Monday, December 31, 2012

When prophecy fails

Sour grapes: Wasn’t it Aesop who had invented the theory of cognitive dissonance?

Actually I didn’t want to write about the nonsense of the end of the world. It isn’t worth to give it so much attention, and I agree with the Russian president Vladimir Putin (probably the first and the last time that I’ll agree with him): The end of the world will be in about 4.5 billion years’ time. But the event made me think of a study by Leon Festinger and his co-workers I learned about when I studied sociology long ago: When Prophecy Fails (first published in 1956). It was rather new then when I attended my lectures.
In this book the theory of cognitive dissonance is described for the first time. The details of the study and the theory can easily be found elsewhere on the Internet, but the essence is this: Members of a small sect somewhere in the USA think that the world will be destructed by a Flood but that only they will be saved (by a UFO). On December 21 the believers meet at a pre-determined time and place but nothing happens. Although before the presumed date of the end of the world they avoided publicity, now the believers think that the world has got a second chance and they dramatically increase their activities of spreading their message to the world.
What did happen then from a psychological point of view according to Festinger and his co-workers? Before the final date the members of the sect have a certain belief about what will occur. However, the belief doesn’t come true, for the world hasn’t been destructed as prophesied. Therefore there is a discrepancy between the original belief and the facts. Festinger et al. call this a “cognitive dissonance”. Such a dissonance is considered an unpleasant experience by most people, so they want to get rid of it. In the words of Festinger et al.: The cognitive dissonance has to be reduced. Therefore the believers of the destruction of the world think that there is a reason that the world has been saved (“the world gets a second chance”) and they adapt their behaviour to it (in this case: they try to make converts). The result of the new interpretation of the belief and the adaptation of behaviour is that the gap between belief and fact (so the cognitive dissonance) is psychologically reduced.
According to the original theory the reduction process is unconscious. Moreover, it is not limited to sectarian believes and behaviour. Actually the reduction of cognitive dissonance is something everybody often does if there is a discrepancy between a belief, attitude, values, norms etc. and the facts. It is a common psychological mechanism. Later the theory has been changed in the sense that reduction can also happen consciously.
These were some of my thoughts when I heard all the fuss about the supposed end of the world because the Maya calendar ended on December 21st last (It’s interesting that the Mayas themselves had a different interpretation of what this meant). This case is unlike the one analysed by Festinger et al. in so far as then the believers avoided publicity before the predicted end of the world, while now the predicted fact received already much attention before it should take place. Anyhow, I have some questions. What will the real believers do now that Doomsday did not take place? Will they flood the world with a new interpretation of their sectarian belief and with a new Doomsday prophecy? Moreover, what progress will the study of this failed prophecy bring to the social sciences and especially to psychology? I am waiting for what will happen.

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