When prophecy fails

I glance at the sky for signs of anything unusual. Just a while ago, the noontime sky was slightly overcast. Now, a steady breeze is whooshing in from the northeast and is all but dispelling the low-hanging clouds. The sun is out, and I am starting to regret that I woke up too late this morning to go motorcycling or bird-watching.

It’s the 21st of December as I write this, the day the world is supposed to come to an end. It’s not clear how this cataclysm is supposed to happen. Some say a gigantic asteroid hurtling through space at incredible speed will hit the earth anytime today. The force of its impact may equal the power of a million nuclear bombs, enough to wipe out all forms of life on this planet. This morning I watched a young woman on local television read a gloomy goodbye letter to her loved ones in anticipation of doomsday. The camera showed her sauntering along Manila Bay as if in a daze. I secretly wished she would not decide to preempt the appointed hour by jumping into the water.

All this sounds eerily familiar. It is not the first time the world has been prophesied to end on Dec. 21. “Cognitive dissonance,” I muttered to myself, as I scoured my library for the groundbreaking book that had made a deep impression on me as an undergraduate major in sociology in the early 1960s. The book, published in 1956, was authored by the famous social psychologist, Leon Festinger. I am borrowing its wonderful title “When prophecy fails” for my column today. Now a classic, the book was based on a fascinating study of a group of individuals in the United States who were brought together by a shared belief that the world was coming to an end on precisely this day—Dec. 21.

Festinger and his coauthors, Henry W. Riecken and Stanley Schachter, argued that people with very strong convictions, who have made alterations in their lives in accordance with these beliefs, tend to remain unshakeable in their convictions even when subsequent events prove these wrong. Instead of causing them to retreat in embarrassment, the disconfirmation makes them only more steadfast in their convictions, to the point of spurring them to proselytize and bring in new believers. How does one explain this?

When events do not confirm one’s beliefs or expectations, writes Festinger, we have what is called “cognitive dissonance.” “Dissonance produces discomfort and, correspondingly, there will arise pressures to reduce or eliminate the dissonance…. 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.”

All this seems commonsensical. What the theory is saying is simply that people will try to manage the inconsistency between their beliefs and their perception of reality by either changing their belief or redescribing reality, or by getting new information to reconcile them, or by merely minimizing the importance of the dissonance. The crucial point—and here Festinger leaves an enduring mark on the study of religious movements—is where he explains the circumstances under which any attempt to reduce cognitive dissonance is successful or unsuccessful. Group support is essential. “In the absence of such support,” says Festinger, “the most determined efforts to reduce dissonance may be unsuccessful.”

The isolated individual will often crumble in the face of disconfirmation of firmly-held convictions. But not when he is among fellow believers. In the case of the Lake City group that Festinger and his team studied, the failure of prophecy—i.e., that the world would end on Dec. 21—led to the dissolution of the community that had begun to gel around some of the leaders. Why? None of them had any organizing skills. As they waited to be rescued by aliens on space ships, the media pounced on the leaders, and the neighbors began to complain of the alarm they were creating. Had there been even just one determined figure among these doomsayers, the dissonance produced by the failure of the world to come to an end on the appointed day would not have necessarily scuttled the group. A new religious cult would have been born.

Indeed, most prophesies about the end of the world, or the advent of a new one, do not give a specific date. This insulates them from tests of fallibility. But even when they expose themselves to being proven wrong, the fervor they generate does not easily wane in the face of disappointment. Festinger cites the Millerite movement that arose in mid-19th-century America. William Miller, a farmer from New England, was so gripped by the apocalyptic tone of the Book of Daniel that he closeted himself for years to decipher the Bible’s hidden messages. Taking off from Daniel 8:14, “Unto two thousand and three hundred days, then shall the sanctuary be cleansed,” Miller arrived at the conclusion that Christ’s Second Coming would take place in 1843. He reckoned that the “days” meant years, and that the counting began from around 457 B.C., when the prophecy was uttered.

As 1843 drew near, the Millerites grew in number. But more skeptics also scoffed at them. Miller was prompted to be more specific about the date and came up with March 21, 1844. The world as we know it certainly did not end on that day. “But in spite of the failure of the prophecy, the fires of fanaticism increased…. Instead of decreasing, the failure seemed to excite even greater exhibitions of loyalty to the expectation of the impending Judgment Day.”

Merry Christmas!

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