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Cognitive Dissonance

End of the World? Cognitive Dissonance and Harold Camping

Cognitive Dissonance and the End of the World

Minister Harold Camping gained national media attention when he declared that the world would end on Sunday. Well, I'm typing this and you are reading this, so obviously Camping was wrong. So why is he not going back on his end of the world predictions now that he has failed twice?

Cognitive dissonance arises when there is a conflict between two thoughts, or between expectations and reality. This could mean adjusting your beliefs after a behavior to match that behavior (e.g., liking someone more after helping them). This also could mean adjusting your beliefs to align with what actually happened.

In the case of Camping, he had believed that the world would end on Sunday. He had acted on behalf of this belief in a very public way that lead to a lot of criticism of him. The more someone acts on behalf of a belief (and even suffers for it), the more and more that belief becomes important to them. People think, "I have done so much for this belief. If it weren't important I wouldn't have done that." This is a basic form of dissonance reduction.

Once Camping was proven wrong - the world didn't end - he was left with the dissonance between all his behaviors and thoughts on behalf of his prediction and reality.

He alleviated his dissonance by adjusting a small part of the belief (to him), the date. The world will still end, so all his effort on behalf of the cause was not in vain (which would cause dissonance). It will just come a little later than he thought.

Camping's reaction is consistent with past research on religious cults and end of the world predictions. Most people, when the end of the world doesn't come after believing it would, become more staunch defenders of their beliefs.

This is straight out of the cognitive dissonance handbook; people in this spot, when the world doesn't end, have increased suffering/pain on behalf of the belief. This, ironically, makes them even more rigid and staunch in their beliefs. This enables them to avoid the potential dissonance between having to abandon their beliefs and the effort and pain they have already put behind them.

Camping thought the world would end, and when it didn't, to alleviate cognitive dissonance, he did not abandon his beliefs. He merely adjusted the date.

More from Nathan A Heflick Ph.D.
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