How would you feel if I told you that one of your beliefs is wrong? Not just any belief, a belief that is core to your identity. And what if I didn’t just tell you it was wrong, but showed you evidence that was undeniable?
If you are like most people you would feel very uncomfortable.
That feeling of discomfort is called “cognitive dissonance” and while that name may seem a bit dull, the story of how it was discovered is one of the most fascinating in psychology. That is because it involves things like UFOs, psychic messages, and even the end of the world.
If you have never heard the story of how cognitive dissonance was discovered then keep reading, because it gets wild.
In the 1950s Leon Festiger was in his 30s and was already a rising star in psychology. He was known not only for his insightful theories in social psychology but also for being a student of history. And one thing that preoccupied him was a very strange quirk of human behavior that was recorded over and over in history, but which had never been explained. And that was how people reacted when they thought the world was about to end.
See, throughout history there had been multiple charismatic leaders, mostly in Christianity but also in Judaism and Islam, who predicted that the world was going to end. Many not only predicted that the world would end, but that it would end on a date. A very specific date, and sometimes even at a specific time.
But when the specific date and time came, the world always just kept going along like nobody’s business.
Festinger noticed that when this happened people reacted in ways that were, well, just plain weird. You would expect people to bashfully acknowledge their mistake and maybe even stop believing that world was going to end since you know, the world didn’t end. But the strange thing was, that rarely happened. In fact, the opposite often happened. Many people proclaimed that they believed it even more than they did before. Many became zealots, proselytizing to anyone who would listen and trying to convert people to the failed movement.
To say that this behavior is irrational is an understatement. And yet, history is full of examples:
Take the Anabaptists. They were a 16th century protestant movement in Europe that fervently believed that the world would end in 1533. When it didn’t end you might think that would end the Anabaptists for good. But the movement actually grew. In fact, in 1534, the year after the predicted end of the world, the movement grew so much that two thirds of the city of Amsterdam converted. There are branches of protestantism today that are directly decended from the Anabaptists, such as the modern day baptists, and some of the famous figures in it still preach that the world will end sometime soon.
Then there was the Jewish movement led by Zabati-zevi. He promised his followers that in 1648 he would usher in a new era full of miracles. When that year came and went with no miracles, his followers became more fervent and his movement only grew. Then he promised that in1666 he would usher in a new age in which his people would take over their ancestral homelands and history would come to its conclusion. When he and his merry band of disciples traveled to Constantinople to take the city and begin the new era, they were promptly arrested and nothing happened. Again, the movement grew. It only collapsed when, while in prison in Turkey, Zabeti converted to Islam.
Or take Harold Camping, an evangelical Christian author and radio broadcaster who predicted that the world would end on September 6th, 1994. When that date came and went without the scheduled apocalypse, Camping announced that his math was off and revised the date to a later time. Again, the date came and went, the planet keep moving in its orbit and the stars keep twinkling as always, and Camping announced that his math was off. Again. You’d think that someone who kept getting the predictions wrong would lose followers and end up having to go and get a different job (hopefully one that doesn’t involve math) but Camping’s books sold very well and his ministry grew to the point that by the time he passed away in December of 2013, his net worth was over 75 million. Getting the end of the world wrong is a profitable business.
So, back to Festinger. He studied these failures throughout history and had an idea. He thought that the reason why this happened was that maybe, just maybe, humans have a fundamental need to have their thoughts and actions be in harmony with each other and with the world around them. If this need was truly fundamental, as Festinger thought it might be, then people would be highly motivated to satisfy that need for harmony, even if it meant denying the undeniable. In other words, if you were proven to be wrong about something that you had invested time, energy, and money into, and you very publicly staked your reputation on it, you might go to great lengths to ignore the evidence that you are wrong because it was simply too uncomfortable to be that inconsistent and out of sync with reality. Even if the evidence that you were wrong is as big and glaring as say, the world still existing.
Festinger dubbed the feeling of discomfort that inconsistency caused “cognitive dissonance.” Cognitive for “thinking” and dissonance for “a lack of harmony or consistency.” And he called the feeling of wellbeing that consistency led to “cognitive consonance.” This is an oversimplification, but you get the gist.
It was a neat idea, but Festinger had a problem. He couldn’t prove it. All those examples from history, as any scientist can tell you, prove nothing. If you really want to test your ideas scientifically, then you need to predict something that hasn’t happened yet. And Festinger couldn’t think of a way to do that.
So his guess about cognitive dissonance was just that: an educated guess. And it stayed that way until Festinger and two of his colleagues, Rieken and Schachter, stumbled upon an article in a local newspaper written by a lady named Dorthy Martin.
Martin’s article was called “Prophecy from Planet Clarion Call to City: Flee That Flood. It’ll Swamp Us on December 21st.” That is a wordy title. But to be fair, the author wasn’t a journalist. Dorthy Martin was a Chicago housewife who believed that she was in contact with aliens.
Sidenote: Martin lived in Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. And while I was in grad school for psychology I lived just a short walk from her home. I had no idea at the time that most days I walked right by Martin’s infamous home, which looks totally normal.
