When Prophecy Fails
The study by Festinger et al. (1956):
Predicting doomsday is a risky business:
The prophecy mostly fails.
Astonishingly, cults predicting doomsday do not
necessarily collapse, but may begin to
propagate their belief and convert others, as
the Montanists of second-century Turkey or the
Anabaptists of sixteenth-century Holland.
Contributor
© POSbase 2005
When Prophecy Fails
The leader modern-day doomsday cult told that
she received a message that a flood will destroy
earth on a certain day, but that believers in the
cult will be saved by aliens in flying saucers at
midnight.
Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley
Schachter, three psychologists at the University of
Minnesota, decided to join the cult and to observe
what happened after failure of the prophecy.
© POSbase 2005
When Prophecy Fails
On the expected doomsday, the cult members sat
down, prayed, and waited for the aliens. As they
approached midnight, suspense increased, but
nothing happened. Towards dawn, it was clear to
the members that the prophecy failed, and the cult
was near dissolution.
Then came the decisive moment:
© POSbase 2005
When Prophecy Fails
The leader of the doomsday cult raised her arm
and wrote down a message that she told she just
got from the aliens:
“The little group, sitting alone all night long, had
spread so much light that God had saved the
world from destruction.”
However, this alone was not enough; another
ingredient was needed:
© POSbase 2005
When Prophecy Fails
The leader called a newspaper in order to
publicize the success. All of a sudden, the other
members felt an urge, too, to go public with their
story: They have saved earth through their
prayers.
Why did people continue to believe in the cult, and
some people even become stronger in their belief,
although its’ prediction evidently failed?
Let us read what two members said :
© POSbase 2005
When Prophecy Fails
A mother with a three year-old child in her
arms:
“I have to believe the flood is coming on
the twenty-first because I’ve spent all my
money. I quit my job, I quit my computer
school … I have to believe.”
© POSbase 2005
When Prophecy Fails
A leading member of the cult:
“I’ve had to go a long way. I’ve given up just
about everything. I’ve cut every tie. I’ve burnt
every bridge. I’ve turned my back on the world. I
can’t afford to doubt. I have to believe. And there
isn’t any other truth.”
Both members argue with what their beliefs has
cost them; they commit the sunk-cost fallacy.
© POSbase 2005
When Prophecy Fails
There are several theories that can explain why members even
intensified their belief in the cult:

The failure of the prediction led to cognitive dissonance.
Believing that the cult saved the world and propagating this
message served to reduce dissonance.

Self-perception theory: They observe what they do and see
that they propagate the message, so that they endorse their
own belief.

Self-affirmation theory: People need to be affirmed and
therefore act in a way that maintains their self-worth.
© POSbase 2005