December 17, 2019

In 2011, a man called Harold Camping had great expectations. Camping was an evangelical preacher who ran a Christian radio station called Family Radio. Some years before, via a complicated reading of the Bible and a calculation involving the number of Jewish feast days in the Hebrew calendar, he had declared that Judgment Day might arrive on 6 September, 1994. If it did not, he said, there would be a Rapture — a bodily lifting-up of the saved into heaven — on 21 May 2011, followed by the end of the world on 21 October. September 1994 had come and gone, so 2011 it was.

On 22 May, he emerged from his house, not having noticeably ascended to heaven, and described himself as “flabbergasted”. On the 23rd he reinterpreted his prophecy, deciding that it meant that a “spiritual” judgment day had taken place; the physical Rapture would happen at the same time as the apocalypse, in October. 

In March 2012, he admitted that he may have been wrong about the timing.

The Camping prophecies attracted much interest from scientists, because they gave an opportunity to study in real time what happens when prophecies fail to come true. There’s a good Slate write-up by the psychologist Vaughan Bell from 2011, just before the scheduled end of the world, and the neuroscientist Kris de Meyer made a documentary, Right Between Your Ears

Camping died in 2013, and, to be fair, had said he wasn’t going to make any more predictions and that he had been “sinful” to do so. But some Camping followers — many of whom had sold their worldly possessions to ready themselves for the world to come — were less willing to give up. They predicted 7 October 2015 as the next date. When that, too, didn’t come, they retreated to a more defensible position, and said that it was like a warning of terminal disease; you might pass the six months or year you were told, but “the prognosis hasn’t changed”.

This is a well-trodden path for members of those doomsday cults whose predictions of apocalypse were admirably, but perhaps unwisely, date-specific. Perhaps the most famous were the Seekers, a Californian group led by a woman called Dorothy Martin. Martin believed that aliens from the planet Clarion had told her, via automatic writing, that a great flood was coming, on the morning of 21 December 1954, but that the Clarionians would arrive in a flying saucer at midnight the night before, to rescue the believers.

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The Seekers, too, left their jobs and their partners, and sold their possessions, and sat up on the night of the foretold apocalypse. Midnight came and went. Then, after hours of shocked silence, Martin declared that she had received a new message. The Seekers, she was told, by “sitting all night long, had spread so much light that God had saved the world from destruction”.

Martin and the Seekers had been observed in all this by another psychologist, Leon Festinger, and his colleagues, who wrote up the events in a famous book, When Prophecy Fails. Festinger said that the cultists’ post-hoc reanalysis of their failed prophecies were not dishonest grifting, but a psychologically necessary piece of self-deception.

He was the first psychologist to describe “cognitive dissonance”, the idea that we find it stressful to hold contradictory beliefs or values, or to do things that go against our beliefs. When we have some deeply held, publicly professed belief, such as that an alien spaceship will come and rescue us from an apocalypse, and that belief is very publicly shown to be untrue, then our minds have to find some way of aligning the two; it may look obvious and forced to outsiders, but from the inside it feels natural.

What was especially interesting, said Festinger, was that before the failed prophecy the Seekers shunned publicity. But after 21 December came and went, they became proselytisers. They went out and spread the word of how close the world had come to destruction. Festinger thought that they were driven by the need to surround themselves by other believers, to give them social support for their beliefs: “If more people can be persuaded that the system of belief is correct, then clearly, it must, after all, be correct.”

By the same author
Why Corbynistas can never admit they're wrong

By Tom Chivers

Entirely unrelatedly, I’d like to talk about Jeremy Corbyn.

We had an election in Britain recently; you may have noticed. Labour, as the polls predicted, were emphatically beaten. The Conservatives very slightly outperformed their 2017 vote share; all the other parties raised their vote too; but Labour were absolutely pummelled, losing 7.8 percentage points, or about 20% of their overall support.

Polling has consistently found that the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, was by some distance the reason why voters left the party, significantly more than its Brexit stance or its economic policies. He is one of the least popular party leaders of all time, with YouGov saying that he has a net -40% approval rating (21% had a positive opinion, 61% had a negative one). Labour canvassers say that on the doorstep, voters consistently said that Corbyn was why they would not vote for the party.

But his supporters online have, generally, avoided reaching what seems (to me at least) the obvious conclusion: that, in large part, the scale if not the fact of Labour’s thrashing was down to its leader being widely despised. Instead, they blamed, among many other things (see this entertaining Twitter thread): Tory disinformation; the “Brexit culture war”; a divided nation; supporting a second referendum; anti-Semitism “smears”; centrists; the BBC; tactical voting; and, interestingly, the voters.

I don’t want to say that Corbynism is a cult. It has some features of cultishness, sure, but so does almost anything, and whether it is or not doesn’t tell you about whether it is actually a good thing. Lots of movements have revered central figures (I was going to say “charismatic”, but, you know). Lots of movements have passionate supporters. Whether you call them a cult or not is just a question of how you define the word

Having said that, I am pretty sure that the psychological mechanism of cognitive dissonance is what drives Corbyn’s more passionate supporters to avoid looking at the (again, to me) very obvious real problem. They may not have sold their houses or left their spouses, like the Seekers or Harold Camping’s followers, but some of them have very publicly committed to him, and having to now publicly accept that that was a mistake would be extremely psychologically painful.

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It’s easy to point out cognitive dissonance, and confirmation bias, and all those other psychological failings we all have, in other people. It’s especially easy to do it in our outgroup, and I should admit that the Corbynite Left is probably my outgroup in a way that the Tories aren’t — for the same reason that Northern Irish Catholics used to hate Northern Irish Protestants, but not care very much about, say, Bengali Hindus, even though the latter’s beliefs are technically much more heretical or alien. Proximity and small differences make an outgroup. So I am aware that I may be too quick to see their failings, and — of course — I am just as blind to my own cognitive dissonance as they are to theirs.

But I have a prediction. Just as Camping’s followers, and the Seekers, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and so many other groups, continued long after the prophecies they made were disproved, so the Corbynite Left will continue, without admitting that the election loss was, in very large part, Jeremy Corbyn’s fault. They are already, as Camping and others did, moving the promised land further into the future (“a 30+ year project”, “it took 18 years last time”). Some will slowly drift away, as the cognitive dissonance becomes too hard to bear even with the comforting delusions, forming an evaporative cooling of group beliefs — the least committed will leave, and only the most hardcore will remain, meaning that the group’s beliefs will become more extreme.

According to de Meyer, Camping accepted, at the end, that he was “completely wrong”. So did “several” of the Seekers. For even the most ardent believer there comes a breaking point, when the weight of reality overwhelms the cognitive dissonance. But before then, paradoxically, the evidence that we are wrong can strengthen our conviction that we are right. For many members of the Corbyn project, the breaking point seems to be some way off.


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