In 1956, a strange but consequential little book appeared, published by the University of Minnesota press, called When Prophecy Fails. This was an academic book written by three psychologists, Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken and Stanley Schachter which examined–and coined the term for–a psychological condition called “cognitive dissonance,” which is a conflict in a person’s mind when they believe in two or more ideas that are mutually exclusive. Although aimed at the academic community, Where Prophecy Fails was a book that had unique resonance in the non-academic world. After it became famous in the 1950s it was republished in 1964 by Harper & Row, and has since become a classic and one of the pillars of pop psychology.

For years I had heard about this book; educated people often mention it when the concept of cognitive dissonance comes up, which it does often when people find themselves arguing against patently unreasonable beliefs (the belief, for example, that climate change is some sort of hoax). However, I can’t remember ever meeting anyone who has actually read it, so I decided to do just that. What I found was more than just an interesting theory of psychology. In actuality When Prophecy Fails is an intensely interesting human story about a small group of people united by a bizarre but fascinating belief system, and what happens to their community when the central tenet of their belief was proven wrong. Far from a dry academic text, When Prophecy Fails reads like a novel, and indeed would make a very fascinating movie perhaps along the lines of P.T. Anderson’s The Master. Thus, in this series of blogs I thought I would tell the story of When Prophecy Fails, with a minimum of emphasis on the psychological theory; at its heart it’s an amazing tale about interesting people, and it’s 100% true.

l ron hubbard

Many of the believers who joined the group profiled in When Prophecy Fails were early adherents of the methods of L. Ron Hubbard, who eventually founded the Church of Scientology.

It happened in the 1950s in Chicago, although names and places were changed in the original version to protect the privacy of the individuals involved. It started with a woman named Dorothy E. Martin of Oak Park, Illinois, whom Dr. Festinger calls “Mrs. Keech.” (For purposes of the story that’s what I’ll call her).  Mrs. Keech was a housewife, married to a man who worked at a distributing company. She’d had an interest in the cosmos and esoteric subjects since her youth, but after World War II this interest was piqued even further. She was one of the early followers of what was then called the “Dianetics Movement” of L. Ron Hubbard, which we know today as the Church of Scientology. Exposed in that milieu to ideas of space travelers and past-life regression, Mrs. Keech, in the spring of 1954, began to believe she could receive messages from extraterrestrials via “automatic writing.” The aliens told her various things that began to take on the trappings of a quasi-religious belief structure, especially after she began receiving messages from an alien called Sananda, whom she believed was Christ. Mrs. Keech made contact with others in the Illinois and Michigan area with similar beliefs, telling them about her messages, and who believed absolutely in what she told them.

Her most important friend was one Dr. Charles Laughead, a physician at the college health center at Michigan State College. In When Prophecy Fails he is referred to as “Dr. Armstrong.” Dr. Armstrong and his wife had similarly quested for some sort of spiritual answers, especially after Mrs. Armstrong had a nervous breakdown just after World War II. Armstrong himself, in the early 1950s, went to California and met the famous UFO “contactee” George Adamski, who claimed to have intimate knowledge of other worlds. The Armstrongs’ friendship with Mrs. Keech bloomed in the summer of 1954 and they also began to attract other friends who believed in UFOs and aliens who wished to intervene directly in the affairs of mankind. In August, Mrs. Keech, the Armstrongs and several other believers gathered in the desert near an Air Force base where Mrs. Keech told them a flying saucer would land. It didn’t, but this didn’t dissuade the believers: indeed their commitment to their beliefs grew stronger.

The book makes clear that the people who signed on to Mrs. Keech’s belief system were not crackpots or nuts. That was what was interesting about them: they were generally normal, well-adjusted American suburbanites, with jobs, families and normal responsibilities. It’s interesting, though, that several of them had had previous connections with Scientology, and many had read Adamski’s sensationalist book The Flying Saucers Have Landed. UFOs, aliens and “saucermen” were big news in 1954, with flying saucer sightings routinely making the papers and the public believing that there was a genuine question among scientists and professionals as to whether flying saucers existed and what they were.

This video, evidently taken from an old film about cognitive dissonance, includes an interview with Dr. Leon Festinger. He appears at 2:17.

Then, in late August, Mrs. Keech received a startling message from Sananda. She reported that a great cataclysm would happen on December 21, 1954, which would involve much of the continental U.S. suffering a huge flood, and the lost continents of Atlantis and Mu (perennial favorites in New Age belief circles) would rise from the sea. The “chosen” people would, Sananda said, escape the catastrophe by being taken away in flying saucers just before it. Keech and Dr. Armstrong thought they had to warn the world that the cataclysm was coming. Dr. Armstrong published a press release detailing this information and sent it to various newspapers. At first they were ignored, but when Dr. Armstrong put out a second release a few weeks later, a few papers bit. At the very end of September, a major Chicago paper ran an article about Mrs. Keech and her prediction. Now the Chicago saucer group had publicity.

One of the people who read the article was a University of Minnesota psychologist, Leon Festinger. Born in 1919 to Russian-Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn, Festinger became a social psychologist when he joined the faculty of MIT just after the war and conducted various interesting studies on group behavior. After he moved to Minnesota in 1951 he studied prophetic movements, and was particularly interested in studying what happened to believers of such movements when specific prophecies made by their oracles failed to come true. Now such a situation had fallen into his lap. Something like this might not come up again for a long time. He felt he had to jump at it and make an attempt to study it as it happened.

This would not be easy. Mrs. Keech and her small but dedicated group of UFO believers could not know that they were being studied for a psychological experiment. If he was to test their beliefs, Dr. Festinger and the team of colleagues he quickly assembled would have to send someone to infiltrate Mrs. Keech’s group, pretend to be down with their program and then also collect data that could stand up to scientific and academic rigor. A bold and daring study like this had never been done under these circumstances. Festinger and his chief collaborator, Dr. Stanley Schachter, began coming up with a methodology and quietly canvassing students and observers who could be sent into the lion’s den. But the clock was ticking. It was now early October, and Mrs. Keech’s cataclysm was less than three months away. It would take time to ingratiate the infiltrators into the group. Could they pull it off–and do it without the believers getting wise to the psychologists’ true purpose?

In the next installment: the psychologists organize their strategy, Mrs. Keech and the UFO group begins to gain followers, and a power struggle for spiritual leadership of the group breaks out.

The header image for this article contains the cover of the 1964 edition of When Prophecy Fails, which is presumably copyright (C) 1964 by Harper & Row. Its inclusion here is believed to be fair use under applicable copyright laws.