When Prophecy Fails

When Prophecy Fails
When Prophecy Fails  
1964 When Prophecy Fails Festinger.jpg
Book cover, 1964 edition.
Author(s) Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, Stanley Schachter
Country  United States
Language English
Subject(s) Psychology
Genre(s) Non-fiction
Publisher Harper-Torchbooks
Publication date January 1, 1956
Media type Hardcover
Pages 253
ISBN ISBN 0-06-131132-4
OCLC Number 217969

When Prophecy Fails is a 1956 classic book in social psychology by Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter about a UFO religion that believes the end of the world is at hand.


Cognitive dissonance

Festinger's theory of cognitive dissonance can account for the psychological consequences of disconfirmed expectations. One of the first published cases of dissonance was reported in the book, When Prophecy Fails (Festinger et al. 1956). Festinger and his associates read an interesting item in their local newspaper headlined "Prophecy from planet Clarion call to city: flee that flood." A housewife from Chicago (changed to "Michigan" in the book), given the name "Marian Keech" (real name: Dorothy Martin (1900–1992), later known as Sister Thedra[1]), had mysteriously been given messages in her house in the form of "automatic writing" from alien beings on the planet Clarion. These messages revealed that the world would end in a great flood before dawn on December 21, 1954. Mrs. Keech had previously been involved with L. Ron Hubbard's Dianetics movement, and her cult incorporated ideas from what was to become Scientology.[2] The group of believers, headed by Keech, had taken strong behavioral steps to indicate their degree of commitment to the belief. They had left jobs, college, and spouses, and had given away money and possessions to prepare for their departure on the flying saucer, which was to rescue the group of true believers.

Premise of study

Festinger and his colleagues saw this as a case that would lead to the arousal of dissonance when the prophecy failed. Altering the belief would be difficult, as Keech and her group were committed at considerable expense to maintain it. Another option would be to enlist social support for their belief. As Festinger wrote, "If more and more people can be persuaded that the system of belief is correct, then clearly it must after all be correct." In this case, if Keech could add consonant elements by converting others to the basic premise, then the magnitude of her dissonance following disconfirmation would be reduced. Festinger and his colleagues predicted that the inevitable disconfirmation would be followed by an enthusiastic effort at proselytizing to seek social support and lessen the pain of disconfirmation.

Sequence of events

Festinger and his colleagues infiltrated Mrs. Keech's group and reported the following sequence of events:

  • Prior to December 20. The group shuns publicity. Interviews are given only grudgingly. Access to Keech's house is only provided to those who can convince the group that they are true believers. The group evolves a belief system—provided by the automatic writing from the planet Clarion—to explain the details of the cataclysm, the reason for its occurrence, and the manner in which the group would be saved from the disaster.
  • December 20. The group expects a visitor from outer space to call upon them at midnight and to escort them to a waiting spacecraft. As instructed, the group goes to great lengths to remove all metallic items from their persons. As midnight approaches, zippers, bra straps, and other objects are discarded. The group waits.
  • 12:05 A.M., December 21. No visitor. Someone in the group notices that another clock in the room shows 11:55. The group agrees that it is not yet midnight.
  • 12:10 A.M. The second clock strikes midnight. Still no visitor. The group sits in stunned silence. The cataclysm itself is no more than seven hours away.
  • 4:00 A.M. The group has been sitting in stunned silence. A few attempts at finding explanations have failed. Keech begins to cry.
  • 4:45 A.M. Another message by automatic writing is sent to Keech. It states, in effect, that the God of Earth has decided to spare the planet from destruction. The cataclysm has been called off: "The little group, sitting all night long, had spread so much light that God had saved the world from destruction."
  • Afternoon, December 21. Newspapers are called; interviews are sought. In a reversal of its previous distaste for publicity, the group begins an urgent campaign to spread its message to as broad an audience as possible.


Festinger stated that five conditions must be present, if someone is to become a more fervent believer after a failure or disconfirmation:

  • A belief must be held with deep conviction and it must have some relevance to action, that is, to what the believer does or how he behaves.
  • The person holding the belief must have committed himself to it; that is, for the sake of his belief, he must have taken some important action that is difficult to undo. In general, the more important such actions are, and the more difficult they are to undo, the greater is the individual's commitment to the belief.
  • The belief must be sufficiently specific and sufficiently concerned with the real world so that events may unequivocally refute the belief.
  • Such undeniable disconfirmatory evidence must occur and must be recognized by the individual holding the belief.
  • The individual believer must have social support. It is unlikely that one isolated believer could withstand the kind of disconfirming evidence that has been specified. If, however, the believer is a member of a group of convinced persons who can support one another, the belief may be maintained and the believers may attempt to proselytize or persuade nonmembers that the belief is correct.

See also



  1. ^ Dorothy Martin left Chicago after being threatened with arrest and psychiatric commitment. She later founded the Association of Sananda and Samat Kumara. Under the name "Sister Thedra", she continued "channeling" and participating in UFO contact groups until her death in 1992. The Association is still active. See http://drvitelli.typepad.com/providentia/2008/07/after-the-prophecy.html
  2. ^ Bainbridge, William Sims; Rodney Stark (1979). "Cult Formation: Three Compatible Models". Sociological Analysis (Oxford University Press) 40 (4): 90. ISSN 0038-0210. JSTOR 3709958. OCLC 61138057. 


  • Festinger, Leon; Henry W. Riecken, Stanley Schachter (1956). When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World. University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 1-59147-727-1.  Reissued 2008 by Pinter & Martin with a foreword by Elliot Aronson, ISBN 978-1-905177-19-6
  • Pargament, Kenneth I. (1997). The Psychology of Religion and Coping: Theory, Research, Practice. Guilford Press. pp. 150–153, 340, section: "Compelling Coping in a Doomsday Cult". ISBN 1572306645. 
  • Petty, Richard E.; John T. Cacioppo (1996). Attitudes and Persuasion: Classic and Contemporary Approaches. Westview Press. pp. 139: "Effect of Disconfirming an Important Belief". ISBN 0-8133-3005-X. 
  • Prilleltensky, Isaac (1997). Critical Psychology: An Introduction. Sage Publications Inc. pp. 35, 37–38. ISBN 0-7619-5211-X. 
  • Newman, Dr. David M. (2006). Sociology: Exploring the Architecture of Everyday Life. Pine Forge Press. p. 86. ISBN 1-4129-2814-1. 
  • Stangor, Charles (2004). Social Groups in Action and Interaction. Psychology Press. pp. Pages 42–43: "When Prophecy Fails". ISBN 1-84169-407-X. 

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