When Prophecy Fails

Mikael Askergren © 2012

Some time in the beginning of the Cold War fifties, somewhere in the American Midwest, a bored housewife gets the idea that aliens from the planet Clarion are communicating with her on a regular basis.

For years she has taken an interest in the paranormal and has invested a lot of time and commitment in studying esotericism, Scientology and spiritualism. This commitment pays off when she discovers messages from distant solar systems sneaking into texts that she has started writing. She begins to take down everything that comes to her mind (what the Surrealists would have called automatic writings).

The messages from the planet Clarion include sensational predictions about the future. To her great and sincere surprise, she is informed by the Clarionians that the North American continent will, within a not too distant future, perish in a terrible flood. She is, however, consoled by the aliens, who claim that some earthlings—among them herself—will be rescued by a spaceship on the night before the catastrophe.

She begins to talk about her extra-terrestrial contacts with like-minded esoterics among her acquaintances. Thus the reputation of her abilities is spread and eventually, through friends of friends, she is brought into contact with a small group of UFO fanatics who remain her devote followers—to the bitter end.

By chance, a group of social psychologists at a major American university come across the cult connected to her. In When Prophecy Fails, a book that they will later write about the woman and the UFO cult around her person, she is called Marian Keech, or simply Mrs. Keech (this is not her real name). The research team, a trio made up by Leon Festinger, Henry W. Riecken and Stanley Schachter, make a fast decision to infiltrate the UFO cult in order to observe it from within. Their ambition is to become full members so as to be able to make comprehensive observations. These observations prove to confirm and support the Theory of Cognitive Dissonance that the research team has been working on for some time.

But there is not much time. They have barely three months to infiltrate the group and gain the trust of the group members as well as to make observations on the group dynamics. Despite the rush, the team succeed beyond expectation. They are received with open arms when they approach the cult from different directions.

Mr. Keech is a man with both feet on the ground, according to the authors of the book, who shows endless patience as well as carefree indifference with his wife’s esoteric claims. On the 20th of December, the night of the anticipated catastrophe, he goes to bed at nine o’clock as usual. Mr. Keech is fully aware that their house is full of people who are seriously and frightfully awaiting the end of the world and the arrival of a space ship. (However, neither Mr. nor Mrs. Keech is aware that some of Mrs Keech’s guests that night are scientist secretly studying the UFO cult at close proximity.)

According to Mrs. Keech, the Clarionians have announced that the spaceship will land exactly at midnight on the night between the 20th and the 21st of December. The belief of the cult is depending on the fact that the spaceship will arrive and that it will be landing at that point in time. Several members of the group have severed all ties with the secular world, burnt their bridges, no longer have a place to live, have given away everything they owned and resigned from their work, or been dismissed.

If the spaceship fails to arrive to rescue them, where will they go? How do you react in a situation when everything you believe in is lost, how do you react when prophecy fails?

The Theory of Cognitive Dissonance predicts, among other things, that when an individual or a group of individuals that have invested faith and commitment to a prophecy of some kind and this prophecy for some reason does not hold true, the faith initially—paradoxically—becomes enhanced (!) and the believer or believers in question become even more dedicated (!) to their cult. This is precisely what happens in the group around Mrs. Keech.

No spaceship lands at midnight on the night between the 20th and the 21st of December. No catastrophic flood arrives in the hours that follow. Hours pass and the cult members are grasping at straws in order to understand what went wrong. When Prophecy Fails gives an objective and distanced description of how the members of the cult seemed confused and despairing in the hours that followed the predicted spaceship landing, wandering to and fro, unable to clearly see what has happened (or, rather, not happened).

However, at dawn an event takes place, rescuing the existence and self-confidence of the group. Mrs. Keech receives another message in automatic writing. This time, though, the message is not from the Claronians, but, lo and behold, from God himself. God has been touched by the strong faith among the cult members and by the light that their belief has spread across the world. As a reward he has decided to save the world from destruction.

All those present (especially Mrs. Keech herself, who believes as strongly in her own abilities as do the members of her cult) receive this new message from above with excitement and joy. With the exception of one person, who thus apparently has had enough and gets up and leaves, never to return. The remaining members of the group grow more close-knit, devoted and excited than ever in order to confirm each other in their faith: not only have they done the right thing in joining the group and investing so much time and effort in preparing mentally for the end of the world as well as for a new existence on a distant planet, they have also managed to save the world from destruction.

