Learning from the Tragedy in Samoa

In 1956, a team of social scientists led by Leon Festinger finished a book called When Prophecy Fails. Sixty years later, this book is still considered a classic in the field. It introduced a concept called cognitive dissonance, a theoretical model that helps to explain how humans do or do not change their minds when faced with contradictory information. In the book, Dr. Festinger followed a doomsday cult that had spun off from the early Scientology movement. The premise of this cult was that the world would end by a flood on December 21st, 1954, but that a flying saucer would come rescue the true believers and take them to safety. As astute readers will likely guess, the world did not end that day, and cult members were forced to make sense of the fact that their closely held belief was not true. I won’t spoil the book – it is easy to find for those with a taste for mid-century academia – but a few points should help summarize. First, in the immediate aftermath of the failed prophecy, the cult modestly shifted focus, and claimed that they saved the world through the power of their beliefs. They responded to … Continue reading Learning from the Tragedy in Samoa