Festinger: When Prophesy Fails

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Prophecy from Planet Clarion
Call to City: Flee The Flood. It’ll Swamp Us on Dec. 21,
Outer Space Tells Suburbanite

Lake City will be destroyed by a flood from the Great Lake just before dawn, Dec. 21, according to a suburban housewife. Mrs. Marian Keech, of 847 West School street, says the prophecy is
not her own. It is the purport of many messages she has received by automatic writing, she says… The messages, according to Mrs. Keech, are sent to her by superior beings from a planet called
‘Clarion.’ These beings have been visiting the earth, she says, in what we call flying saucers. During their visits, she says, they have observed fault lines in the earth’s crust that foretoken
the deluge. Mrs. Keech reports she was told the flood will spread to form an inland sea stretching from the Arctic Circle to the Gulf of Mexico. At the same time, she says, a cataclysm will
submerge the West Coast from Seattle, Wash., to Chile in South America.

[Background: In the 1950s many social psychologists were studying people’s tendencies to bring their attitudes into consistency – with other attitudes and with their behavior. Based on a
combination of field research and laboratory experimentation, Leon Festinger developed “cognitive dissonance theory” that postulates that the inconsistency of attitudes with other beliefs or with
one’s own behavior produces an uncomfortable tension state – dissonance – that motivates either change or defensive strategies. Festinger and some of his students were reading about millenarian
(end-of-the-world) cults, and noticed that they often did not give up their beliefs when their prophecies were disconfirmed. Then one of them came across the headline and story above in a Salt
Lake City newspaper.
Festinger and his colleagues decided to study the “cult” that formed around Mrs. Keech, and observe how they would react when their prophecy that they’d be picked up and flown off the earth
by flying saucers did not come true. They hypothesized that the dissonance created by disconfirmation of their belief would motivate them either to change their beliefs or seek strategies to re-
confirm them. They predicted that those who had made strong commitments to the prophecy and to the group would intensify their proselytizing after the saucer failed to appear. The following are
excepts from their account, published in When Prophecy Fails by Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter (1956).]

In early October two of the authors called on Mrs. Keech and tried to learn whether there were other convinced persons in her orbit of influence, whether they too believed in the specific
prediction, and what commitments of time, energy, reputation, or material possessions they might be making in connection with the prediction. The results of this first visit encouraged us to go
on. The three of us and some hired observers joined the group and, as participants, gathered data about the conviction, commitment, and proselytizing activity of the individuals were actively
interested in Mrs. Keech’s ideas….
The first contact between a prophet and the source of his revelation is likely to be marked by confusion and astonishment, not to say shock. So it was with Mrs. Marian Keech, who awoke
near dawn one morning in the early winter about a year before the events with which we are concerned. “I felt a kind of tingling or numbness in my arm, and my whole arm felt warm right up to the
shoulder,” she once remarked later, in describing the incident. “I had the feeling that someone was trying to get my attention. Without knowing why, I picked up a pencil and a pad that were lying
on the table near my bed. My hand began to write in another handwriting. I looked at the handwriting and it was strangely familiar, but I knew it was not my own. I realized that somebody else
was using my hand, and I said: “Will you identify yourself? And they did. I was much surprised to find that it was my father, who had passed away.”
[Fifteen years earlier she had attended a lecture on theosophy and began reading about the cosmos and occult.] She joined a dianetics group and was “cleared” by an auditor and friend who
later took up residence in Mrs. Keech’s home… “My friends have helped me take myself back to the period of my birth – in fact, even before my birth. I can remember the day I was conceived.”…
About the same time that she began to receive messages from nonterrestrial sources, Mrs. Keech had become actively interested in one of the major popular mysteries of our time – flying
saucers. Her interest led her to attend one or more lectures on the subject by an expert on saucers who expounded the belief that these objects did indeed transport visitors from outer space or
other planets. The connection between extraterrestrial messages and such visitors was probably immediately apparent to Mrs. Keech. [She continued to struggle to make sense of the messages her
father sent her by involuntary writing, especially after her mother told her to “stop such nonsense.”]
