Why Nothing Will Change On May 21
The March 12 issue of New Scientist offers an explanation of doomsday cult thinking in an article by psychologist Richard Wiseman:
"In 1954, psychologist Leon Festinger of the University of Minnesota investigated a cult in Chicago that was convinced that the end of the world was nigh. The leader, Dorothy Martin, prophesied that there would be a great flood on 21 December and that a flying saucer would rescue her and her follower just before disaster occurred.
Festinger had several observers infiltrate the group and record what happened. As the appointed time approached, the members were buoyant and worked hard to spread word of the impending catastrophe. However, when 21 December came and went without any flooding or extraterrestrial visitation the mood changed.
Did the group suddenly change its beliefs in the face of overwhelming evidence? No. Instead, members concluded that they must have averted the cataclysm by spreading the word.
Festinger's investigation led him to develop the theory of cognitive dissonance. According to this idea, people find it uncomfortable to hold two conflicting beliefs in their head at the same time, and will perform all sorts of mental gymnastics to reconcile the two.
When evidence conflicts with cherished beliefs, most people are happier to explain away even the most compelling data rather than abandon their beliefs. So smokers will question research showing links between their habit and ill health rather tan give up, drivers convicted of speeding will convince themselves that the speed limits are too low rather than conclude that they put lives at risk, and politicians will argue for the effectiveness of their policies even when their ideas have obviously failed.
This approach pervades our everyday lives and helps our beliefs emerge unscathed through even the most devastating of evidential attacks."