Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Festinger (et al.) on When Prophecy Fails

Being the man who more-or-less-invented "Cognitive Dissonance," Leon Festinger would surely have to qualify as one of the most influential professional psychologists of the last century.   More than that: he is also the principal co-author of an academic study that is at once original, important and compulsively readable.  That would be When Prophecy Fails, copyright 1956 and another one those short (251pp) books that I'm not going to throw away.

One might also add, "compassionate," remarkable in so many ways, not least because the project basically required the investigators to worm their way into the confidence of the subjects by stealth.  And it certainly is a subject that almost cries out for derision: a tiny band of believers who commit themselves to a project that the rest of us would regard as laughably misguided.    Worse, the inquirer observed them at their most abject: their moment of crisis when it became clear to them that their deepest and most heartfelt conviction was a barren squib.  In short, there was no flying saucer, and they were not to be led away.

The high point of the book is necessarily the chapter in which the authors discuss the long-term effects of the "disconfirmations" on the believers who were so disappointed.  The short point is that many double down: come up with reasons why it didn't happen, why it will happen next time.  Here the authors discuss the role of secrecy in the movement, before and after
By late November, the group had begun to shroud itself in a veil of secrecy.  The Armstrongs burned all copies of the lessons and, in effect, dissolved the Seekers.  These actions made effective proselyting in Collegeville very difficult, for there was no longer a central group to which interested outsiders might come.  IN Lake City, a password and a secret sign were introduced, partially as devices for identifying the chose.  These devices, combined with the admonition "speak only to those who re chosen," if rigidly followed would have made it certain that no new persons would be admitted.  Though such secrecy was not absolutely adhered to, it did clearly dominate the behavior and the attitudes of the group in the weeks preceding December 17. ... Clearly, their secrecy tended to shut them off from the outside world.

After December 21, this situation completely reversed itself as the group exposed its innermost secrets to the world, in effect saying, "See these wonderful things that have been given to us.  Do you not wish to learn more?"  ... The evidence on publicity seeking, personal proselytising, and secrecy leave no doubt that, for this group ... proselyting increased meteorically following disconfirmation.
 Amusing to reflect that this kind of "experiment" in the post-Hunter Thompson era would be conducted not by a bunch of sobersided academics, but by the occasional raffish journalist.

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