As she struggled, she gradually became aware that other beings or intelligences were trying to “get through to” her. “It occurred to me,” she subsequently said, “that if my father could
use my hand, Higher Forces could use my hand. I have always been interested in my fellow men and I have always wanted to be of service to mankind. I don’t mind telling you I prayed very
diligently that I would not fall into the wrong hands.” During this early phase of message writing, Mrs. Keech apparently came to fear that she would “fall into the hands” of beings located “in
the astral.” She explained that the astral is overflowing with spirits who are desperate for communication with those left behind, and whose insistent clamor can confuse or obliterate the
intelligence available from higher beings, who dwell at higher (i.e., less dense) spiritual vibration frequencies.
Mrs. Keech’s prayers were answered. Within a short time she began to receive messages from a being who identified himself as “the Elder Brother” and informed her that her father was in
considerable need of spiritual instruction in order that he might advance to higher levels. Between them, Mrs. Keech and the Elder Brother attempted to provide such instruction, but her father
proved a recalcitrant pupil, overly concerned with the earthly affairs of those he had left behind… Finally the Elder Brother gave up, instructing Mrs. Keech to turn her attention to a more
feasible and important task – her own spiritual development.
Gradually, as spring wore on, she developed greater and greater facility at receiving messages, while the number of her communicators increased. Besides the Elder Brother, she began to
receive writings from other spiritual beings who dwelt on the planets Clarion and Cerus. Toward mid-April she began to receive communications from Sananda, who was destined to become her most
important source of information and instruction, as well as her principle link with orthodox Christian revelation, for Sananda subsequently identified himself as the contemporary identity of the
historical Jesus – his new name having been adopted with the beginning of the “new cycle” or age of light.
In spite of her growing facility, Mrs. Keech was still concerned about her ability and fearful lest the superior beings abandon her as a promising pupil. On Easter morning her mind was set
at ease on that point, however, when just after she awakened at 7 a.m., she received the following message from the Elder Brother: “I am always with you. The cares of the day cannot touch you.
We will teach them that seek and are ready to follow in the light. I will take care of the details. Trust in us. Be patient and learn, for we are there preparing the work for you as a
connoiter. That is an earthly liaison duty before I come. That will be soon. You were directed to tell your experiences of my coming to you, for it prepares the way in their hearts. I will come
again to teach each of you. They that have told you that they do not believe shall see us when the time is right.”…
A few days after the Easter message Mrs. Keech received a communication from one of Sananda’s assistants promising to teach Mrs. Keech “Many truths you do not understand.” The message
continued: “What can you do for us? Well, you can go tell the world that we have at last contacted the Earth planet with the waves of ether that have become tactable by the bombs your scientists
have been exploding. This works like an accordion. When the condensation leaves the carceious level of the ether or atmosphere levels that support a large light layer of marine life, it causes a
barrier to be set up. Now that the bombs have broken that barrier we can break through. That is what your scientists call the sonic barrier. We have been trying to get through for many of your
years, with alcetopes and the earling timer.”
[She was told to expect more messages to prepare her for her role in communicating their message to the world. She told some acquaintances, including people attending a meeting of the
local flying saucer club that included a Dr. Armstrong, a physician at a university student health service in the nearby town of “Collegeville,” and his wife Daisy, who long had interest in occult
phenomena and became early disciples.]
[On July 23 Mrs. Keech received a message to go to a local military air base to witness the landing of Sananda’s saucer. She was joined by Dr. & Mrs. Armstrong, and some of their friends.
