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When Prophecy Fails

When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group That Predicted the Destruction of the World is a classic work of social psychology by Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter published in 1956, which studied a small UFO religion in Chicago called the Seekers that believed in an imminent apocalypse and its coping mechanisms after the event did not occur. Festinger's theory of cognitive dissonance can account for the psychological consequences of disconfirmed expectations. One of the first published cases of dissonance was reported in this book.



Festinger and his associates read a story in their local newspaper headlined "Prophecy from Planet Clarion Call to City: Flee That Flood." The prophecy came from Dorothy Martin (1900-1992), a Chicago housewife who experimented with automatic writing.

Martin claimed to be receiving messages from superior beings from a planet she referred to as Clarion, and these messages included a prophecy that Lake City would be destroyed by a flood before dawn on December 21st. Martin had previously been involved with L. Ron Hubbard's Dianetics movement, and she incorporated ideas from what later became Scientology.

The group of believers, headed by Martin, had taken strong actions to indicate their degree of commitment to the belief. They had left their jobs, college, and spouses, and had given away money and possessions to prepare for their departure on a flying saucer which was to rescue the group of true believers. These messages claimed that the world would end in a great flood before dawn on December 21, 1954.

After the failure of the prediction, Martin was threatened with arrest and involuntary commitment, and left Chicago. She later founded the Association of Sananda and Sanat Kumara. Under the name Sister Thedra, she continued to practice channeling and participating in contactee groups until her death in 1992. The Association is active to this day.

Premise Of Study

Festinger and his colleagues saw this as a case that would lead to the arousal of dissonance when the prophecy failed. Altering the belief would be difficult, as the group were committed at considerable expense to maintain it. Another option would be to enlist social support for their belief. As Festinger wrote, "If more and more people can be persuaded that the system of belief is correct, then clearly it must after all be correct."

In this case, if the group's leader could add consonant elements by converting others to the basic premise, then the magnitude of her dissonance following disconfirmation would be reduced. Festinger and his colleagues predicted that the inevitable disconfirmation would be followed by an enthusiastic effort at proselytizing to seek social support and lessen the pain of disconfirmation.

Festinger and his colleagues contacted Martin and infiltrated her group. In order to protect her privacy, the study gave Martin the alias of "Marian Keech" and fictively relocated her group to Michigan.

Sequence Of Events

Festinger reported the following sequence of events:

* December 17. Keech received a phone call from person identifying themselves as "Captain Video" from outer space, telling her that a saucer is to land in her backyard to pick her up at 4 o'clock in the afternoon. (Festinger considers this call to have been made by a practical joker reacting to press coverage of Keech's group.) Some of the group initially questioned the call, before accepting it and preparing themselves to be collected by the saucer, removing all metal objects from their persons. By 5:30 p.m. the group appeared to have given up, and were reluctant to discuss the issue of why the saucer had not arrived. When the matter was discussed, they agreed that the event had been a practice session. Keech received another message later that day that the saucer would pick them up at 1:30 a.m. The group waited for the saucer until 3:30 a.m. then gave up.

* Before December 20. The group shuns publicity. Interviews are given only grudgingly. Access to 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 a.m. The group has been sitting in stunned silence. A few attempts at finding explanations have failed. Keech begins to cry.

* 4:45 am. Another message by automatic writing is sent to 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.

* December 24. The Christmas Eve caroling from the group started a riot of about 200 unruly spectators. The police had to be called to control the mob. The community was not happy with Keech.

* December 26. A warrant was issued for Keech and a Dr. Armstrong for several charges.


Festinger stated that five conditions must be present if someone is to become a more fervent believer after a failure or 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 or she behaves.

* The person holding the belief must have committed themself to it; that is, for the sake of their belief, they 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 individual believer must have social support. It is unlikely that one isolated believer could withstand the kind of disconfirming evidence that has been specified. If, however, the believer is a member of a group of convinced persons who can support one another, the belief may be maintained and the believers may attempt to proselytize or persuade nonmembers that the belief is correct.


Festinger's study has been strongly criticized on methodological grounds. Fernando Bermejo-Rubio summarizes them:

"To start with, When Prophecy Fails has been faulted on methodological grounds.

"The original observed phenomenon was not an uncontaminated series of events generated by a group in isolation. It was in fact mediated and studied by observers (social scientists and the press) and therefore subjected to interferences and distortions resulting from their presence. It has been remarked that often almost one-third of the membership of the group consisted of participant observers.

"More significantly, the social scientists themselves contributed to the events described.

"Furthermore, the media continually badgered the group to account for its commitment; thus, the increased proselytizing and affirmations of faith may have been influenced by media pressure.

"These conditions make it difficult to determine what might have happened if the group had been left on its own.

"A second problem is that the working hypothesis of the sociologists seems to have shaped, to a high degree, their perception of the events and the account given of the group, leading to an inaccurate report.

"That hypothesis involved identifying two phases, a period of secrecy in which the elect did not actively seek to gain followers or influence and, as a reaction to the disconfirmation of a prediction, a period of proselytizing.

"The portrayal of the group as merely based on a prediction, however, made Festinger and his colleagues overlook other dimensions (spiritual, moral, cultural) which might be crucial for the movement."

Further Reading

* Pargament, Kenneth I. (1997). The Psychology of Religion and Coping: Theory, Research, Practice. Guilford Press. pp. 150-153, 340, section: "Compelling Coping in a Doomsday Cult."

* Petty, Richard E.; John T. Cacioppo (1996). Attitudes and Persuasion: Classic and Contemporary Approaches. Westview Press. pp. 139: "Effect of Disconfirming an Important Belief."

* Prilleltensky, Isaac (1997). Critical Psychology: An Introduction. Sage Publications Inc. pp. 35, 37-38.

* Newman, Dr. David M. (2006). Sociology: Exploring the Architecture of Everyday Life. Pine Forge Press.

* Stangor, Charles (2004). Social Groups in Action and Interaction. Psychology Press. pp. 42-43: "When Prophecy Fails."


Comments welcome.


Posted on November 11, 2020

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