Review: When Prophecy Fails by Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, & Stanley Schachter

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.

Rating: 4/5

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