No saucer landed, but they felt the presence of something – and she then received a message from Sananda saying it had been he, in the guise of a “sice.” Seven of the 12 people who’d gone to the
air base left the group, but the other five remained, and others subsequently joined as followers. Other messages sketch an account of the earth’s population and predicament:]
It seems that eons ago, on the planet Car, the population divided into two factions: “the scientists,” led by Lucifer, and “the people who followed the light,” under the banner of God and
in command of Christ. The “scientists,” having invented something analogous to atom bombs – in those days, the name was “alcetopes” – threatened to destroy the hosts of Light and, through their
fumbling cleverness, succeeded in blowing to pieces the planet Car. The disappearance of Car, as an integrated mass, produced enormous disturbances in the balance of the omniverse (“all
universes”) and nearly caused complete chaos. Meanwhile, the forces of Light had retreated to other planets, such as Clarion, Uranus, and Cerus, where they regrouped and considered their next
strategy. Lucifer led his troops, their minds now obliterated of cosmic knowledge, to earth.
Since that prehistoric day, “the cycle” has begun anew, and threatens to repeat itself. Lucifer is abroad today, in disguise, and has been leading our contemporary scientists in their
construction of ever greater weapons of destruction. If the headlong plunge into fission is allowed to continue, the tragedy of the destruction of Car may be repeated: Earth will be fragmented
and the whole solar system disrupted. The forces of Light have not been idle; Christ’s visit to earth, as Jesus, was the initial attempt to reclaim mankind, to persuade them to desert the Prince
of Darkness, and it was partially successful. There is a portion of the population of the earth who are open and receptive to “the Light,” who can hear the still voice of the Creator, or God, and
act rightly in His service. But the forces of evil (and science) are extremely powerful, and the followers of Light may not be able to conquer in time to escape another explosion….
[With publicity help from Dr. Armstrong, a group of followers gathered to learn the teachings Mrs. Keech was receiving from Sananda and his agents – one in “Lake City” around Mrs. Keech,
and one in “Collegeville” around the Armstrongs. Many, but not all, had been involved in occult and “quasi-mystical” groups before. They gathered at meetings to learn about Sananda’s
communications and instructions to Mrs. Keech, which included the news that the group would be picked up by a flying saucer on Dec. 21, just before the flood. Some conflicts developed, especially
when one woman also began receiving communications, and appeared perhaps to be challenging Mrs. Keech for leadership. Dr. Armstrong’s university received complaints from students’ parents that he
was using his position to preach unorthodox religious views, and he was dismissed. News stories on Dec. 16 about the dismissal, and about the group’s beliefs, drew both negative attention and
active interest to it.]
Sometime before noon on Friday, December 17, Marian Keech received a phone call from a man who told her was Captain Video from outer space. He informed her that a saucer would land in her
back yard to pick her up at four o’clock that afternoon. That, at least, is the message Marian relayed to the others in the house – the two Armstrongs, Edna and Mark Post, and a new recruit named
Manya Glassbaum. The telephone message was undoubtedly the work of a practical joker, but the believers took it seriously and began to make preparations for the pickup. Daisy Armstrong seemed
inclined to to question the message at first, asking her husband and Marian if they were sure someone wasn’t pulling their legs, but she was immediately and firmly quelled. All telephone messages
had to be taken seriously, she was told; the people of outer space could communicate with the group by phone, but often had to use coded messages.
There is no doubt that the believers really expected a saucer to land in the back yard at four o’clock. By noon, all five of the regular members of the group had removed every scrap of
metal from their persons – including zippers, metal clasps, buttons with metal backing, bobby pins, and belt buckles…. Four o’clock finally came and the chosen ones gathered in the kitchen with
their coats, simply walking out on whatever visitors there happened to be in the living room at the time. Mrs. Keech was ecstatic. Hardly able to stand still, she ran between the back porch and
the kitchen window, her eyes turned up to the sky. The others caught her excitement and joined in the scanning. For ten minutes they continued their search while the tension mounted. Then,
abruptly, Marian removed her coat and, instructing the others to keep watch, returned to the living room. After a brief interval, the Armstrongs abandoned their stations too –Daisy to go out for a
walk, Dr. Armstrong to retire to the attic….
