What Do Believers Think When Their Prophecy Fails To Arrive?

Festinger's experiment became standard fare for any psych 101 class.Did ya’ ever wonder what happens in the mind of someone whose beliefs fail them? I’m not the first to point it out, but that’s what happened to the followers of Harold Camping’s recent doomsday prophecy. Reverend Camping predicted that armageddon would arrive on May 21st, and many of his followers made huge investments of time and money to warn others.

As I write this, on May 23rd, the minds of those devotees have probably already devised self-soothing explanations for the non-event. Perhaps your mind has done something similar. I know mine has.

Human minds excel at finding reasons to stay entrenched in beliefs, even when our beliefs are disconfirmed – and even though we like to think that we’re immune to that sort of irrationality. As a species, we simply are hesitant to alter our convictions. And the more we invest in our viewpoint, the less likely we are to change it. Leon Festinger, a renowned sociological researcher, put it eloquently:

“Suppose an individual believes something with his whole heart; suppose further that he has a commitment to this belief, that he has taken irrevocable actions because of it; finally, suppose that he is presented with evidence, unequivocal and undeniable evidence, that his belief is wrong; what will happen? The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before” (Festinger et al., 1956).

Festinger knows whereof he speaks, having infiltrated a group of people calling themselves the Seekers. In 1954, the Seekers became convinced that North and South America would be devastated by a massive flood on December 21st. They believed that an an inhabitant of the planet Clarion had sent them a warning through the writing of Mrs. Marian Keech. The group believed that if they followed complex instructions described in Mrs. Keech’s automatic writings, a space ship from Clarion would transport them to safety just before the flood.

When the cataclysm failed to materialize, the believers suffered a brief period of confusion and disappointment, after which they found ways to defend their original convictions. When it became clear that no flying saucer would arrive,  Mrs. Keech delivered another “message” from Clarion explaining that the group’s efforts had saved the world. Thanks to the Seekers, doomsday had been averted.

At no point, according to Festinger, did Mrs. Keech or other prominent believers “utter a serious word of doubt or indicate in any way that they might have been wrong.” Having been ostensibly rewarded for their faithful actions, Mrs. Keech and other prominent believers became even more fervent in their proselytizing. (Some also become disillusioned and left the group.)

Festinger’s description of the group, while generally written in kind and measured tones, also conveyed undertones of authors’ distaste for cockamamy rationalizations and irrational belief systems. The very purpose of the book, after all, was to explain why people work so hard to maintain demonstrably false convictions. The answer, to paraphrase, is that the Seekers’ continued devotion served to restore order to their shaken belief system. Consistency in our beliefs is often more important than the facts.

While that much is true of humans in general, Jon Stone (2009) asked a different question about the Seekers in particular: why did they believe the prophecy in the first place? The likeliest answer ain’t very complicated. They believed it because it brought order to their world. It reduced uncertainty before the failure of the prophecy, and so they were bound to continue using the same belief for the same purpose even in the face of disconfirming evidence.

One might even argue that their belief system became even more important after the cataclysm failed to appear. It gave them something on which to anchor themselves during a time of confusion and uncertainty.

Consider Marian Keech, for example. Festinger’s book describes her as a woman who had a burning desire to understand things that lie beyond our perception. Is there life on other planets? Can we communicate with spirits and extraterrestrial beings? Questions like these seemed to plague her. Her beliefs gave her answers; it reduced her uncertainty. She remained one of the most fervent believers after the non-event of December 21st.

I have noticed that some of my own beliefs exist for a similar purpose, and I sometimes defend them in a similar manner. Perhaps you have done the same thing. Here’s a little thought experiment: think back to a debate or argument in which you defended a viewpoint from someone who held a different belief. Perhaps you were arguing your opposing political views, or trying to reconstruct an important conversation that each of you remembered differently.

If your respective viewpoints were important to you, I’ll wager that neither of you managed to persuade the other. Instead, I’ll bet that each of you left the interaction with a greater conviction to your original belief.

It happened to me when I once engaged in a friendly but spirited debate with someone whose political beliefs oppose my own. After nearly an hour of subjecting our opinions to the challenge of another person’s logic, we each walked away more practiced and more committed to our original positions. One of us had to have been wrong because our positions were mutually exclusive. The rational thing to do is to wonder if it’s me. I’ll put that on my to-do list.

What will Reverend Camping’s followers do after the failure of his prophecy? Some of them may become disillusioned, but many of them will find a way to restore order to their belief system. Perhaps they’ll follow the precedent that Camping set in 1994, when he attributed his first mistaken doomsday prophecy to a mathematical error.

You won’t find me ridiculing them while they’re ironing out their beliefs. Just because I don’t believe in flying saucers and doomsday prophecies doesn’t mean I’m immune to the same quirks of human logic. I simply apply my extravagant rationalizations to a different set of beliefs. (Of course, mine are correct.)



Festinger, L., Riecken, H.W., & Schachter, S. (1956). When Prophecy Fails. University of Minnesota Press. (Reprinted in 2008 by Pinter & Martin Ltd.)

Stone, J.R. (2009). A reassessment of research testing the Festinger theory. Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions, 12(4), 72-90.