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When Prophecy Fails Paperback – May 8, 2012
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Reading this book shows that this is a pattern as old as time, and they present two case studies where the endgame was the end of the world or the second coming (with flying saucers, in one case). It makes for riveting, baffling reading - humans are <I>strange</I>, and anything to do with belief and religion doubly so. It explains - or at least exemplifies - cognitive dissonance at its finest.
However, I also feel that it would be highly implausible that an ethics committee would approve the kind of study the authors engaged in back in 1953 today, and it's a bit unsettling reading about very private moments and crises of faith that members of this group had thinking themselves safe with their in-group, only to be riddled with observers bent on publishing everything they said. So I feel I can't really rate this - it's a classic in its field, it's incredibly interesting, but might also be seen as incredibly dodgy?
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.
"Cognitive dissonance" is a useful lens to view movements and even examine the stresses in one's own life when one finds oneself holding two contradictory "cognitions."
It is hard to understand how intelligent people could act like the subjects in When Prophecy Fails. Ultimately, the book is a tragedy about people's need to believe.
The group in this study predicted the destruction of the world on December 21, 1954. More recently the end of the world was predicted to coincide with the “end” of the Mayan calendar on December 21, 2012. This classic study is as relevant today as when written.
Should be required reading in all high schools as well as all psychology and sociology courses.
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