Tag: Leon Festinger

The 2020 Election: When Prophecy Fails

The November election was called by the election desks three weeks ago today. When all the dust settles on December 14, President-elect Biden will win 306 electoral votes to President Trump’s 232. Biden’s popular vote lead has now crested an astonishing six million votes. In the meantime, the Trump campaign has pursued a couple of recounts with minimal success (the Biden lead in Milwaukee actually increased) and a series of state and federal level lawsuits with virtually no success.

And yet, as numerous observers have noted, Trump supporters — especially of the evangelical celebrity class — continue to argue that the election will not only be overturned, but that Trump actually won in a landslide.

How can all these people (and potentially millions who support them) continue to believe this stuff? I suggested earlier this week that one answer can be found in When Prophecy Fails by Leon Festinger, Henry Reiken, and Stanley Schacter. The book, written in 1956, was a field study of Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance.

I re-read the book on Tuesday (only $0.99 on Kindle!) and was amazed at how helpful it was. Festinger had argued that having attitudes and behaviors that were in conflict created cognitive dissonance, a state of discomfort. There were several ways to resolve the dissonance: change the conflicting behavior/attitude, reduce the salience of the offending attitude, or add some new element to the mix that resolved the dissonance.

When Prophecy Fails (hereafter WPF) describes a real-life test of cognitive dissonance theory that seemingly dropped into the authors’ laps. In September of 1954, a group in Lake City (Chicago) with assistance from others in Collegeville (Lansing) announced that they had received word that a major cataclysm was going to occur that coming December 21. Massive earthquakes would result in flooding that would swamp most of central North America. Festinger and his co-authors, along with some other informants, joined the group in November and stayed in contact through December. [There are some interesting questions about the ethics of joining the group. By surreptitiously becoming a part, they may have added self-perceived legitimacy to the group members.]

A predicted cataclysm was exactly the kind of disconfirmation that would produce cognitive dissonance. All of the activity surrounding the system of belief — readings, meetings, messages from outer space, plans for the group’s rescue via flying saucer — would be put at risk if things didn’t come to pass. How would they resolve such a crisis of faith?

Now what is the effect of the disconfirmation, of the unequivocal fact that the prediction was wrong, upon the believer? The disconfirmation introduces an important and painful dissonance. The fact that the predicted events did not occur is dissonant with continuing to believe both the prediction and the remainder of the ideology of which the prediction was the central item. The failure of the prediction is also dissonant with all the actions that the believer took in preparation for its fulfillment. The magnitude of the dissonance will, of course, depend on the importance of the belief to the individual and on the magnitude of his preparatory activity (20).

But there is a way in which the remaining dissonance can be reduced. If more and more people can be persuaded that the system of belief is correct, then clearly it must, after all, be correct. … If the proselyting proves successful, then by gathering more adherents and effectively surrounding himself with supporters, the believer reduces dissonance to the point where he can live with it (21).

The leaders of the group (the authors call them Marion Keech and Thomas Armstrong) had long been religiously eclectic. They had been studying scientology, reincarnation, UFO sightings, seances, receiving involuntary writings, and more. (This is consistent with other sociological models on conversion to marginal religious groups.) Given their sources of information, the notion that a messenger named Sanandra from the planet Clarion would warn them of God’s plan for the coming cataclysm and then prepare them for their rescue would not be met with the levels of skepticism one might expect.

There are series of disconfirming events: the UFO’s don’t come, there is uncertainty about visitors who may or not from outer space, and finally, there are no earthquakes. But following this final disconfirming event, they make themselves more available to visitors and the press (including a public invitation to Christmas caroling), willing to explain their theoretical system to anyone who would listen. At least that’s how it worked for the True Believers — more fringe members simply drifted away.

On December 21 alone, Dr. Armstrong and Mrs. Keech made five tape recordings for radio broadcast. Within the next three days, Marian’s messages were used as reasons for drawing up new press releases and lifting the ban on photographers. Twice more the press was called in and their reception was warm and friendly. Reporters were granted extensive interviews and photographers welcomed (151).

