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When Prophecy Fails Paperback – November 12, 2009


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 260 pages
  • Publisher: Martino Fine Books (November 12, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1578988527
  • ISBN-13: 978-1578988525
  • Product Dimensions: 9 x 6 x 0.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (26 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,573,940 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Interesting, easy reading.
Reed Maxson
It seems pretty thin on evidence for a study, one group of disturbed people, although I still do like the hypothesis.
RuggedShark
It also stands as a rigorous and meticulous example of the method of data collection via participant-observation.
Jayson Dibble

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

42 of 42 people found the following review helpful By Jayson Dibble on September 18, 2009
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
When Prophecy Fails is as relevant today as it was decades ago when a little doomsday cult predicted a flood that never came. I'm a professor in a social scientific-minded communication department. It seems that no matter what class I teach, I'm always using this book as an example. From a theoretical and research perspective, it's a great field study designed to test Festinger's ideas about cognitive dissonance. It also stands as a rigorous and meticulous example of the method of data collection via participant-observation. Readers will also appreciate the beginning material chronicling known failed predictions throughout history.

And the writing style is lucidly accessible and the detailed characterizations of the people involved and action unfolding are compelling enough for even the casual reader. I've always been a fan of Leon Festinger's work, but no matter one's personal givings about dissonance theory, it is tough not to appreciate the laborious efforts of this tireless and dedicated research team in producing this study. I admire those who are able to foresee real-world applications of their ideas in advance so as to be able to properly test them as the real-world events unfold. Festinger et al. were brilliant in this regard. A must-read for anyone interested in solid research methodologies and applied learning.
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28 of 29 people found the following review helpful By Winston Barclay on December 21, 2009
Format: Paperback
In the half-century since this breakthrough book appeared, the phenomena it so carefully describes continue unabated -- witness the "Left Behind" books and the 2012 brouhaha. In short, it documents how the factual failure of prophecy can counter-intuitively increase rather than weaken faith. When personal investment reaches a certain point of commitment, many people find it psychologically impossible to let go of apocalyptic belief, even with clear disproof. There must have been a mistake in the calculations. Or a god was "testing our faith." Or any of a number of rationalizations. In fact, we still have in our midst the remnants of the Millerite prophecy flop from the early 19th century. I recommend this book as a present to friends and family who are credulously receptive to prophesy talk -- if you can get them to read it.
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20 of 22 people found the following review helpful By CaRaPr on July 2, 2010
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I don't have a background in social psychology, therefore I cannot evaluate this book on its technical merits. However, I had a really good time reading it. As far as its theory is concerned, it is presented in a very clear manner and makes sense.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Barry Rucker on January 4, 2012
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The first chapter of When Prophecy Fails explains the theory of cognitive dissonance and applies it to examples in ancient history. The remainder of this book is a detailed report of a delusional flying saucer cult in the 1950s that made several specific prophecies that were disconfirmed. The authors predict (based upon cognitive dissonance theory) that the convinced, committed members will resort to increased proselyting in response to disconfirmation of their beliefs. The authors conclude that cognitive dissonance theory is confirmed, but I note that increased proselyting occurred in response to one of the disconfirmations, but not in response to other disconfirmations. The book is well-written and moderately interesting.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By M. LaPlante on May 8, 2014
Format: Paperback
When Prophecy Fails is “a social and psychological study of a modern group that predicted the destruction of the world.” The authors, three professors with the University of Minnesota, are working around the hypothesis that following the unequivocal disconfirmation of a firmly held belief, the group having held said belief will react in a predictable fashion, assuming certain conditions have been met. Specifically, rather than divesting of their errant beliefs, core members of the group may counter-intuitively begin to pursue their agenda even more aggressively and publicly than ever.

This is an interesting theory, and the book opens by providing a series of brief historical examples of cults and religious movements which appear to have followed just such a trend. But as the authors quickly point out, the data available from the historical record lacks the necessary depth to allow for any rigorous scientific conclusions to be drawn. And with that, we move on to the bulk of the text: a direct study of a small group of individuals, at one time convinced that the world was imminently doomed... except for those who would be saved by spacemen riding flying saucers.

The authors initially discovered the group in question through a newspaper article. After some quick research determined that the believers met the necessary criteria to test the authors' behavioral hypothesis, they commenced direct and organized observation of the group's activities. And thus, the majority of the 250 pages of the text is dedicated to recounting their entire experience following this little doomsday cult for a period of about two months.

The book does eventually make a decent case in support of the original theory, however I found getting there a bit of a chore.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Timothy Ryan on May 20, 2011
Format: Paperback
This classic will be referenced repeatedly next week, after the Rapture fails to occur on 5/21, and will leap back onto the Amazon best seller list for the month of June.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Etarn on July 20, 2011
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I heard about this book a long time ago from social psychology podcasts, but never got around to reading it until now. Leaving aside the writers' discussion of cognitive dissonance theory, what really was great about this book was their factual and only slightly derisive reporting of the strange and sad members of this cult. This book delivers a fly-on-the-wall view of petty power struggles based on whether the "being" one person is channeling is higher up on the cosmic hierarchy than someone else's, pathetic efforts to draw everything back to their Judeo-Christian roots - every member is actually someone mentioned in the Bible, and the desperate grasping at straws when predictions don't pan out; you don't have to be a sadist to be entertained!

I read the book after Harold Camping's rapture prediction failed and wondered how those who believed in him would react, and what their families could do to help them again be worthwhile citizens of the world. Well now I know: keep them away from other rapture believers and give them a few months to get their brains working again.
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