Sunday, May 22, 2011

Apocalypse No

May 21 has come and gone, and we're still here. Apparently Harold Camping misinterpreted something in the Bible. Imagine that -- somebody misinterpreted the Bible.

Anyway, since the dis-confirmation of his doomsday prediction, Camping has gone missing, deserting his followers. This very predictable situation leaves reporters asking, "What will Camping's faithful believers do now?" But we can make some pretty good guesses based on history and social psychology.

A few days ago I started reading When Prophecy Fails by psychologists Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter. The book serves as a sort of field test of Festinger's theory of cognitive dissonance. In 1954, when the book was first published, cognitive dissonance was a brilliant new theory of human behavior. Now, it has pretty much propagated its way into our pop culture. However, even after 57 years, the book remains a relevant and entertaining study.

From the start, Festinger explains that two beliefs are dissonant with each other if they do not fit together or are inconsistent. Dissonance produces discomfort, and a person experiencing such discomfort may do a few things to alleviate it: change one or more beliefs, acquire new knowledge or beliefs that will increase consonance, or reduce the importance of the information that produces the dissonance.

The failure of Camping's prediction likely creates such dissonance in his followers. If the prophecy wasn't true, how can they believe the rest of the ideology? And what about all the preparations like spending life savings, quitting jobs or abandoning all possessions? If the prophecy was a big part of their lives, then the dissonance will be strong.

A non-believer assumes the followers will discard the belief, but this is not always true. Instead what we'll likely see is a common pattern where the believers recover their convictions and resume proselyting with new enthusiasm. USA Today reports that "
Many followers said the delay was a further test from God to persevere in their faith." It doesn't sound like they're giving up on anything.

I have yet to finish reading When Prophecy Fails, but their study involves a slightly different breed of doomsday zealots: a small group with a sci-fi belief system centered around a woman who channels messages from aliens. It's entertaining so far, but -- spoiler alert -- I heard that the world doesn't come to an end.


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