As expected, the research team get to observe the activity of members of the cult exploding, as a result of this confirmation of the righteousness of their common belief and intellectual investment. Mrs. Keech, who has never previously initiated any contacts with media, throws herself on the phone in order to get hold of a reporter. They have a conversation or, rather, the reporter is bestowed the privilege of listening to a long monologue about all the wonderful things that have occurred during the night, and God’s intervention in particular.

The other members follow her example and also throw themselves on the phone taking turns to call all the broadcasting stations and news agencies thinkable. The mood is excited and elevated. Having been withdrawn and reserved, keeping a sort of dignified distance to the secular world, the members become increasingly extrovert and shameless over the days to come. This exhibitionism culminates on Christmas Eve, on December 24, with the members, unashamed and without self-criticism, singing Christmas carols in the neighborhood—to the delight of journalists and television cameras, but to the neighbors’ aggravation.

The Keech family is reported to the police. The police notify Mr. Keech that if he does not make a greater effort to constrain his wife and her friends, they may have to intervene. They also imply that Mrs. Keech might be taken into care and placed in a mental institution. When Mr. Keech conveys the intentions of the police to his wife and the other cult members an, in the context, irrational and exaggerated panic (or perhaps a motivated one) erupts. Faced with the sudden threat of being arrested, the cult members disperse in different directions. Mrs. Keech is suddenly on Christmas morning, for the first time in a long time, alone with her husband in their small house in the suburbs.

Thus the group/sect/cult is broken up for good, physically and spiritually—with the exception of one member who, at the time of the release of the book about Mrs. Keech’s and her friends’ adventures in outer space in 1965, is still traveling around the country talking to congregations interested in UFOs.

Cognitive Dissonance and Religion

The book about the cult around Mrs. Keech is not only fascinating reading, it is a pleasure to read. The subject itself is obviously enough to make a fascinating text, but Festinger et al. also write stylistically well and their arguments remain convincing and sharp. The authors also manage to describe the full course of events without once becoming condescending towards Mrs. Keech and her followers.

Personally, I have only one objection: it does not take long before the reader begins to compare the cult of Mrs. Keech with the disciples around Jesus and the crucifixion with its (the UFO cult’s) failed space trip. The originally narrowly defined and introvert cult around Jesus turns into aggressive outreach and proselytizing Christianity as a direct response to cognitive dissonance among the disciples in the aftermath of the great disappointment over their leaders shameful and painful—and disconcerting—execution.

But Festinger et al. are careful not to draw this parallel with the origins of the Christian church. They prevent any such interpretations of their material by arguing against it. They argue that it cannot be established once and for all that the execution of Jesus would have been a disconfirmation of a certain prophecy, by claiming that several theologians believe that the disciples already knew that their leader would die an agonizing death when riding to Jerusalem on a donkey—and that this death by crucifixion thus, according to these theologians, would be the confirmation of a prophecy (rather than the disconfirmation).

I do not buy this argument. The crucifixion was obviously nothing but a disaster for the cult of Jesus. The claiming of the opposite by the Christian church is obviously a reconstruction after the event [efterkonstruktion]. The triumph of the Christian church across the world does not in itself prove that the crucifixion was an expression of the will of God, but rather serves as evidence of the power of the psychological mechanism that Festinger et al. called cognitive dissonance.

Essay by Mikael Askergren first published in contemporary art review Supermarket Magazine, Stockholm, Sweden, issue #2-2012.
The text published in Supermarket Magazine is based on an earlier blog post by Mikael Askergren (2011) which was edited (by Izabella Borzecka) and then translated from Swedish into English (by Bongi MacDermott) for Supermarket Magazine.
Further reading by Leon Festinger et al.:
When Prophecy Fails
A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance
Cognitive Consequences of Forced Compliance
More by Mikael Askergren about cognitive dissonance:
Meat and Morality
Monarchy Rules
More by Mikael Askergren about religion:
Why Religion Facilitates Crime and Immorality

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