The Ghosts Among Us
By Fred Mittag
“Cognitive Dissonance: When Truth Is Difficult”
“A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.” So wrote psychologist Leon Festinger, words that today could refer to climate change denial or belief that President Obama was born in Kenya.
But Festinger was writing in the 50s, interested in why people of strong conviction are so resistant to changing their beliefs even in the face of undeniable evidence. He had studied the tendency to maintain consistency, expressed in such ways as by always sitting in the same seat at church. He knew that the introduction of a new piece of knowledge (a cognition) that is inconsistent with a currently held cognition creates a state of “dissonance” that can be uncomfortable.
Festinger learned about a cult that believed the end of the world was coming. Their prophetess was Marian Keech. She claimed to receive messages by telepathy from a planet she called “Clarion.” This was at a time when newspapers frequently reported sightings of unidentified flying objects, or UFOs. Ms. Keech was associated with a movement that later became Scientology, of which actor Tom Cruise is a member.
Festinger infiltrated Marian Keech’s cult, called the “Seekers.” She said the end of the world was coming December 21, 1954. The whole North American continent would split in two and be flooded by the sea. Festinger wanted to observe the reaction of the believers when it didn’t happen.
The Seekers believed they were going to be rescued by space aliens known as the “Guardians” who would come for them in a flying saucer. Members had taken strong measures to prepare for the end. Some had given away property and left jobs and spouse to prepare for the end. The Seekers gathered at Ms. Keech’s to await the flying saucer. They had removed bras and fly zippers because the metal could damage the flying saucer in flight.
Although worried about the end of the world, two members were less invested and stayed home. Professor Festinger predicted those two would leave the cult when the end did not come. But he said those who had given their homes away and were gathered around Ms. Keech would only increase their faith in her after the world did not end.
Festinger predicted that it would be difficult for the cult to change their beliefs because of their financial and emotional investment. At midnight, there was no sign of the spaceship in Ms. Keech’s yard and the group became nervous. But they waited.
Finally, Ms. Keech became elated. She had just received a message from space that because her followers were people of such faith, God would spare the world. She told her followers, “Mighty is the word of God and by His word have ye been saved. Not since the beginning of time upon this Earth has there been such a force of Good and light as now floods this room.”
Ms. Keech’s prophecy had failed, but not Dr. Festinger’s. The Seekers who stayed home and were less invested recognized the reality that Marian Keech was a fraud. But those around her shifted from despair to exhilaration. They became even more dedicated and began to convert outsiders to the cult, telling them of the miracle.
The failure of the flying saucer to arrive was a dissonance in their belief system that was too uncomfortable to accept. The professor had predicted that one option for the believers to reduce their dissonance would be to gain social support. Festinger wrote, “If more and more people can be persuaded that the system of belief is correct, then clearly it must after all be correct.”
Festinger published a book about the Seekers, When Prophecy Fails. He used the pseudonym Marian Keech. Her real name was later revealed to be Dorothy Martin. Her cult also knew her as Sister Thedra. To become a more fervent believer after something has been disconfirmed by evidence, Festinger concluded there must be several conditions, including: (1) A belief must be held with deep conviction and it must be more than meditative. It must relate to action, such as attending meetings or doing volunteer work. (2) The person holding the belief must have taken some action that is difficult to undo, such as a financial investment in it. (3) The believer must have social support. An isolated individual cannot maintain belief in something that has been disproven by evidence. But a group can withstand contrary evidence and may attempt to proselytize.
Leon Festinger was a pioneer whose work has been cited many times. He called his theory “cognitive dissonance.” Hundreds of studies have since advanced what he began, studies that have a multitude of applications, including mind control and advertising. They help explain political polarization and how people can be stubbornly wrong, in spite of undeniable evidence.
Festinger’s work helps appreciate the challenge for people like Charles Darwin, who advanced science, knowing he would create unpopular cognitive dissonance in religious belief. Leon Festinger taught us that we’re not as rational as we would like to believe.