I'm sure most of you were just as surprised as I was when the world didn't end on May 21, as Harold Camping had prophesied. That is to say, you weren't surprised at all. I had actually made a prophecy of my own the previous week, although it didn't get much media attention. "Lo," I said to my wife, "the world shall not end on May 21. And when it doth not end, Harold Camping shall smite himself upon his own forehead and proclaim, 'oops, I got the date wrong.'" I was right! Admittedly, this was not a difficult prophecy to make, sort of like prophesying that the sun will come up tomorrow morning.

My next prophecy is a little more surprising, and therefore you would think I would gain some prophet credibility when it comes true. Unfortunately, that's unlikely to happen because anyone who checks into the matter will find out that this prediction is based on years of sociological and psychological research. Here it is: Harold Camping's followers, the ones who believed him, who did things like spending all their money by May 21, will not do what one would expect them to do in the coming weeks. One would expect them to say something like, "Harold Camping obviously was not the prophet I assumed him to be, and just as obviously he's just covering his ass with this ‘new date' crap." Instead, if they act like other believers who have found themselves in this position when other "world is ending" prophecies have been proved wrong, many of these followers will continue to believe that God speaks through Harold Camping. In fact, not only will they continue to believe, they will re-double their efforts to convince others to believe as well.

This was the conclusion of Leon Festinger's classic study of a prophetic movement, When Prophecy Fails. Festinger and his colleagues showed that a religious movement which formed around a woman who predicted the arrival of aliens on a particular date actually gained members after the day passed without incident. Festinger's explanation of this paradox was based on the notion of "cognitive dissonance," which has become a richly documented concept for understanding how people react to evidence that conflicts with their cherished beliefs. The flying saucer believers faced strong cognitive dissonance when their beliefs came into conflict with what actually happened in the world. They found that they could reduce this dissonance if their numbers were actually growing-that counted as evidence that the prophet was correct in her revised date (there is almost always a revised date). This made it possible for believers to hold onto the beliefs in which they had invested so much.

There is a moral to this story, something that I remind myself of often, something that I find very useful in my attempts to understand our interesting species. The moral is: Although capable of reason, humans should not be assumed to be fundamentally rational. More often than we are likely to admit, we use our powers of reason to justify ideas and actions dictated by our emotions.

To learn more, visit Peter G. Stromberg's website.  Photo by Ian W. Scott.

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