There is much in WPF that has parallels to our current moment after the election results were known. First, there is a focus on self-confirming information sources (OANN) with access to unique information only known to the insiders (Q Anon conspiracies). Those certain of a massive Trump victory could support their predictions by pointing to esoteric knowledge (Jeff Sharlet recently argued it is a new Gnosticism) that gave them better insights. From Paula White calling on African Angels to belief in the Shy Trump Voters, forces were in play to provide a Trump victory in spite of what polls said.

Public relations events are part of this mythology. Trump Rallies with thousands supposedly turned away, Trump Truck Parades, Boat Parades, could all be used to assert an undeniable force of support. It’s no surprise that Rudy Giuliani’s favorite tactic is to call a press conference or a “hearing” to use selected media to repeat claims he can’t legally make in court.

Belief in the disaster of massive voter fraud through mail-in balloting was rampant among the True Believers (even if many of them voted absentee). The massive fraud was assumed as a force to be defeated. This is buttressed by the inclusion of affidavits which claim process issues like where observers could stand or how someone was treated. They aren’t fraud but with all of these loose threads, there must be a major story here. (insert old joke about a Christmas pony here).

Those evangelical leaders who had positioned themselves so strongly as Trump supporters didn’t have a way to eliminate their dissonance. The disconfirmation of the loss was too great (contrasted with the transactional support for Trump over judges). They haven’t simply supported a preferred candidate but have argued that the alternative would end society as we know it. They drew on their religious bona fides to buttress their argument and now they can’t back down without putting those at risk. (Just ask those evangelical leaders what happened on social media when they suggested Biden won!)

Increased proselytization comes as Sidney Powell spins wider and wilder theories asserting that the algorithms in voting machine, created by foreign dictators and supported by Republican leaders across the country had actually turned a Trump victory into a supposed Biden win. That argument eventually became too much for the Trump Campaign and she was cut loose (unless you’re a True Believer and then this was part of the plan all along).

But a milder version of the belief system continues regardless of disconfirmation. Surely, as Eric Trump argued, something is amiss if Biden could get all those votes when he didn’t leave his basement! Which is, of course, the way in which these closed information loops work.

What happens to these True Believers after Inauguration Day is an open-ended question. In all likelihood, they will continue undeterred in their belief that the election was stolen from them because that’s what they’ve been told for so long.

At the end of WPF, Marion Kreech and Dr. Armstrong were both threatened with involuntary commitment and left the midwest. While continuing to speak to fringe groups (probably at the kinds of hotels Rudy holds hearings at), they eventually disappear from the scene.

Of course, as long as there is OANN and Newsmax (Fox is so passe), there will be places for Trump and Giuliani and Ellis and Powell to tell their stories. And there will be a ready group of listeners who are already predisposed to believe them.

Festinger and colleagues would argue that the group of listeners would shrink over time. They found that the central figures of UFO group took the move into more active proselytizing. Yet the more fringe members simply faded into the background and tried not to bring up their involvement at Christmas parties.

We’ll need to revisit the situation next November to see if the fringe falls away as life returns to some version of normal. But I expect the True Believers will remain for years to come.

UPDATE 12/13/20

Since I wrote this two weeks ago, the Texas Attorney General filed a lawsuit in the Supreme Court requesting the votes in four of the contested states to be invalidated. Over 2/3 of Republican AGs and Republican members of the House signed amicii briefs (as did the lawyer for New California and New Nevada!). The Safe Harbor date was reached by which electoral college members were locked in. And last Friday afternoon, the Supreme Court refused to take up the Texas case (with Alito and Thomas saying they’d hear the case but decline the merits). Tomorrow, the Electoral College formally votes Joe Biden the president-elect.

So it’s over, right? Not if you’re a True Believer.

Yesterday was the Jericho Walk rally in Washington DC. I only followed on Twitter. But it’s worth reading the reflections of conservative writers David French and Rod Dreher to get a sense of the ways in which the most vocal fans of Donald Trump have doubled-down to resolve the cognitive dissonance of their election loss. It’s pretty much what Festinger and friends would have expected.

