Abdullah F. Alrebh, professor of sociology at Grand Valley State University in Michigan
Recruiting citizens to extremist and terrorist groups has a number of broad, shared features—isolating them from family, friends, and anybody who does not share the belief system of the recruiters; redefining identities around the extremist doctrine and then inculcating distrust of the “out-group”; and so on. This radicalization process—and the process of disillusionment, where and when it occurs—have methodological similarities with joining a cult, and that literature can, therefore, be of use. The classic study in cult literature is When Prophecy Fails, published in 1956, by Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter.
The Unfulfilled Prophecy
In the 1950s, a Michigan housewife, Marian Keech—in fact her real name was Dorothy Martin and she was from Chicago—claimed she received messages via “automatic writing” from “Guardians of Earth”, namely aliens from the planet “Clarion”. The aliens, she said, warned of a coming Earth-wide cataclysmic flood from God, with salvation coming in the form of flying saucers only for the elect few who listened to the aliens’ message as transmitted through Keech/Martin and a few other human mediums.
The elect group were known as the “Seekers”; they avoided publicity for the most part, giving few interviews to outsiders, and only those thought to be believers were allowed into the group. The study presented in When Prophecy Fails was made possible, however, when Festinger and a number of his sociology associates successfully infiltrated the circle.
Midnight on 20/21 December 1954 was the anointed hour, yet, despite all their detailed planning and demonstrated piety, the moment came and went with no flood and no rescue saucers. After nearly five hours of tearful waiting and self-reproach, Keech/Martin suddenly had another automatic writing event, wherein the aliens informed the believers that the end of the planet had been called off: the believers had saved the earth from destruction with their vigilant sanctity.
As with the Millerite “Great Disappointment” a century earlier, Festinger et al. found that most of the Seekers “doubled down” on their beliefs in the face of a prophetic failure. The apparent real-world disproof of their doctrine paradoxically strengthened the cult.
Prior to meeting with (and infiltrating) this doomsday cult, Festinger and his associates had developed ideas based on historical cases of similarly themed groups about what constitutes a cult. The framework starts with five conditions (pp. 7-8):
1) 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.
2) 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.
3) The belief must be sufficiently specific and sufficiently concerned with the real world so that events may unequivocally refute the belief.
4) Such undeniable disconfirmatory evidence must occur and must be recognized by the individual holding the belief.
5) 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.
These conditions represent a strategy to protect the belief from “cognitive dissonance”. The first two consider the personal protection of the belief by asserting the deep conviction and self-commitment in order to prepare the believer to resist any change. The next two consider the strong pressures that may be put on a believer to discard his belief and help him to disregard pressures in the face of unequivocal disconfirmation. Finally, they include a social support to enhance the believer’s maintenance of his belief with new fervor.
If a belief system—in this case the prophecy—looks as if it failed, “[two] items of knowledge are dissonant with each other if they do not fit together” (p. 25). Thus, Festinger and his co-authors suggest three methods to reduce dissonance as represented by the observable manifestations of that dissonance (p. 26):
One: The person may try to change one or more of the beliefs, opinions, or behaviors involved in the dissonance. OR
Two: The person may try to acquire new information or beliefs that will increase the existing consonance and thus cause the total dissonance to be reduced. OR
Three: The person may try to forget or reduce the importance of those cognitions that are in a dissonant relationship.
Otherwise, the members of a movement need to “blind themselves” effectively to face the fact that the prediction has not been fulfilled in order to reduce (or eliminate) the dissonance (p. 27).
Critique and Implications
One immediate problem with the study is the data. Qualitative in nature, it derives from historical records related to the case study of “Mrs. Keech’s story”, and participant observational data, the latter of which is problematic because the line between observation and participation proved challenging to police. Which is the broader problem.
In the sixty years since this book was published, a considerable body of literature has built up around it and the recurring question scholars have about the study’s validity is the possible stimulating effect on the group that the authors and their assistants had. While some scholars argue there is no evidence that Festinger et al. did anything but collect data, rather than influencing the data, there are other lines of criticism, with some arguing that the research is tainted by subjectivity and bias.
I find the critique that the methodological approach is too narrow compelling, and that dissonance may be reduced by means other than just proselytization, a concern echoed by number of scholars. In fact, one critic, goes so far as to say, “no case study of a failed prophecy, [Festinger’s] included, has provided support for the cognitive dissonance hypothesis!”
A second noteworthy criticism, much simpler if more difficult to quantify, is that the authors did not pay enough attention to the psychological needs and histories of their subjects. That is to say, they failed to fully consider the worldviews of the subjects which made the cult so compelling in the first place, as well as what needs were seen as being fulfilled as the “clock ticked down” to their doomsday.
Perhaps the most wide-ranging and applicable point of interest from the book is the consequences a failed prophecy has on people, or in other words how people cope with cognitive dissonance—even if that phrase is not used. What do people do when their philosophy is refuted by events? Analogously, in the classic Cold War collection of essays edited by Richard H. Crossman, The God That Failed, six significant twentieth century authors document their adoption of, and eventual disillusionment with, Communism. Needless to say, there are other significant cases, such as Islamism in modern times, whether it is the fallen revolutionaries in Iran or the defectors from a group like Al-Qaeda. In studying this phenomenon, When Prophecy Fails is an excellent starting point.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.
 Festinger, L., Riecken, H. W., & Schachter, S. (2011). When Prophecy Fails. Blackaburg, VA: Wilder Publication.
 Dein, S. (2001). “What Really Happens When Prophecy Fails: The Case of Lubavitch”, Journal of Sociology of Religion, Vol (62), N.3, pp.383-401.
 See, for example, Stone, J. R. (2000). Expecting Amageddon: Essential readings in failed prophecy. New York: Routledge. And also: Dawson, L. (1999). “When prophecy fails and faith persists: A theoretical overview”, Nova Religio Vol (3), pp. 60-82.
 Bader, C. (1999). “When Prophecy Passes Unnoticed: New Perspectives on Failed Prophecy”, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Vol. 38, No. 1, pp. 119-131.