This blog is no longer being updated. About this blog.

Mistakes Were Made

Does this scenario seem familiar?

Half a century ago, a young social psychologist named Leon Festinger and two associates infiltrated a group of people who believed the world would end on December 21. They wanted to know what would happen to the group when (they hoped!) the prophecy failed. The group’s leader, whom the researchers called Marian Keech, promised that the faithful would be picked up by a flying saucer and elevated to safety at midnight on December 20. Many of her followers quit their jobs, gave away their homes, and dispersed their savings, waiting for the end. Who needs money in outer space? Others waited in fear or resignation in their homes. (Mrs. Keech’s own husband, a nonbeliever, went to bed early and slept soundly through the night as his wife and her followers prayed in the living room.) Festinger made his own prediction: The believers who had not made a strong commitment to the prophecy—who awaited the end of the world by themselves at home, hoping they weren’t going to die at midnight—would quietly lose their faith in Mrs. Keech. But those who had given away their possessions and were waiting with the others for the spaceship would increase their belief in her mystical abilities. In fact, they would now do everything they could to get others to join them.

At midnight, with no sign of a spaceship in the yard, the group felt a little nervous. By 2 a.m., they were getting seriously worried. At 4:45 a.m., Mrs. Keech had a new vision: The world had been spared, she said, because of the impressive faith of her little band. “And mighty is the word of God,” she told her followers, “and by his word have ye been saved—for from the mouth of death have ye been delivered and at no time has there been such a force loosed upon the Earth. Not since the beginning of time upon this Earth has there been such a force of Good and light as now floods this room.”

The group’s mood shifted from despair to exhilaration. Many of the group’s members, who had not felt the need to proselytize before December 21, began calling the press to report the miracle, and soon they were out on the streets, buttonholing passersby, trying to convert them. Mrs. Keech’s prediction had failed, but not Leon Festinger’s.

(Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), via The Situationist)

Quite a few prophecies have failed, yet people still believe. We’ve expected Jesus to come again for two thousand years, for example. It seems like people have been saying “any day now” forever, at least since the day he died.

Why don’t we collectively say “You know what, we were wrong. Christ really isn’t coming.”? Even if Christ really is coming (the big tease), disbelief would be a reasonable reaction after two millennia of disappointment. Why does the biggest failed (so far?) prophecy in history fail to cause widespread disbelief?

One reason is cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is the discomfort we feel when there are two conflicting beliefs fighting it out in our minds. For example, if I believe myself to be an honest person, but I cheat on my taxes, this conflicting information will cause cognitive dissonance. I will probably do one of two things: I could either stop cheating on my taxes, or I could rationalize my dishonesty, perhaps by saying that I worked hard for my money and I deserve it.

The engine that drives self-justification, the energy that produces the need to justify our actions and decisions — especially the wrong ones — is an unpleasant feeling that Festinger called “cognitive dissonance.” Cognitive dissonance is a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent, such as “Smoking is a dumb thing to do because it could kill me” and “I smoke two packs a day.” Dissonance produces mental discomfort, ranging from minor pangs to deep anguish; people don’t rest easy until they find a way to reduce it. In this example, the most direct way for a smoker to reduce dissonance is by quitting. But if she has tried to quit and failed, now she must reduce dissonance by convincing herself that smoking isn’t really so harmful, or that smoking is worth the risk because it helps her relax or prevents her from gaining weight (and after all, obesity is a health risk, too), and so on. Most smokers manage to reduce dissonance in many such ingenious, if self-deluding, ways. (Ibid.)

In the case of the Second Coming, we don’t want to believe that we could be duped. “I’m not the kind of person who could fall for silly stuff like horoscopes, crystals, doomsday cults, and the like. But Christianity is different. Christianity is real. If it weren’t, I would see right through it because I’m not easily fooled.”

Personally, I have spent a lot of time in my life telling people that I knew that Joseph Smith is a prophet of God, that Jesus loves us, and God has a plan for our lives. I spent two years doing this full time. I spent countless hours saying this and hearing it repeated in church services. Much of my life has been spent inside the walls of a church. I estimate that I’ve spent at least one full year of my life in church meetings. The church received 10% of my earnings before taxes, my whole life, every last penny. After committing so much time and energy to my beliefs, it was uncomfortable to think that I’d sacrificed all that for a lie.

I’m no fool, or so I like to tell myself. If my beliefs were false, then I’d have realized it a long time ago. False prophecies? You’re reading them wrong. Polygamy? It was God’s will. Racism? Talk to God ’cause I didn’t make the rules. Christianity borrowed from previous mythologies? No, the mythologies borrowed from Christianity. Contradictions in Holy Scripture? Errors in translation. Unanswered prayers? Maybe the answer was “No” or “Wait”, or maybe you weren’t faithful enough for God to speak to you.

I rationalized from morning till night. Evidence against my beliefs surrounded me. I constantly battled to preserve my self image as an intelligent, independent thinker. The truth was that I spent my intelligence in rationalization and followed like a sheep because I was too proud to admit that I didn’t see the Emperor’s clothes. I was the very thing I pretended not to be. I held on to my beliefs kicking and screaming until I was forced to see their absurdity.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. Jonathan Blake said,

    September 20, 2007 @ 4:03 pm

    If I had to confess to one bit of cognitive dissonance in my life, it is that I don’t want to believe that I still think like I did as a believer. Yet I still react in some of the negative, judgmental ways that hindered me when I was a theist. I want to believe that I’m getting better.

  2. mel said,

    September 20, 2007 @ 7:06 pm

    Interestingly the potential loss of investment follows the arrow of time in both directions and much further than the eye can see, particularly in Mormonism. They sometimes say that finding faith is a miracle, but really it’s nothing compared to the miracle of losing faith.

    Great post, Jonathan. Thanks.

  3. Jonathan Blake said,

    September 20, 2007 @ 7:30 pm

    Well put, Mel. I would consider the loss of our faith as a miracle. I’m glad that I’m not sinking costs down that hole anymore.

    Regarding sunk costs when considering a decision is irrational. We can’t recover sunk costs, by definition, so we should ignore them and face the future.

RSS feed for comments on this post