There was almost no discussion of the matter among the believers. Our observer waited until the house was empty of visitors to ask Mrs. Keech why the saucers had not come. But Marian
refused to discuss the topic, and none of the others in the living room seemed interested in the question either. Instead, Marian sat for a message and received one that made her weep because it
bore such glad tidings. Sananda informed her that when the group was picked up she would return to “the Father’s house” and need not come back to earth again. The rest of the group expressed
their happiness for her and began to discuss questions of their joint future in higher density space. [The newest recruit to the group, however, left and did not return.]
[Mrs. Keech received another message that the saucer was on its way and would pick them up at 1:30 a.m. The group prepared again, and remained on “saucer watch” until 3:30, and then gave
up, Mrs. Keech having received a message that it had been a drill to help prepare them for the real event. For the next couple of days, the group waited in great anticipation.]
At about ten o’clock on the morning of December 20, Marian Keech received a message for the whole group. It read: “At the hour of midnight you shall be put into parked cars and taken to a
place where ye shall be put aboard a porch [flying saucer] and ye shall be purposed by the time you are there. At that time you shall have the fortuned ones forget the few who have not come – and
at no time are they to be called for, they are but enacting a scene and not a person who should be there will fail to be there and at the time you are to say, ‘What is your question?’… and at no
time are you to ask what is what and not a plan shall go astray and for the time being be glad and be fortuned to be among the favored. And be ye ready for further instructions….”
This as the message everyone had been waiting for and it had come none too soon, for before another dawn the whole of Lake City was to be flooded. But the chosen would be safe. In just
fourteen hours they would at last be picked up by flying saucers and whisked away. All the arrangements had been made and specific further instructions would be forthcoming…. [The group prepared
themselves, removing all metallic objects, and waited in tense anticipation. Midnight passed and hopes dimmed.]
Shortly after 3 a.m. the group reconvened in the living room. It is highly likely that, by this time, most of the believers knew that no man would come, no saucer would pick them up, and
perhaps also that no cataclysm would occur. The questioning by the observers during the previous half-hour probably hastened their realization of these things and made it difficult to push the
disappointments out of their minds any longer. At any rate, over the next hour and a half, the group began to come to grips with the fact that no caller had arrived at midnight to take them to the
saucer. The problem from here on was to reassure themselves and to find an adequate, satisfying way to reconcile the disconfirmation with their beliefs. [By 4 a.m., Dr. Armstrong was in despair
but determined to persevere; Mrs. Keech “broke down and cried bitterly… The rest of the group lost their composure too. They were all, now, visibly shaken and many were close to tears.”]
But this atmosphere did not remain long. At about 4:45 a.m. Marian once more summoned everyone to the living room, announcing that she had just received a message which she read aloud.
She then read these momentous words: “For this day it is established that there is but one God of Earth, and He is in thy midst, and from his hand though has written these words. And mighty is
the world of God – and by his word have ye been saved – for from the mouth of death have ye been delivered and at no time has there been such a force loosed upon the Earth. Not since the beginning
of time upon this Earth has there been such a force of Good and light as now floods this room and that which has been loosed within this room now floods the entire Earth. As thy God has spoken
through the two who sit within these walls has he manifested that which he has given thee to do.”
This message was received with enthusiasm by the group. It was an adequate, even an elegant, explanation of the disconfirmation. The cataclysm had been called off. The little group,
sitting all night long, had spread so much light that God had saved the world from destruction. As soon as the full acceptability of the message was clear, Marian had two more messages in rapid
succession, the first of which was to be used as an introduction to the main message. It read: “Such are the facts as stated that the group has sat for the Father’s message the night through and
God has spoken and that is every word to be said.” The second message was to the effect that the main message and the introduction were to be headed “The Christmas Message to the People of Earth”;
this “Christmas Message” together with the fact that it had been received at 4:45 a.m. was to be released immediately to the newspapers.
