When The World Doesn’t End After All, You Can Still Rely On Self-Affirming Cognitve Dissonance

In 1954, a woman in Minnesota claimed that aliens had told her that on December 20 of that year, all of civilization would be wiped out in a catastrophic global flood. The story of how that woman attracted a cult around her and how social psychologists infiltrated the book as an observational experiment, is described in a book called “When Prophecy Fails.” What is of particular interest to me is what happened in the early morning hours of December 21, 1954, which is summarized in this article:

Keech’s sci-fi prophecy soon gained a small band of followers. They trusted her divinations, and marked the date of Armageddon on their calendars. Many of them quit their jobs and sold their homes. The cultists didn’t bother buying Christmas presents or making arrangements for New Years Eve, since nothing would exist by then.


On the night of December 20, Keech’s followers gathered in her home and waited for instructions from the aliens. Midnight inexorably approached. When the clock read 12:01 and there were still no aliens, the cultists began to worry. A few began to cry. The aliens had let them down. But then Keech received a new telegram from outer space, which she quickly transcribed on her notepad. “This little group sitting all night long had spread so much light,” the aliens told her, “that god saved the world from destruction. Not since the beginning of time upon this Earth has there been such a force of Good and light as now floods this room.” It was their stubborn faith that had prevented the apocalypse. Although Keech’s predictions had been falsified, the group was now more convinced than ever that the aliens were real. They began proselytizing to others, sending out press releases and recruiting new believers. This is how they reacted to the dissonance of being wrong: by being more sure than ever that they were right.

The UFO cultists had to confront hard, undeniable, personally-experienced proof of the central tenet of their faith being objectively and utterly disproved. Yet they emerged from the experience with a stronger faith than they had before.

The article I linked to immediately takes a sharp leftward bent and tries to explain “at last, we understand how conservatives think after we liberals have proven them wrong again and again!” I would rebut to that contention that anyone is capable of cognitive dissonance, and self-reinforcing fanaticism is a psychological behavior to which anyone who holds unreasoning and unreasonable beliefs — including some (not all) self-identified political “progressives” — possesses no small amount of vulnerability.

But I’m interested in this for yet another reason. I think this psychological trait must be at the very root of fanaticism of all sorts. Religious fanaticism, political fanaticism, intellectual fanaticism, anything. For instance, a while back The Wife and I found ourselves sharing a conversation with Mr. Anti Immigration Dude. Everything wrong with society was traceable back to illegal immigration; illegal immigration was the taproot issue of the day and the result of our government tolerating it was inflation, expensive health care and increased gas prices, the collapse of real estate prices, air pollution, humiliating military defeats abroad, a generalized degeneration of the very moral fabric of society, and of course the astonishing prevalence of genital herpes. (¡Ai yai yai, no es bueno!) But to Mr. Anti Immigration Dude, these conclusions make a lot of sense and are almost intuitively obvious. He has somehow put his mind in a negative feedback loop, and monomaniacally finds an explanation for any issue that may bother him which traces back to the bête noire.

I don’t think it’s even limited to the sorts of religious or political issues I usually think about. It’s most interesting there, but I even see it play out in litigation. Fanaticism in that context can become what we sometimes refer to with only some psychological accuracy as “demonization.” Demonization, of course, requires an Other. Seeing this in the context of the UFO cult, though, there is not really a demon to rally against — the way, for instance, Anti Immigration Guy has an Other, or the way a progressive has George W. Bush — but it does point to something about how our minds work.

It’s a kind of a trap, a way of thinking that any one of us might fall in to. That is why it is important to take time for introspection, time to question your own beliefs and assumptions, and time to use logic and reason when reacting to things.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.