More than 50 years ago, University of Minnesota social psychologist Leon Festinger and two colleagues wrote these words in the opening to “When Prophecy Fails,” their groundbreaking case study on cognitive dissonance:
A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.
We have all experienced the futility of trying to change a strong conviction, especially if the convinced person has some investment in his belief. We are familiar with the variety of ingenious defenses with which people protect their convictions, managing to keep them unscathed through the most devastating attacks.
But man’s resourcefulness goes beyond simply protecting a belief. Suppose an individual believes something with his whole heart; suppose further that he has a commitment to this belief, that he has taken irrevocable actions because of it; finally, suppose that he is presented with evidence, unequivocal and undeniable evidence, that his belief is wrong: what will happen? The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before. Indeed, he may even show a new fervor about convincing and converting other people to his view.
No flood. No flying saucer.
“When Prophecy Fails” tells the story of a UFO cult led by a suburban Chicago housewife, Dorothy Martin (called “Marian Keech” by Festinger). Martin had persuaded a group of people that a flood would destroy the world on Dec. 21, 1954. She also prophesized that her followers had nothing to worry about. Friendly aliens would arrive just before the flood with a flying saucer and rescue them.
Martin and her followers gathered together on the doomed night. (Festinger was there as well; he had infiltrated the group.) Some had given up their jobs and all their possessions. The deadline came. The deadline passed. No flood. No flying saucer.
But amazingly (well, perhaps not so amazingly if you understand the theory of cognitive dissonance), Martin’s cult did not fall apart. In fact, it grew.
Members were convinced that it was their own beliefs and actions — their gathering together — that had spared Earth from a catastrophe.
The ‘birthers’ cult
Cognitive dissonance was certainly in glaring evidence Wednesday after President Obama released his Hawaiian birth certificate.
As an Atlantic wire headline put it: “The Birthers Have Spoken: They Still Don’t Think Obama’s Legit.”
In fact, if you read or listen to what birthers are saying, they are now even more convinced in the rightness (and righteousness) of their beliefs:
It’s the same psychological phenomenon Festinger and his colleagues witnessed more than five decades ago.
What this means, of course, is that those of us in the, um, fact-based world are going to have to give up on the idea that birthers will be persuaded by non-refutable evidence — a message MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell finally understood last night.
I guess all we can hope for is maybe this time the flying saucer will arrive and take the true believers away.