What Happens When The World Doesn't End

Posted on Dec 21, 2012
Last week marked the end of the Mayan long count calendar, which many believed signalled the end of the world. Believers had very high confidence that the world would end, and some even prepared by buying bunkers or murdering their pets.

But what happens when doomsday predictions don't come true?

We don't need to look back very far to examine behaviour following a failed doomsday prediction. In 2011, Minister Harold Camping predicted the world would end on May 21, 2011. After Family Radio publicized his convincing numerology-based bible interpretation across the USA, many followers began to believe that end times were approaching.

Of course, the world did not end on May 21, 2011, and Camping and his followers were left in a sticky mental place. Their fervently held beliefs were at odds with a cold hard reality - a disharmonious mental state that is likely to manifest itself as anxiety, embarassment, frustration, and even anger.

If the human brain were a strictly logical device, believers would admit their error in the wake of a failed prophecy. They would adapt their beliefs, and move on with their life. But this is rarely the case. In fact, believers often adopt a modified version of the original prophecy, and latch on to it with even more zeal.

Minister Camping did exactly that when faced with the reality of his failed prophecy. Less than a week after his original dooms-day prediction had passed, he stated publicly that May 21 had been a "spiritual" day of judgment, and that the physical rapture would occur on October 21, 2011. Of course, the world did not end then either, and Minister Camping became plagued by health problems which were no doubt exasperated by the stress he felt.

Psychologists have studied this phenomenon and have developed a theory to explain why people behave this way. Cognitive dissonance theory describes what happens in our brain when we try to reconcile two conflicting ideas. In the case of failed prophecies, a deeply engrained religious belief is at odds with the current situation. The person will experience a deeply distressing, unbalanced state of mind until one side gives way.

Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter first introduced cognitive dissonance theory in their 1956 book entitled When Prophecy Fails. The researchers managed to infiltrate a small UFO cult led by Marian Keech, who had predicted the destruction of the Earth, and chronicled the sequence of events surrounding the 1954 failed prophecy:
  • Prior to December 20. The group shuns publicity. Interviews are given only grudgingly. Access to Keech's house is only provided to those who can convince the group that they are true believers. The group evolves a belief system—provided by the automatic writing from the planet Clarion—to explain the details of the cataclysm, the reason for its occurrence, and the manner in which the group would be saved from the disaster.

  • December 20. The group expects a visitor from outer space to call upon them at midnight and to escort them to a waiting spacecraft. As instructed, the group goes to great lengths to remove all metallic items from their persons. As midnight approaches, zippers, bra straps, and other objects are discarded. The group waits.

  • 12:05 A.M., December 21. No visitor. Someone in the group notices that another clock in the room shows 11:55. The group agrees that it is not yet midnight.

  • 12:10 A.M. The second clock strikes midnight. Still no visitor. The group sits in stunned silence. The cataclysm itself is no more than seven hours away.

  • 4:00 A.M. The group has been sitting in stunned silence. A few attempts at finding explanations have failed. Keech begins to cry.

  • 4:45 A.M. Another message by automatic writing is sent to Keech. It states, in effect, that the God of Earth has decided to spare the planet from destruction. The cataclysm has been called off: "The little group, sitting all night long, had spread so much light that God had saved the world from destruction."

  • Afternoon, December 21. Newspapers are called; interviews are sought. In a reversal of its previous distaste for publicity, the group begins an urgent campaign to spread its message to as broad an audience as possible.

It took only hours for Keech to resolve the cognitive dissonance introduced by her failed prophecy, and she choose to do so in a typical way. She did not denounce her previous belief in the prophecy, but instead created a loop hole which allowed her to continue believing. The result was that the cult's devotion to their odd beliefs became even stronger.

The good news is that teaching people about cognitive dissonance can help them understand what's going on in their brain when it happens. If they can recognize what's happening to them, they stand a better chance at making better choices in how they resolve their dissonance. It is with this in mind that I've written this article, and I hope those who experience cognitive dissonance in the wake of the latest Mayan doomsday failure will do better than Minister Camping and the UFO cult Festiner et. al. studied. May logic and reason guide them back to a sound, restful state of mind.

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Mike at Chance Cove, NL - photo by Angelina Friskney, http://angelinafriskney.com