She channeled the messages of these aliens through a process called automatic writing, which is very popular among some new-age spiritual communities even today. In automatic writing a person gets a pen and paper and then they just let their mind go blank. They start writing, and many believe that the writing will have messages from the spirit world. Martin believed that it was through this strange practice that she contacted aliens from a planet called Clarion. They gave Martin a warning that the world would end on December 21st 1954. You might think Dorthy Martin was just a crank who wrote a letter to the paper, but she had a dedicated following that included doctors and professors. Some had literally quit their jobs and made significant financial sacrifices to follow her because they sincerely believed that the world was coming to an end. They called themselves the Seekers, and they believed that because of their faith aliens from Clarion would come and pick them up from Earth in a flying saucer on the night of December 21st 1954.
Festinger and his colleagues realized immediately that they had a chance to finally test the theory of cognitive dissonance.
In the weeks leading up to the December 21st deadline Festinger’s research team managed to infiltrate the Seekers, and they did this by pretending to be sincere believers. It turned out to be very hard work. Seeker meetings were basically large overnight seances that went on for hours and hours, in which different members channeled aliens and delivered messages to the group. Many researchers were kept at group meetings for so long that Festinger and colleagues set up a nearby safe house in the neighborhood where they could go and rest.
As researchers they had a very difficult job. They had to participate in the group enough so that the Seekers wouldn’t become suspicious, but they also had to make sure that they did nothing to influence the group. As much as possible they had to remain convincing members but passive observers. But as time went on this became difficult to do. One night just before the seance, Martin approached one of the researchers and explained that he would be leading the group that night by channeling the aliens. For the research team this was a horrible situation. They couldn’t do this because it would be influencing the group, but they couldn’t back out without looking suspicious. The group sat in a circle and Martin asked the researcher to begin. The researcher, unsure what to do, asked the group to sit in silent prayer, and then the minutes ticked by slowly as he tried to think of what to do.
The time went by, five minutes, ten minutes, twenty minutes, and the room was becoming palpably uncomfortable. There is nothing in grad school that could possibly prepare you to for a moment like this.
After an excruciating long and uncomfortable silence one of the other group members spoke up. She claimed that she was channeling a new voice from Clarion. This broke the tension, and the researcher was off the hook. But the new alien turned out to be a serious twist the story, because according to the Seeker she was channeling none other than God itself. The movement had gone fully messianic.
Yaweh, through the voice of the channeling Seeker, confirmed the date for the apocalypse. The group became even more convinced. Those who had not fully committed by this point jumped in whole-heartedly and quit their jobs. Some left their families.
On the night of December 21st 1954 the researchers gathered together with the seekers at Dorthy Martin’s normal – looking house in Oak Park to wait for the flying saucer that would come to pick them up.
It was a tense night. In a strange twist they spent much of it removing all the metal from their clothes, including buttons and zippers, because a channeled message revealed that wearing metal on the flying saucer was dangerous. The hours went by as the group frantically removed all the metal from their clothes and waited for the saucer to arrive. When the clock hit four minutes to midnight the group gathered in the living room and became very tense. This is how Festinger and colleagues describe the moment in their book When Prophecy Fails…
“These four minutes passed in complete silence except for a single utterance. When the clock on the mantel showed only one minute to midnight remaining before the guide to the saucer was due, Martin exclaimed in a high pitched voice ‘And not a plan has gone astray!’ The clock chimed twelve, each stroke painfully clear in the expectant hush. The believers sat motionless.”pg. 62 When Prophecy Fails
This was it. This was the test. If the theory of cognitive dissonance was wrong, the Seekers would reject Martin, make amends with their families and employers, and return to normal life. It the theory was correct though, then the Seekers should become even more convinced that they are right and should take even more radical actions to commit themselves to the ideas of Dorthy Martin.
And that is exactly what happened.
As the days went by Martin convinced the group that the reason the world didn’t end was because Clarion was so impressed with the Seekers that it saved the Earth. The group now believed that not only were they correct, they were heroes! They had literally saved the world. Whatever dissonance they felt must have vanished with this new belief.
In the weeks that followed they sent out press releases, gave interviews, and even talked to schoolchildren about what they had done to save the planet. Festinger saw this as a strong support for his theory, which predicted that the group would become more zealous and outspoken when they were proven to be wrong.
The theory of cognitive dissonance was taken seriously after that. Subsequent research by Festinger showed that cognitive dissonance could explain many of the ways that people rationalized their behavior and ignored evidence that didn’t support their beliefs. Festinger even managed to create cognitive dissonance in the lab.
Today, cognitive dissonance is recognized as a well-established theory in psychology that continues to explain human behavior and our almost constant tendency to ignore evidence we don’t like and believe things that are patently untrue. However there are some who criticize the theory for a lack of standardization in measurement and call for better definitions (see Vaidis & Bran, 2019 for more on this: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31191395/)
That’s the story of cognitive dissonance. Stay tuned for a video version of this essay. And if you want to learn more about cognitive biases or teach your kid about them with fun paranormal mysteries, then check out my books series for kids Beyond Belief. Cognitive dissonance is featured in all the books in the series.