The Good Life

Positive psychology and what makes life worth living.

When Prophecy Fails: The Sequel

We can't learn if we're never wrong.

As an Internet surfer, you no doubt heard the prophecy that the world would end Saturday May 21, 2011, at 6:00 PM - local time, wherever you happened to be. Apparently this was to be a rolling end of the world that would take some five months to play out, perhaps because of associated red tape and bureaucracy. Anyway, the end of the world didn't happen, or at least it didn't start to happen, except perhaps for the Oklahoma City Thunder, who lost an ugly game in the NBA playoffs to fall behind the Dallas Mavericks 2-1 in their best of seven series.

Last Friday at work, I had some hallway conversations about the end of the world with students and colleagues in the Department of Psychology at the University of Michigan. These were light-hearted conversations with predictable jokes. But then one of my younger students remarked, "Psychologists should study this kind of thing. What's going to happen to the members of the group making this prediction?"

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Even though it was late Friday afternoon, I could not pass up the opportunity to give a lecture. I started by saying, "Psychologists have studied this kind of thing, in the 1950s. Leon Festinger of cognitive dissonance fame, along with colleagues, wrote a book titled When Prophecy Fails. It was an extended case study of a religious group predicting the end of the world on a specific date, after which the faithful would be taken by aliens in a flying saucer to another planet.

"When the doom's day passed, what happened? The group members did not shrug their shoulders and say, ‘Oh well.' Rather, they made sense of the failed prophecy by concluding that their piety had been recognized and indeed had saved the rest of humanity. Members of the group redoubled their efforts to recruit new members.

"I assume that stopped at some point, but nevertheless, in this case study, we have a striking example of the phenomenon of cognitive consistency studied by Festinger and other social psychologists, usually in less dramatic laboratory experiments with college student research participants. People will go to great lengths to maintain consistency among their beliefs, even when they prove to be blatantly wrong."

So, we can predict - if nothing else - that those who sincerely believed the world would end on May 21, 2011, will likely make sense of the failed prophecy, and that they will probably not do so by saying that they were mistaken.

With the exception of Godfather Part II, sequels rarely attract as much attention as whatever came before in a series, but I suspect that this most recent end of the world prophecy is already better known than the 1950s prophecy examined by Festinger and his colleagues. The Internet* and 24-hour news shows guarantee this. So let's make this recent event a teachable moment, because failed prophecies do not just entail the end of the world.

We hear prophecies all of the time, from political, economic, and sports pundits; from psychologists (including me) who write about how to be happy and healthy; and from people in the course of their mundane lives, anytime they order an entree, buy a car, or start a new job. Sometimes these prophecies - predictions, forecasts, expectations, whatever we term them - prove to be wrong.

How many folks acknowledge that they were mistaken when the ensuing facts stare them in the face? Some do, but many don't. Indeed, a politician who acknowledges a failed prophecy is branded a waffler, as if being consistent were more important than being realistic.

We can't learn if we're never wrong. That's not a prophecy - that's the truth.

* I just did a google search for "end of the world" and found 462 million hits!

Reference

Festinger, L., Riecken, H. W., & Schachter, S. (1956). When prophecy fails: A social and psychological study of a modern group that predicted the destruction of the world. University of Minnesota Press.

Christopher Peterson was professor of psychology at the University of Michigan.

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