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]

[This blog is dedicated to an unnamed sociologist who lives and practices in Upstate New York. However, that person is not responsible for any of the conclusions reached herein.]

[This is Phil, blog philosopher, and I’m peeved with Larry. He knows what he did! Last week, while talking about DEA and how it works, he wandered out of his field and into my garden. That’s just not right!  I’m the guy in charge of big concepts around here, even when I don’t understand them. Lawyers have no right to toy with philosophy, or even sociology, when there’s a specialist in the wings. I thought he understood that.

You’re probably wondering what I’m talking about. Well, right now Democrats are on fire since they lost big time in the electoral sweepstakes. Not only did Donald Trump upset their favorite, Hillary Clinton; his party also retained control of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, and won a flock of state races. The elections were good to the Republicans, even though the smart money bet Republicans would destroy their party by running with Trump. Democrats thought that was more dangerous than running with scissors. Child-like Republicans should have avoided Trump.

So said the smart money, but so what? The dire predictions were all wrong. Who cares about them now? Answer: A lot of Democrats do, plus some lapsed Republicans. They don’t want to let go of their preconceptions. Significant numbers of the young see a Trump victory as a very bad sign, perhaps of the End Times; older folks think he will energize the white supremacists in the land, and drive all minorities from our shores. Frankly I don’t see that kind of bigotry in Trump; he’s a New Yorker; lives and works there, and made a lot of money there; and there’s one thing I’ve noticed about New Yorkers: they’re a mixed bunch, different races, ethnicities, religions, sexual preferences and so forth, but live together in a small area and pretty much get along. There are lots of New Yorkers, you know. Trump is probably more tolerant of people than the average denizen of Capitol Hill.

At least that’s what I think. But that’s not the real question, is it? Why do some Democrats think otherwise? Why do they double-down to oppose Trump when other people don’t believe them? Well, here’s where I think Larry got it right. He said, “That’s what happens when people in a closely-knit group suffer a major disconfirmation of a strongly held belief.[2]” It’s a social phenomenon, not necessarily connected to the truth or falsity of the underlying beliefs.

The problem is, Larry forgot to explain himself, and he could have easily done it. Three years ago G. Sallust and I published a blog on that very subject[3], and it was available to anyone – even Larry – if he had the sense to look for it. So I’m going to remedy the problem right now, by liberally quoting right here from our previous work. It’s not plagiarism if I quote myself, is it? I promise I’ll leave out as much of G. Sallust’s part as is possible. So here’s the discussion:]

When Prophecy Fails

The book is When Prophecy Fails, a study done in the mid 1950’s. Our copy came from a local library, but there are reprints available on the internet. [4] 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 a December 21st,[5] and what they did when it didn’t happen.

The authors had a theory they wanted to test. First they distinguished between consonance and dissonance. Ideas, or beliefs, are consonant if they are consistent, i.e., don’t contradict one another.  If two strong beliefs do contradict, or at least don’t fit together, then they are dissonant.[6] Generally that makes the people who hold them uncomfortable.[7] So if there’s dissonance, people try to resolve it. They try to change the dissonant beliefs, or study and find more facts that reduce the apparent dissonance, or simply drop one of the conflicting ideas.[8]

No Doomsday

The saucer cult was wrong. Its leaders predicted doomsday, and that didn’t happen. The City marked for destruction continued to exist. Obviously that created big time dissonance for the group.

When the facts go against established doctrine, sociologists call that a disconfirmation of belief – we probably would say a failure – and for the saucer cult it was a big one. Some cult members didn’t try to deny the obvious; they simply dropped out[9] and did other things. But others – those most heavily invested in cult doctrine – stayed. When Prophecy Fails is about how the true believers coped.

Secret Knowledge

Let’s back up for a moment. I don’t mean to belittle the cult’s belief system, but where did they get their information? How did they know disaster was in the offing?

Well, they had three individuals who were in touch with people from outer space, or other planes of existence; two 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[10] and a pad and write down the messages she received, seemingly without any conscious control on her part.[11] One of the cult members then collected the sheets and typed them up for distribution.[12]

The group believed aliens would save them before anything bad happened. But the aliens missed all appointments, and, of course, there was no disaster. Members reacted depending on the strength of their commitment to the group’s belief system. People who: (i) were deeply convinced, (ii) had committed in some major and irreversible way, and (iii) had support, were more likely to stay and soldier on.[13]


And what was the easiest way to do that? Well, if they couldn’t make the mistake disappear, they lessened 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.” [14] So that’s what they, the die-hard cult members, did.

The cult turned from being very reclusive, talking to non-members only by invitation, into extroverts who wanted all the media time they could get. They 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 go into the details, because they’re all spelled out in the book.


So there you have it. Applying When Prophecy Fails to the present situation, what are Progressives to do after the Trump election? Certainly committed people on the Left are not going to give up. That’s not what happens when closely-knit group with strong views is defeated. Some Democrats may want to temporize, look for compromises, revise doctrine or do other things like that. Some may, but the true believers certainly won’t. My bet is they will double down on the past, promise more of the same, and rationalize their failures. They’ll be very much on the attack for the next four years. That is, they’ll act the way Republicans did the first time they lost to Barrack Obama.

The thing is that rigid approach – opposition to all change – wasn’t really helpful to Republicans. It took Donald Trump to win them a Presidential election, and he had to defeat Republican old-timers first, and then the Democrats to do it. The realists had to take over from old line ideologues before the Republicans could get political traction.

And one final note. When Prophecy Fails is not a book about flying saucers and whether they are real. That’s irrelevant to the main thesis. The question examined was: What does an in-group do when experience contradicts some of its basic doctrine? The answer: It launches a membership drive. Otherwise, insiders don’t want to change a thing. That’s a general principle of behavior, and perhaps a universal one. It applies to the Progressive hierarchy, inbred Conservatives, saucer cultists, and just about any other small, controlling group you can imagine.

But that’s just my opinion; it’s OK to disagree; and feel free to vent. We will feel your pain.




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

[2] What’s “disconfirmation?” Check out the Wiktionary at https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/disconfirmation . For “disconfirmed expectancy,” see the Wikipedia entry at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Disconfirmed_expectancy For the classic study, read Festinger, Riecken, and Schachter When Prophecy Fails (1956). Flying saucers!

[3] See the blog of 2013/12/28, Disconfirmation of Belief, available at https://opsrus.wordpress.com/2013/12/28/disconfirma-tion-of-belief/

[4] 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

[5] The day was December 21. The year isn’t specified in the book, but obviously the catastrophe was to occur sometime before the book’s publication date, i.e., before 1956. The prediction was made in the same year the destruction was to occur.

[6] 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”

[7] For instance, Lewis Carroll said: “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).

[8] 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.”

[9] 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.”

[10] Or possibly a pencil.

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

[12] So 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 got from our pollsters and pundits this year?

[13] See the introductory discussion to Prophecy Fails at p. 4.

[14] Id at 28.