Soon after this second message had been read Kurt Freund got up from his chair, put on his hat and coat, and departed. The group had lost another member as a result of the disconfirmation.
But the rest of the believers were jubilant, for they had a satisfying explanation of the disconfirmation. The whole atmosphere of the group changed abruptly and, with it, their behavior
changed too. From this point on their behavior toward the newspapers showed an almost violent contrast to what it had been. Instead of avoiding newspaper reporters and feeling that the attention
they were getting in the press was painful, they almost instantly became avid seekers of publicity….
By 6:30 a.m. all the local newspapers and the national wire services had been called, and some of the initial jubilation had abated. Not only were the members of the group utterly
exhausted from the fatigue and tension of their vigil, but some were beginning to face the hard facts of life in an unflooded world. Edna Post, for example, withdrew to the kitchen where she began
to cry very softly. She explained that she was completely at a loss as to what to do now. In anticipation of being picked up by a saucer both she and her son had given up their jobs and now had
little income…. Daisy and Cleo Armstrong fell into discussing a similar problem a little later. Their family too faced an uncertain economic future and Dr. Armstrong would have to get a job, but
where?…
It was Bertha [who also had been receiving messages] who revived their spirits somewhat by turning their attention to new outlets for publicity. In a session lasting almost an hour, the
voice of the Creator made two important pronouncements; first, all of the hitherto private, in fact secret, tape recordings were to be made available to the public – anyone could obtain a copy;
and, second, the Creator Himself would make special new tapes for anyone who wanted one…. When Dr. Armstrong asked whether any of the tapes should be released to television and radio networks, the
Creator assured him that such a move would be advisable, and the major networks ought to be informed soon of the availability of the recordings. The purpose of releasing the tapes, the Creator
said, was to spread the light as far and wide as possible. It is hardly necessary to stress the complete about-face that had occurred with regard to the tape recordings – from being sworn secrets
they were catapulted into the full glare of national news.
Finally, the Creator assured all the members there that they need not worry about the future. They must continue to learn, to study, and to teach and spread the light to others, but they
themselves would be taken care of.
At about eight that morning the group tuned in a network television program to hear the tape which they had recorded for it that morning over the phone. They were as ready as they would
ever be for the day ahead of them, for the reporters, and for the world….
The barrage of telephone calls that day came from newspapers, from seriously interested or idly curious private citizens, and from jokers. Those reporters who did not trouble to visit the
house were nevertheless given extensive interviews over the phone and subjected to detailed exposition of the events of the past several days and the beliefs of the group. Serious individuals who
called received similar treatment and were usually invited to the house. Even the most absurd jokers were treated cordially and answered with good-humored banter; in some cases badinage with them
continued for ten or fifteen minutes, ending with an invitation to come to the house….
[Their publicity-seeking continued for several days, and the wove accounts of minor earthquakes in Italy and California into a revised theory about the ominous cracks in the earth’s
understructure and role of the aliens in wanting to save the Earth. But these efforts failed to attract any new converts, and others were slipping away.]
Perhaps this complete failure to obtain even a trace of support for their ideology precipitated another prediction and a last-ditch frantic effort to stimulate public interest – an effort
that followed a now familiar pattern. On the afternoon of the 23rd, Mrs. Keech received a very long message that forecast momentous events to take place on Christmas Eve. The message commanded
the group to assemble at 6 p.m. on the 24th on the sidewalk in front of the Keech home and sing Christmas carols. The group would be visited there by spacemen, the message continued, who would
land in a flying saucer. Finally, in marked contrast to the secrecy attending the preparations for the saucer landing on December 17 and 21, they not only were to notify the press of the expected
event but also were to invite the public to be present….