Why Kimmy Schmidt is Not a True Believer

Kimmy

This weekend I finished the first season of the wonderful Netflix series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. If you’ve been completely out of the loop, the series is created by Tina Fey and focuses on the story of a girl from small-town Indiana who was kidnapped and kept in a bunker for 15 years with three other women. They were held by an apocalyptic preacher-type, Richard Wayne Gary Wayne, who had predicted the end of the world on June 6, 2006 (666). He had convinced the girls that the world had, in fact, ended. So part of the shock of their rescue is that they’d been living in the bunker needlessly for years. Kimmy heads for New York upon release and while the show dabbles in “fish out of water” jokes, it mostly shows the resilience that kept Kimmy sane during her captivity.

Many of my friends on social media have raved over Kimmy. There are aspects that align nicely with people who grew up in certain elements of evangelical culture (this piece by Alissa Wilkinson is one of the best).

While watching the show, I found myself thinking of Leon FestinProphecy Failsger’s When Prophecy Fails. Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schacter had become members of a small UFO cult operating in Evanston, Illinois and Lansing, Michigan in 1954. Given Festinger’s interest in what has become cognitive dissonance theory, it was a wonderful field test. The theory suggests that apocalyptic groups are open to cognitive dissonance because the possibility of disconfirmation is high. When the predicted event doesn’t happen, what does the group do? (Gerardo Marti shared this abstract from a recent article about Harold Camping).

The 1954 UFO group held a press conference on December 17th and predicted that the world would end on December 21st. When I was in college, I got the Chicago Tribune microfilm and read all about the prediction. My favorite thing was the front page on the 22nd: halfway down the page was a small headline that read “World Still Here”.

Festinger and colleagues had predicted that those members most invested in the group would have the highest degree of dissonance. Those on the fringe would simply abandon their beliefs (and try not to talk about them). But those who were true believers would either have to admit they were wrong or find some additional explanation (since the world didn’t end). The true believers argued that God saw their willingness to carry their message and face ridicule. He granted the world a reprieve due to their faithfulness.

Mole WomenWatching Kimmy Schmidt made me wonder how the Mole Women (as the media nicknamed them) responded to their own disconfirmation. The women can be seen in the picture on the right (left to right: Gretchen, Cyndee, Kimmy, and Donna Maria). Here’s what I discovered (there are disclosures coming if you haven’t watched all of it yet).

Gretchen is a true believer. She is always in her blue dress and she believes in Richard Wayne Gary Wayne until nearly the end. She relished her time in the bunker.

Cyndee is a sort-of believer. She was committed while in the bunker, even if somewhat unaware (and protected by Kimmy). Upon rescue, she still identifies as a Mole Woman but milks it for all the benefits she can get.

Donna Maria was never a believer. She was marginalized even while in the bunker, but she got back at people by pretending she didn’t speak English.

Once in New York, Kimmy changes her last name and doesn’t want people to know she was a Mole Woman. In one episode, she explains to another character than she learned that she could put up with anything for ten seconds. She counts to ten and then when she’s done counts again. This act of distancing keeps her on the periphery even though she appears to be the strong one of the group. But we wonder if she really ever believed the world had ended (a stray rat plays a critical role in the story). When Richard Wayne Gary Wayne comes to trial, she finally realizes that she has to go back to Indiana to testify. She doesn’t believe Wayne and sets out to prove that he’s a fraud.

It’s not a perfect test of Festinger’s theory. In part, this is because Richard Wayne Gary Wayne isn’t really believable as a cult leader (at least as told through the flashbacks and his trial performance). Plus, it’s a lighthearted comedy (even if it’s a story of kidnapped women).

Kimmy’s behaviors do align with a lot of what we see in the sociology of religion. People who, on the surface, look like their buying everything being served up. But people who, in their own unique ways, are finding mechanisms to chart their own course and maintain an authentic sense of self.