A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point…

When Prophecy Fails[1]

[I’ve been listening to a lot of CY 2013 retrospective news programs, and they’re all about politics or, more specifically, about next year’s Congressional elections. Our chattering class is presumptuous these days! Who really thinks they can predict voting outcomes a year from now? These days a year is a lifetime in politics, and the next elections are scheduled for November, 2014, not January.

Nonetheless, Conservatives are sure they can run on, and defeat the Affordable Care Act, and the President, even though they’ve tried and failed many times before. And our pundits, left and right, are sure that the Act will be the great issue of 2014. For myself, I don’t think that’s correct. There are lots of other issues that could blow next year. How about War and Peace in the Middle East? Conservatives generally give the impression that they are in favor of War over there, and don’t like peace negotiations because we can’t trust the other side, whoever they are. It’s simpler to invade and destroy.

And then there’s the problem of the Chinese. They’re going to be really big in the not too distant future. Should we negotiate with them, or just skip the formalities and declare war? Of course, that might hurt us because they are a big potential market for all that oil we’re developing in this country. And, let’s not forget, they are a nuclear power.

Skipping down the list, there are, and will be lots of poor people here in 2014. Conservatives tell us they can cure that simply be deregulating industry and turning our job creators loose to revive the economy.
They’re also going to cut back on expenditures, they say, and any new ones have to be paid for by reducing something else.

What they don’t mention, of course, is that their policies were firmly in place during the Bush years, and culminated with the Great Crash of 2008. Since then our job creators haven’t created many of them, at least in this country. Instead, they export the work that creates jobs to Asia including, you guessed it, to China. Nice of them to spread the wealth, don’t you think?

These are all obvious points, so why do our pundits ignore them when prognosticating about next year?  Phil called the other day with a possible explanation. He’s been hibernating due to the frigid weather and reading books. That’s always dangerous, but this time he stumbled across a classic study in sociology that, he says, might help us understand the current political discourse. I don’t know where this is going, but let’s hear him out anyway.]

Thanks, G. The book I’m going to talk about is When Prophecy Fails, a study that was done in the mid 1950’s. My copy came from a local library, but there are reprints available on the internet. [2]

[That’s nice, but what’s the book about? Tell us something that will pique the reader’s interest. Remember, this is a vacation week for lots of people. Some of our readers may not be concentrating.]

It’s a little early for you to be interrupting, isn’t it? Anyway, the book is about a flying saucer cult that predicted a major U.S. city would be destroyed by a great flood and upheaval on December 21,[3] and what they did when it didn’t happen.

[Flying saucer cult? Today’s political theories? OK, I’m beginning to see some similarities. Please continue.]

Don’t jump to conclusions. Anyway, the authors had a theory they wanted to test. Let’s discuss that, and the rest will fall into place. First they distinguish between consonance and dissonance. Ideas, or beliefs, are consonant if they are consistent, i.e., don’t contradict one another.  On the other hand, if two strong beliefs do contradict, or at least don’t fit together, then they are dissonant.[4]

[That doesn’t sound good. If I have contradictory ideas bouncing around in my head, I get really uncomfortable. I try to work it out. Although not everybody reacts the same.[5]]

Well, the folks who wrote When Prophecy Fails agree with you. They say that when there is dissonance, people try to resolve it. They either try to change one of their dissonant beliefs or opinions, or study and find more facts that reduce the apparent dissonance, or forget one or another of the dissonant ideas.[6]

In the case of the flying saucer cult, the dissonance was plain and simple. They had predicted doomsday for December 21st, and it didn’t happen. In the jargon of the sociologist, that’s called disconfirmation. How does one fix that? The facts were clear. The City marked for destruction still existed. For most people, it’s not really possible to deny failure when that kind of prediction is wrong.[7]

Some, of course, could simply drop out of the movement, and some did. But others, more dedicated, stayed, and chose a different course.

[Phil, I don’t know where you’re going with this, but I’d like to back up for a moment and talk a little bit more about this cult. I don’t mean to belittle their belief system, but where did they get their information? For instance, how did they know there would be a disaster in their area on December 21st?]

Ah, well, they had three individuals who were in touch with people from outer space, or other planes of existence; two of them relayed messages orally, i.e., went into a trance and repeated what they were told; the third practiced automatic writing. She would sit down with a pen[8] and a pad and write down the messages she received, seemingly without any conscious control on her part.[9] One of the cult members then collected the sheets and typed them up for distribution.

