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How a group of Minnesotans helped give birth to the theory of cognitive dissonance

In his Frontal Cortex blog yesterday, science writer Jonah Lehrer expounds on the ubiquitousness of cognitive dissonance in today’s Internet-connected world — why, in his words, “we seem to squander ever more oxygen on worthless conversations about Obama’s birth certificate or the spurious link between autism and vaccines.”

He also brings up some interesting Minnesota history. For as Lehrer points out, the theory of cognitive dissonance — “one of the most influential theories in social psychology” — was developed here in the early 1950s by Leon Festinger, who at that time was a psychology professor at the University of Minnesota.

It all began with what must have been a tongue-in-cheek local news story about an end-of-the-world prediction. Writes Lehrer:

In the summer of 1954, Festinger was reading the morning newspaper when he encountered a short article about Marion Keech, a housewife in suburban Minneapolis who was convinced that the apocalypse was coming. (Keech was a pseudonym.) She had started getting messages from aliens a few years before, but now the messages were getting eerily specific. According to Sananda, an extra-terrestrial from the planet Clarion who was in regular contact with Keech, human civilization would be destroyed by a massive flood at midnight on December 20, 1954.
Keech’s sci-fi prophecy soon gained a small band of followers. They trusted her divinations, and marked the date of Armageddon on their calendars. Many of them quit their jobs and sold their homes. The cultists didn’t bother buying Christmas presents or making arrangements for New Years Eve, since nothing would exist by then.

Immediately recognizing a good subject for a research project, Festinger joined the group as a “true believer” and gathered with its members at Keech’s home on the night of the prophesized flood. When midnight came and went, and the aliens — and the great wave of water — failed to appear, some in the group began to cry. Not to worry, though. Keech received and translated a new message from outer space: Because of the little group gathered in her living room, the aliens had decided to spare Earth.

Writes Lehrer:

Although Keech’s predictions had been falsified, the group was now more convinced than ever that the aliens were real. They began proselytizing to others, sending out press releases and recruiting new believers. This is how they reacted to the dissonance of being wrong: by becoming even more certain that they were right.

As Lehrer points out, there is “something deeply troubling about cognitive dissonance, since it suggests that we double-down on our beliefs in light of conflicting evidence.” And the Internet, he suggests, is making matters worse, because people can find support (new messages from the aliens) that their beliefs are correct, no matter how separated those beliefs may be from scientific reality.

“The end result is that we never have to recant,” writes Lehrer. “We can always find another link to ‘prove’ that the government is trying to ‘zombify’ us, or that aliens are going to destroy the earth at midnight.”

You can read Lehrer’s entire Frontal Cortex column at its new site at Wired. For more information about Festinger’s life and other work, I suggest starting with this biographical memoir [PDF] published by the National Academy of Sciences.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Phyllis Stenerson on 08/05/2010 - 11:29 am.

    Fascinating, informative and timely. Did not know the MN connection and need to know more about cognitive dissonance. A few days ago MinnPost published my article on “The Creativity Crisis.” Much was about Dr. H. Paul Torrance pioneering creativity studies at the U of M in the ’50’s. Does anyone know if there is a connection, or if it’s serendipity? The two areas of study seem interrelated to me. I’ll ask Dr. Bee Bleedorn (also featured in article) what she knows. Her memory and curiousity are endless. I’d like to hear a lot more about cognitive dissonance relative to the current public “dialogue” or lack thereof.

  2. Submitted by Michael Friedman on 08/05/2010 - 04:52 pm.

    Alison Lurie published an entertaining novel entitled Imaginary Friends that must have been influenced by Festinger’s study.

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