When Prophecy Fails

How do you react when a prediction you have made is not confirmed? Do you discount the evidence, look instead for supporting data, or revise your belief while you seek further support?

The recent Doomsday predictions of Harold Camping and his followers reminded me of the classic study of these questions, When Prophecy Fails, by Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken and Stanley Schachter. Their work, published in 1956, examined what happened after the world didn’t end in a great flood according to the prediction of a cult of believers.

The cult developed following the purported message a housewife, Dorothy Martin, claimed to have received that the world would end in a great flood on December 21, 1954. Acting on this message, a sizeable number of believers quit their jobs, left college and in some cases their spouses and gave away their possessions to prepare for their departure on a flying saucer which would come to rescue them.

It was an elaborate Doomsday prediction and equally elaborate plan to escape it. What happened to the members of the cult when the world didn’t end on that Winter Solstice in 1954? Did they reject their belief or did they strengthen their commitment to it?

Virtually all of them failed to acknowledge the fallacy of their prediction or the message from another planet. Instead, Dorothy Martin claimed she had received another message that the “God of Earth” has spared the planet and the end of the world had been called off because her followers had “spread so much light.” As a result, members of the cult swung into action and tried more vigorously to spread its message by recruiting new followers.

Reaffirmation of belief in the face of contradictory information has been labeled confirmation bias, although Festinger and his colleagues viewed it within the framework of their theory of cognitive dissonance. On this account, it is unsettling to have one’s belief disconfirmed especially when it is firmly held and concrete actions have been taken that are consistent with it.

Individuals can take a variety of steps to reduce their dissonance—look elsewhere for supporting evidence, seek social support for their beliefs, strengthen their attitudes toward the basic idea, or discount the negative evidence. Recruiting others to join their cause was the most vigorous action the group took as they developed a campaign to spread its message to as wide a population as possible.

How did the believers of the recent Doomsday prediction react when confronted with their mistaken belief? Did they give it up or begin a vigorous recruiting campaign as the followers of Dorothy Martin did? Or did they attempt to justify their belief by claiming it was a further test of God to persevere in their faith?

It is really too early to know much about how these believers will respond in the long run. Most were naturally disappointed. However, apparently a few have admitted their error. Some had given away or sold their possessions, while others had drained their savings accounts.

Meanwhile, Harold Camping, the group’s leader, has been relatively silent. And the group has not been subject to the intensive, “participant observation” study that Festinger and his colleagues had carried out.

But if their dissonance theory is correct, one can anticipate a strengthening of commitment to their prediction in some form and increasing efforts to recruit others to their group. If none of this occurs, it will be just as interesting to see how proponents of dissonance theory respond to the disconfirming evidence.