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44 of 44 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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44 of 44 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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28 of 29 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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20 of 22 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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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
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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3 of 3 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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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A sad and hilarious classic, April 16, 2013
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This book is old. The theme is, sadly, fresher than ever. How can a group of intelligent, well-educated people suddenly throw away science and common sense, completely reject every piece of disconfirming evidence, stand up against well-meaning family and friends (and the ridicule of strangers)?
We only have to look at headlines almost every day to see the relevance. Vaccine rejectionists, the Iraq war WMD lie, 12.21.2012 apocalypse believers, every wacky conspiracy theory could and should be explained in the light of this book.
It has weaknesses. Is it a psychological study or a chronicle? It seems to vary from theory-building and response-explaining on the basis of hypothesises made via clinical timelines to light-hearted story-telling. But always a thrill to read.
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2.0 out of 5 stars Psychologists Observe 1950s Doomsday/Flying Saucer Group, August 13, 2014
This review is from: When Prophecy Fails (Paperback)
This is a now classic study testing the then fledgling theory of cognitive dissonance, the process by which people respond to evidence that conflicts with their deeply held beliefs. It begins with what little is known of past doomsday believers when their prophesies did not come to pass. From there it describes a 1950's group expecting the world to end in a flood and that they would be rescued by a space ship.

The text is not reader friendly. Its plodding may result from an attempt to present the group clinically, without developing the character of the individuals. A chart of participants would have been helpful. I read this over 3 days and was constantly flipping back to see who was who especially when different names are used, such as Marian for "Mrs. Keech" or "Thomas" for "Dr. Armstrong". The reader is never really oriented to place and time. No year is ever given and only towards the end when Minneapolis (are "Lake City" and "Collegetown" really the places?) is mentioned can you guess where this is taking place.

While this is a respected study, it seems that observers couldn't help but contaminate the results. There are 5 of them in the two groups that seem to have 10 key individuals. What did observers say to win the confidence of this group which sends some potential converts away? Observers are in close quarters with group members for long periods of time and their presence alone had to have bolstered the morale of the group. Quite a bit is made of signs derived from pranksters (the spacemen from Clarion and the flooded bathroom are two that come to mind), and it would seem that the observers themselves contributed similar signs. One observer enters with a cover story that re-enforces the group narrative and is welcomed as a sign from their outer space advisors.

Even if the observers were hidden behind one way mirrors, this study does not seem valid. Can observations from a group holding such extreme beliefs be applied to the wider population?

Members of this group behave as predicted by Festinger's theory. They become more intense in their beliefs in proportion to what they have sacrificed for them and how much contact they have with each other when they receive the disconfirming information.

The book has some interesting moments and in some points seemed like the basis for a TV drama. But as a research study, I had higher expectations.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Somewhat Dated Classic, January 21, 2013
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Kevin T. Keith "KTK" (Brooklyn, NY United States) - See all my reviews
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This book is a classic in the fields of first-world anthropology, participant observation, and the psychology of cults. It gives a detailed overview of the first real-world try-out of the hypothesis of "cognitive dissonance" by its founders, in a fascinating observational setting. It follows the founders of this theory as they identified and infiltrated a real-life group as it approached, experienced, and reacted to the ultimate clash of their beliefs with reality, and allows the authors the chance to make a prediction on the basis of their then-new psychological theory and to test it against that reality as it unfolded. It gives a close look at how theoreticians interpret observational data and explain them in terms of their theoretical models. It is also a case study in the difficulties, and ethical quandaries, of participant observation, particularly among small groups, and the compromises and questionable choices that leads to.

The book tells the story of a small "flying-saucer cult" from the 1950s - a group of people who became convinced that the world was going to be destroyed in a great flood on a particular day, on the basis of "messages" one member claimed to have received from advanced aliens on flying saucers, who also corresponded to figures from Christian mythology; these chosen people and their followers would be picked up by the flying saucers just before the disaster and lead a reincarnation of humanity on distant planets. The story is a fascinating look at how people convinced themselves to adopt such bizarre beliefs, and to accept the "evidence" (in the form of coded messages received telepathically by certain members of the group) that supported their beliefs. It traces the growth of the belief through the group, and details how each member reacted and how far they committed themselves to the cult. (Many gave up their jobs and possessions in order to prepare full-time for the visitation, and held all-night vigils waiting for the saucers to come on predicted dates. When the saucers did not come, some became convinced that they had actually met the aliens, visiting Earth in disguise. After the disaster prediction failed, many adopted rationalizations for why there had been no flood, without abandoning the cult.) The authors of the book, who had already posited their theory of how belief groups process the disappointment they experience when their beliefs are proven false (the "cognitive dissonance" of the theory) recognized that this group provided a perfect test case of their theory, and secretly penetrated the group, with several student assistants, by pretending to be believers. They followed the group day-by-day as the predicted disaster date approached, and then afterward when the prediction was shown to be false, interpreting their observations in light of their theory.

However, the story the book tells is now rather old. The book contains very extensive detail on the doings of particular individuals in a small group over a period of months during events that are now long over; it reads slowly and at times tediously. The events of the group were sometimes bizarre, but mostly dull and told in exhaustive detail. This is likely one of the best-documented cases of cult failure ever recorded, and is an invaluable record for professionals interested in the relevant fields of study, but for the general reader the book moves too slowly. The theoretical interpretive sections - which give the book its scholarly significance - are surprisingly short and superficial. The authors recognize the ethical concerns raised by their participating in the events they were recording, and by their technique of lying to the other members to gain their trust, but discuss them only in practical terms (how far their participation tended to distort the events themselves), and very little as a question of research ethics (a subject that at that time was not as developed as it is today).

In short, the book tells a fascinating, at times bizarre, at times hilarious, at times rather sad story, but at excessive length, and with too little meat for the effort required. It stands as an important part of the professional literature, but the story would be better treated in summary format for modern readers. Much more work has been done since then on cognitive dissonance, and there have been other cult-failure events added to the field of study; interested readers might wish to seek a more up-to-date and comprehensive treatment.
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When Prophecy Fails
When Prophecy Fails by Leon Festinger (Paperback - February 25, 2011)
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