Faithfully at six o’clock on Christmas Eve, Mrs. Keech, the two Armstrongs and their children, Edna and Mark Post, and Bob Eastman gathered on the street in front of the house. The
invitation issued through the newspapers had attracted about two hundred people, who milled about in a somewhat unruly fashion while the little band sang their carols. They sang and waited for the
spacemen for perhaps twenty minutes before they retreated to the living room. [Dr. Armstrong subseqeuntly c laimed to a reporter that a spaceman had been among the crowd, but hadn’t taken the
group away because of perhaps triggering a riot.]…
Late in December, an unfriendly world finally forced the small band of Lake City into diaspora.
Trouble had been brewing for Mrs. Keech for quite a while. As we have seen, her beliefs in populated planets and interstellar spaceship travel had a strong appeal for school boys and all
through the fall they flocked to her. As far back as October, their parents had lodged a complaint with the police who warned Mrs. Keech to cease and desist. This warning instilled in her a fear
of police action that she never lost.
Then, on December 24, the episode of the Christmas Even caroling brought the indignation of Mrs. Keech’s neighbors to a climax. The band of believers, no longer shy, gathered in front of
the Keech house to make their final bid for salvation. As they caroled and waited for a spaceman to visit, they were ringed about by a crowd of some 200 unruly spectators, and police were called
to control the mob. That evening the police were flooded with complaints against Mrs. Keech ranging from disturbing the peace to contributing to the delinquency of minors. Christmas was a day of
peace but, on the morning of December 26, a warrant was sworn out making specific charges against Mrs. Keech and Dr. Armstrong.
The police themselves seem to have been reluctant to set the legal machinery into motion. They telephoned Mrs. Keech’s husband to inform him of the warrant and warned him that, unless
meetings and gatherings at his home were at once brought to an end, they would serve the warrant. Furthermore, they strongly hinted that, once legal action began, the community could try to commit
Mrs. Keech to a mental hospital. Mr. Keech passed along the warning to the group remaining in the house – the Armstrongs and their three children, Edna and Mark Post, Bob Eastman, and Marian – and
they prepared to flee at once…. Dr. Armstrong’s sister had been outraged at what she considered the Armstrongs’ neglect of their two younger children… [and] on December 23 she filed a petition to
have the two adult Armstrongs declared insane and to obtain custody of their children and their estate. Dr. Armstrong was examined by two court-appointed psychiatrists. Their report was
unequivocal: they declared that, although the doctor might have some unusual ideas, he was “entirely normal.” The petition was summarily dismissed and the Armstrong family, intact, was free to do
whatever they wished. The doctor and his wife decided that it was necessary for them to leave Collegeville.
[Mrs. Keech left Lake City alone and in disguise and joined a dianetics center in Arizona. Dr. Armstrong was last heard of giving lectures to amateur UFO enthusiasts at the “College of
Universal Wisdom” in California.]
Conclusion
We have documented one instance of a curious phenomenon – the increase of proselytizing following unequivocal disconfirmation of a belief [and sought to] specify the conditions that will
determine whether or not it will occur. The five conditions are:
1. There must be conviction.
2. There must be commitment to this conviction.
3. The conviction must be amenable to unequivocal disconfirmation.
4. Such unequivocal disconfirmation must occur.
5. Social support must be available subsequent to the disconfirmation.
[There in fact were two groups of believers, one gathered around Mrs. Keech in Lake City, the other gathered around Dr. Armstrong in Collegeville. The core of the Lake City group had shown the
predicted increased proselytizing, but the Collegeville group dissipated after the disconfirmation. As Christmas approached, Dr. Armstrong instructed his group of mostly students to go home for
vacation and await events, assuring them that they’d be picked up by the flying saucers wherever they were. They therefore received news of the disconfirmation in isolation, and lacked the social
support that sustained the core Lake City group.]
The Lake City people, who had social support, were able to accept the rationalization, thus reducing dissonance somewhat, and they regained confidence in their original beliefs. The
presence of supporting co-believers would seem to be an indispensable requirement for recovery form such extreme disconfirmation.