[That’s interesting. Is there also a form of automatic talking? You know, unconscious talking that channels messages from other planes of existence? Could that be the kind of thing we’re actually getting these days on AM Talk Radio?]

I don’t know. Anyway, the group also thought that the aliens would save them before any disaster. But the aliens missed all appointments, and, of course, the disaster didn’t happen.

When Prophecy Fails says in general that a group member’s reaction to a major disconfirmation – like the failure of a doomsday prediction – depends in part on his or her commitment to the group’s belief system. If he (or she) (i) is deeply convinced of the beliefs, (ii) has committed in some major and irreversible way, and (iii) has social support, such people are likely to go to great lengths to resist the dissonance created by their failed prediction.[10]

[And how do they do that?]

Why that’s easy. If you can’t make the dissonance created by your failed prediction go away, you lessen its importance by making converts. “If more and more people can be persuaded that the system of belief is correct, then clearly it must, after all, be correct. …If the proselyting proves successful, then by gathering more adherents and effectively surrounding himself with supporters, the believer reduces dissonance to the point where he can live with it.” [11]

[And that’s what happened in the case of the flying saucer cult?]

Yes indeed, they went from being a very reclusive group, who would talk to non-members only by invitation, to extroverts who wanted all the media time they could get, and went to great lengths to explain their belief system to anyone who would listen. That ended only when the group broke up and disappeared. I won’t get into the details, because they’re all spelled out in the book.

[This was interesting, Phil, and thanks a lot. And in spite of my snide comments, that some might interpret as equating Conservatives with flying saucer cultists, I really don’t have that low an opinion of people on the Right. Some of my best friends are Conservatives, and sometimes I actually agree with them. But I think the book you uncovered, When Prophecy Fails, is an interesting piece of social science, and helps explain how groups survive and prosper, even in the face of profound reversals of fortune. Rather than changing their beliefs, some lessen the pain of dissonance by becoming more rigid and converting others to their views.

So the moral of the story is, when the facts are against you, and your predictions fail, redouble your efforts to convert the unbeliever. That’s not exactly a search for the truth, if you know what I mean; but I’m sure it’s very effective in raising funds. These days, money is all you need to be important in politics.]



[1] See Festinger, Riecken & Schachter, When Prophecy Fails (U. of Minnesota Press, 1956). Hereafter, this will be cited as Prophecy Fails.

[2] See note 1. Some say this is a classic in sociology. It’s a great read. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a free online version. However, reprints are available from Amazon. For this blog the Zoo borrowed a copy of the original via an inter-library loan

[3] The day was December 21. The year isn’t specified in the book, but judging from the book’s publication date, the catastrophe was to occur some time before 1956. The prediction was made in the same year that the catastrophe was to occur.

[4] See Prophecy Fails at p. 25-26. “Two opinions, or beliefs or items of knowledge are dissonant with each other if they do not fit together – that is, they are inconsistent, or if, considering only the particular two items, one does not follow from the other”

[5] For instance, Lewis Carroll. “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” See Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (6th Edition) (2004) at Lewis Carroll, p. 195, n. 12. The quote is from Through the Looking Glass (1872).

[6] See Prophecy Fails at p. 26: “Dissonance produces discomfort and, correspondingly, there will arise pressures to reduce or eliminate dissonance…Such attempts may take any or all of three forms. The person may try to change one or more of the beliefs, opinions or behaviors involved in the dissonance, to acquire new information or beliefs that will increase the existing consonance and thus cause the total dissonance to be reduced; or to forget or reduce the importance of those cognitions that are in a dissonant relationship.”

[7] See Prophecy Fails at p. 27: “Alternatively, the dissonance will be reduced or eliminated if the members of a movement effectively blind themselves to the fact that the prediction has not been fulfilled. But most people, including members of such movements, are in touch with reality and cannot simply blot out of their cognition of such an unequivocal and undeniable fact. They can try to ignore it, however, and they usually do try.”

[8] Or possibly a pencil.

[9] Want to know more about this technique? Check Wikipedia on “Automatic Writing”  at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Automatic_writing

[10] See the introductory discussion in Prophecy Fails at p. 4.

[11] See Prophecy Fails  at p. 28.