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When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study [Paperback]

Leon Festinger
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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5.0 out of 5 stars Interesting + Funny = A Great Read! June 3 2004
Format:Paperback
It's fascinating what we humans can make ourselves believe! And frequently hilarious, too!
This is partly a study of how followers of cult movements can paradoxically become more committed even when the central tenet has been disproven. The first few chapters are fairly dry, but they move quickly and are very interesting, especially since the hypothesis is so counterintuitive.
Things really pick up once they get into the day-to-day details of the flying saucer group they've infiltrated. The group goes to extremes of self-deception to keep believing (and they want to believe so badly) that "the boys upstairs" (ie, flying saucer people) are in contact with them. The dry, scholarly tone reads as subtle dry humor when describing, for example, a woman in a suburban living room bellowing "I AM THE CREATOR" (she is supposedly "channeling" the Creator) and then complaining about the chair she is forced to sit in. I didn't expect this book to be laugh-out-loud funny but it certainly was in places.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.7 out of 5 stars  9 reviews
34 of 34 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Data nearly 50 years old, but still seems valid... Feb. 19 2002
By William E. Adams - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This work first saw print in 1956. It is the story of a UFO cult in a large city in the Midwest...how it developed, how the leaders recruited followers, how predictions about the coming end of the world started flowing from the psychic members who allegedly channeled messages from the spacemen/pilots. The cult members were told they would be saved, picked up by saucers on an appointed date. The members quit jobs, sold possessions, and gathered, only to be disappointed. Did they all quit in a huff? No way. The first failure only made them more determined they were right, more anxious to be ready for the next announced departure date. Then a second failure. A few members fell away, a few suffered doubts, a few challenged for leadership themselves. The point of this book is that it takes "three disconfirmations" to kill a movement of true believers, and even then, some still hang on to the discredited "theology" by grasping at excuses. I found this book by accident about 30 years ago, and have read it at least four times. I find it fascinating. In the 1970's I knew two women in Albuquerque who were amateur psychics. They started bringing forth "space brethren messages" and eventually, although they failed to attract a following, they went up into the nearby mountains one night sure they would be lifted off before the coming unspecified disaster. They waited, but no ship appeared. I think people inclined toward UFO beliefs haven't changed much since this book was published. The basic data shown in this study can apply to religious or political groups as well. I am sorry it is out of print, but if you have an interest in this field, get a used copy...the prices are reasonable and the book will not disappoint!
15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Interesting + Funny = A Great Read! June 3 2004
By Amazon Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
It's fascinating what we humans can make ourselves believe! And frequently hilarious, too!
This is partly a study of how followers of cult movements can paradoxically become more committed even when the central tenet has been disproven. The first few chapters are fairly dry, but they move quickly and are very interesting, especially since the hypothesis is so counterintuitive.
Things really pick up once they get into the day-to-day details of the flying saucer group they've infiltrated. The group goes to extremes of self-deception to keep believing (and they want to believe so badly) that "the boys upstairs" (ie, flying saucer people) are in contact with them. The dry, scholarly tone reads as subtle dry humor when describing, for example, a woman in a suburban living room bellowing "I AM THE CREATOR" (she is supposedly "channeling" the Creator) and then complaining about the chair she is forced to sit in. I didn't expect this book to be laugh-out-loud funny but it certainly was in places.
23 of 26 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Great sociological study of a modern millenarian group. July 31 1998
By H. Olsen - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
For anyone interested in the psychology and group dynamics of millenarian/prophetic groups, this book is essential reading. Sometime in the late 1950s or early 1960s the authors stumbled upon and infiltrated a group based on a prediction of imminent world destruction. When the prediction failed (after all, we are all still here in the late 1990s), the group underwent a severe crisis. This study details how that crisis developed and was resolved, drawing from it some general ideas about how groups based on prophecies survive the failure of those prophecies.
12 of 15 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good read, interesting, but ethical? Jan. 31 2005
By Clara Arak - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
I recently borrowed "When Prophecy Fails" from my psychology proffesor. I have been interested in the theory of cognitive dissonance since I first came across it in my general psychology text book, and was thrilled at the opportunity to read the source of it all.

The book is an easy read; at times it feels more like a novel than a psychological study. After the initial first few chapters of background information, it falls into an easy description of Marian Keech and her fellow Seekers. Festinger and his co-authors do a fine job of illustrating Mrs. Keech's ideology and the history of her doomsday prophecies. The description of the group members on the days leading up to and after the predicted cataclysm is very detailed.

However, this high amount of detail is also what makes me hesitant about truly endorsing this book as an ethical psychological study. Festinger & co. gave ample enough hints at the location and press coverage of the group that confidentiality cannot have been preserved. Just a few minutes with google provided me with the real identities of the cult members described in the book. Though I think the study may have been conducted before the APA created the ethical guidelines, I still found myself somewhat horrified by the looseness of the confidentiality. While "When Prophecy Fails" is an interesting read, it does very little to scientifically prove its hypothesis in a way that could not have been done in a less damaging way. Though my searches seemed to indicate that Mrs. Keech and her fellow believers moved on, I still feel a great deal of pity for the woman and her comrades. Even though their beliefs were absurd, did they really deserve to be so cruelly tricked? I am not sure about this. And so I am not sure that the means justifies the end in this particular landmark study.

Nevertheless, the book is certainly a must-read for anyone who is interested in landmark studies and the history of psychology.
5.0 out of 5 stars Long Ago June 21 2013
By Elizabeth Nall - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I am the unnamed observer in Collegeville. So I am very biased about the hypothesis. I would emphasize the findings.
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