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41 of 41 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Landmark Example of Participant-Observation Research and Much Much More...
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...
Published on September 18, 2009 by Jayson Dibble

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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Well-written
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,...
Published on January 4, 2012 by Barry Rucker


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41 of 41 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Landmark Example of Participant-Observation Research and Much Much More..., September 18, 2009
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Jayson Dibble (Honolulu, HI USA) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: When Prophecy Fails (Paperback)
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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27 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars More relevant than ever, December 21, 2009
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This review is from: When Prophecy Fails (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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19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a delight to read, July 2, 2010
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This review is from: When Prophecy Fails (Paperback)
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
3.0 out of 5 stars Well-written, January 4, 2012
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Barry Rucker (Murrieta, CA USA) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: When Prophecy Fails (Paperback)
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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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Get it now, May 20, 2011
This review is from: When Prophecy Fails (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
4.0 out of 5 stars Hey soap opera fans, this isn't only for psychology majors!, 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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4.0 out of 5 stars One prophecy that never had much of a chance, May 8, 2014
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M. LaPlante (Chicago, IL USA) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: When Prophecy Fails (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. The cult, if you can even call them that, might be of the most pathetic little groups of people with silly beliefs ever recorded. They don't amount to much more than a small handful of individuals, one or two of whom are delusional enough to think they can actually communicate with spacemen, and a (very) few others who are misguided enough to follow them. The company are often so completely lacking in direction for their cause that the leaders even begin taking blatantly obvious prank phone calls as communications from outer space. We aren't exactly talking Heaven's Gate here.

The group was so small that the authors and their hired observers seem to have made up a sizable fraction of the entire body of participants. This raises a number of problems, including the very real and direct involvement of these observers in the events that unfolded. The authors, to their credit, admit in the final chapter on methodology that they were unable to remain impartial in such a small group, and note the areas where they feel they wound up having the most direct influence. (I actually found the methodology chapter to be one of the most interesting in the whole book.) Still one almost wonders if, had the authors and their team not shown up to participate, the movement doesn't just fizzle out entirely.

Conclusions and validity aside, my biggest complaint may just come down to how dull the majority of the proceedings were. The characters were more delusional than interesting, they were a complete failure as a movement, and the bulk of their story just came across as sad and rather tedious. I understand why the authors jumped at the opportunity to observe a group that met their criteria, but the one they were given just doesn't make for very fascinating reading. The historical entries in the opening chapter, and the discussion of methodology at the very end, outperformed the entire central story for my money. And while I understand that thorough documentation was at the heart of their methodology for this case study, the entire affair feels, based on substance alone, over-documented.

In conclusion, I'll give credit for the hypothesis itself being interesting, and for being something of a unique and hard-won study. I'll also allow room for acceptance that the authors could scarcely conduct such a difficult sociological experiment with perfect scientific rigor. And it's not really their fault the movement was such a dud. But unless this type of material falls within the realm of your personal scholarly interests, the protracted central story may fail to appeal to the more casual reader.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting, January 18, 2014
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A classic study in social psychology. I was pleasantly surprised by the historical context given in relation to failed prophesies.
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3.0 out of 5 stars Very detailed., January 14, 2014
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It's a good book. Lots of details on the accounts of the individuals that believed on a failed prophecy. However, not much of an analysis of their actions or psychology. Overall, I was happy with it.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Very good study, January 10, 2014
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The research work is great, and for that price is even better. But one thing I did't like is the format, but as I said, with that price is worth it
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When Prophecy Fails
When Prophecy Fails by Leon Festinger (Paperback - February 25, 2011)
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