When Theosophy Fails: Flying Saucers and the Defining of Cognitive Dissonance
Parapsychology and the history of psychology
Published in 1956, When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group That Predicted the Destruction of the World is one of the most famous psychology texts of all time.1 Two years earlier, lead author Leon Festinger and a team of academic observers from Chicago had watched a small cult in Oak Park endure the “disconfirmation” of their prophecy that the world would end on 21 December, 1954. This message had come to earth from “Sananda,” the risen Jesus in heaven, yet the world had failed to end on schedule, and the expected flying saucer had not arrived to evacuate the believers as promised.
Although some members of the group, which Festinger called “The Seekers,” departed from the group after this disappointment, proselyting activity increased afterwards for those still in the group. Until then, The Seekers had mostly tried to keep a low profile and minimize the sensational press attention to their activities. According to Festinger, it was the “social support” of The Seekers that made the difference when the prophecy failed. Most of them were able to rationalize the cognitive dissonance between expectation and result, and revise their story, because they were still together. “For rationalization to be fully effective, support from others is needed to make the explanation or the revision seem correct,” Festinger writes. “Fortunately, the disappointed believer can usually turn to the others in the same movement, who have the same dissonance and the same pressures to reduce it. Support for the new explanation is, hence, forthcoming and the members of the movement can recover somewhat from the shock of the disconfirmation.” There is strength in numbers, and individuals take strength from beliefs they share with a group.
Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter anonymized The Seekers out of ethical consideration, since they were not public figures at the time. Thus “Marian Keech,” the channeler at the center of the cult, is never identified in the book as Dorothy Martin, who went on to become Sister Thedra, leader of the Association of Sananda and Sanat Kumara. For it seems that Festinger and associates had only met Martin at the beginning of what was to be a long career as a spiritual figure. By 1954, Martin had already been a practitioner of ‘alternate religion’ for most of her adult life. She would redouble her devotion every decade thereafter. The authors of When Prophecy Fails buried the lede in their eagerness to draw conclusions about group psychology. They did not appreciate that Dorothy Martin, early flying saucer cultist, was the perfect avatar of a religious movement rebranding itself for a “New Age” by reimagining ancient cosmology with modern pseudoscience.