prophecy Fails is the 1956 book, written by Leon Festinger,  that popularized the notion of cognitive dissonance.
Cognitive dissonance is an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding conflicting ideas simultaneously. The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance. They do this by changing their attitudes, beliefs, and actions.[2] Dissonance is also reduced by justifying, blaming, and denying. It is one of the most influential and extensively studied theories in social psychology.
In this book he studies in real-time the Prophet Marian Keech, real name Dorothy Matin and later known as Sister Thedra.  Mrs. Keech  brought together a group of believers who gave away their worldly possessions and waited for the arrival of a space craft on December 20 at Midnight to rescue them from the coming Apocalypse.
At 5:00am in the morning, Mrs. Keech receives automatic writing to the effect that the groups efforts have persuaded the Earth God to spare the planet from destruction.
These are people who gave up all their possession, and their livelihood for this event.  When neither the space ship, nor the apocalypse arrive the group does not denounce Mrs. Keech.  Rather, they proceed  to publicize the event, and begin a campaign to publicize the groups message.
Festinger notes that cognitive dissonance is possible when:
·         A belief is held with deep conviction
·         There is a necessary commitment to the belief
·         The belief must be sufficiently specific and material enough to the real world that disproving evidence is possible
·         The disconfirming evidence occurs and is known
·         The individual has social support
The sublimation of real world experience  to common beliefs is a common issue within the discourse of collapse and end times.  The people within the common culture are accused of ignoring the warnings and/or portents, and are going to suffer the consequences of their (in-) actions.  This is almost a universal message.
An example would be the many, many warnings that were made about the housing bubble and the financial collapse.  Yet many of the major participants in the event felt that the end result was unforeseen.  The view that our current economic system is simply going through some liquidity issues is obvious in the way that the political and business leaders discuss the current crises.
On the flip side, there are numerous examples of doom prophesiers who over-stretch their prognosticating abilities and wind up with egg on their face when the space ships don’t appear.  That these people and groups are often not discredited after the event is very much an interesting phenomena.

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