The Human Beast

Why we do what we do

When the world won't end

"Two-thirds of end-of-the-world cults fail in their first year" Anonymous

End-of-the-world predictions are very much in the air between the dreaded 12/12/12 date and the Mayan calendar running out. Cults proclaiming that the end is nigh are dangerous to their members. That is why the cults themselves fail along with their prophecies.

Anticipating the destruction of the earth is a feature of many religions and the notion of destruction by a worldwide flood crops up in the mythologies of people around the globe. Yet, established religions are vague about precise dates – for good reason.

Behaving as though the would is about to end next Tuesday after lunch is courting personal disaster. The cult member makes drastic changes and must live with the consequences after the anticipated apocalypse fails to arrive. Cults that place such heavy burdens on their members cannot survive or develop into mainstream religions (1).

When the world wouldn’t end in Chicago

This tragic mistake has unfolded throughout history for countless doomsday cults, including one in Chicago that was studied closely by social psychologists posing as members (2).

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Imagine that you have just resigned from your job. You have sold your house. All of the proceeds, along with your other money has been given away. You have given away your car. Your net worth is reduced to the clothes in which you stand. The zipper has been yanked out of your pants, which are now suspended with a length of rope. The metal eyelets have been ripped out of your shoes.

These activities of real people in Chicago seem insane - unless you happen to believe that a terrible flood is about to drown all the terrestrial inhabitants of planet earth. A chosen few, members of the cult you are fortunate enough to have joined, will be whisked off in a spaceship - provided that they are not wearing any metal objects.

What if you have taken irreversible steps and made elaborate preparations and the world fails to end on the appointed day? This is what social psychologists Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter, of the University of Minnesota, aimed to discover. Accepted as members of a Chicago doomsday cult, which flourished in the 1950's, they hunkered down to await The End (2).

According to the prophecies of one of the group's leaders, (given the pseudonym Mrs. Marian Keech), the group was to be rescued in flying saucers precisely at midnight, seven hours before the apocalyptic end of life on earth. After midnight passed without event, the group spent an anxious night sitting up mulling over what could have gone wrong.

As the spaceship failed to appear, and the world failed to end, they were more than a little disillusioned. They had wasted their possessions for naught.

Then at 4:45, Mrs Keech's hand began transcribing through "automatic writing" a message from above. AThe little group, sitting alone all night long, had spread so much light that God had saved the world from destruction.

While ingenious, this account failed to satisfy all of the cult members. One simply got up, put on his hat and coat, and left, never to return. Shortly afterwards, Mrs. Keech transcribed another message which instructed the group to publicize the fact that they had saved the world. This elicited a better reaction, galvanizing the group into action as publicists and proselytizers, even though they had previously been highly secretive and refused to talk to reporters.

Since this classic study, we have seen the rise and fall of many other doomsday cults including some that garnered a lot of publicity, such as Jonestown with its poisoned Kool Aid; David Koresh=s group that perished by fire in Waco Texas; and the Heaven=s Gate sect that revived a monastic tradition of castration.

Sects that damage the Darwinian interests of their members soon lose adherents. They are removed from the face of the earth by natural selection (1). Established religions minimize the damage by being vague about dates.

It might seem logical that some end-of-the-world cult has to be correct eventually. Yet, I doubt it. After all none of them had anything to say about the Cuban missile crisis when President Kennedy walked the world back from nuclear apocalypse.

1. Barber, N. (2012). Why atheism will replace religion: The triumph of earthly pleasures over pie in the sky. E-book, available at: http://www.amazon.com/Atheism-Will-Replace-Religion-ebook/dp/B008...

2. Cialdini, Robert B. (1988). Influence: Science and practice (2nd ed. pp. 115-122). Glenview, IL: Scott Foresman.

Nigel Barber, Ph.D., is an evolutionary psychologist as well as the author of Why Parents Matter and The Science of Romance, among other books.

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