When Prophecy Failed — In 1954.
From the Pinter & Martin website:
“In 1954 Leon Festinger, a brilliant young experimental social psychologist in the process of inventing a new theory of human behavior – the theory of cognitive dissonance – and two of his colleagues, Henry Riecken and Stanley Schachter, infiltrated a cult who believed the end of the world was only months away. How would these people feel when their prophecy remained unfulfilled? Would they admit the error of their prediction, or would they, as Festinger predicted, readjust their reality to make sense of the new circumstances?
“Not only is When Prophecy Fails of great historical importance as the first test of a powerful theory, but it is also a surprisingly touching account of what happens to ordinary people under extraordinary circumstances.”
From the Wikipedia entry on the book. Note the timeline of events for the evening that prophecy was to be “fulfilled”.
Sequence of Events
Festinger and his colleagues infiltrated Mrs. Keech’s group and reported the following sequence of events:
- Prior to December 20. The group shuns publicity. Interviews are given only grudgingly. Access to Mrs. Keech’s house is only provided to those who can convince the group that they are true believers. The group evolves a belief system—provided by the automatic writing from the planet Clarion—to explain the details of the cataclysm, the reason for its occurrence, and the manner in which the group would be saved from the disaster.
- December 20. The group expects a visitor from outer space to call upon them at midnight and to escort them to a waiting spacecraft. As instructed, the group goes to great lengths to remove all metallic items from their persons. As midnight approaches, zippers, bra straps, and other objects are discarded. The group waits.
- 12:05 A.M., December 21. No visitor. Someone in the group notices that another clock in the room shows 11:55. The group agrees that it is not yet midnight.
- 12:10 A.M. The second clock strikes midnight. Still no visitor. The group sits in stunned silence. The cataclysm itself is no more than seven hours away.
- 4:00 A.M. The group has been sitting in stunned silence. A few attempts at finding explanations have failed. Mrs. Keech begins to cry.
- 4:45 A.M. Another message by automatic writing is sent to Mrs. Keech. It states, in effect, that the God of Earth has decided to spare the planet from destruction. The cataclysm has been called off: “The little group, sitting all night long, had spread so much light that God had saved the world from destruction.”
- Afternoon, December 21. Newspapers are called; interviews are sought. In a reversal of its previous distaste for publicity, the group begins an urgent campaign to spread its message to as broad an audience as possible.
Festinger stated that five conditions must be met, if someone is to become more fervent in a belief even after its disconfirmation:
- A belief must be held with deep conviction and it must have some relevance to action, that is, to what the believer does or how he behaves.
- The person holding the belief must have committed himself to it; that is, for the sake of his belief, he must have taken some important action that is difficult to undo. In general, the more important such actions are, and the more difficult they are to undo, the greater is the individual’s commitment to the belief.
- The belief must be sufficiently specific and sufficiently concerned with the real world so that events may unequivocally refute the belief.
- Such undeniable disconfirmatory evidence must occur and must be recognized by the individual holding the belief.
- The first two of these conditions specify the circumstances that will make the belief resistant to change. The third and fourth conditions together, on the other hand, point to factors that would exert powerful pressure on a believer to discard his belief. It is, of course, possible that an individual, even though deeply convinced of a belief, may discard it in the face of unequivocal disconfirmation. We must therefore, state a fifth condition specifying the circumstances under which the belief will be discarded and those under which it will be maintained with new fervor.
- The individual believer must have social support. It is unlikely that one isolated believer could withstand the kind of disconfirming evidence we have specified. If, however, the believer is a member of a group of convinced persons who can support one another, we would expect the belief to be maintained and the believers to attempt to proselyte or to persuade nonmembers that the belief is correct.