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When prophecy fails: A social and psychological study of a modern group that predicted the end of the world [Hardcover]

Leon Festinger
3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: University of Minnesota Press (1956)
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B0006AUOJQ
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,899,690 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
This book is why I gave up reading fiction. No novel is as exciting or as revealing of the human condition as a true story like this.

Studying historical examples, a university research group comes up with a theory about the dynamics of apocalyptic cults. When they hear of a local group who believe they are in contact with aliens who will soon bring about the end of the world, they find the ideal opportunity to test the theory. This book is the record of the scientists' infiltration of the group to observe how its members cope with the failure of prophecy.

In a story woven together from the perspectives of the different investigators, we get to see the hilariously desperate attempts of the group members to validate their sci-fi belief system, and the bizarre home life of the lady whose "channelled" messages from space are the focus of the group.

The behaviour of the investigators as they try to cover their real activities draws suspicion, and the medium interprets this as a sign that they are themselves alien visitors. As the disappointing non-end-of-the-world arrives, the investigators find themselves irreversibly involved in the group they are supposed to be objectively studying. This book was gripping enough to make me get up early to spend all day in a bleak departmental library.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating subject but a printing disaster 22 Oct 2012
By Chris H
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Festinger's book about a group of contactees who thought the world was going to end on December 21st is a fascinating read, even if we're talking about 1954 rather than 2012 - it seems the more things change, the more they stay the same. Leaving aside the methodological weakness of surreptitiously joining the very group you're supposed to be studying, the story makes for fascinating reading. From his work here Festinger went on to develop the concept of cognitive dissonance that has become widely adopted.

The problem is that the "facsimile" copy on sale here is a real dog's breakfast of a thing: no attempt has been made to tweak the shoddy typesetting on the cover so the book appears to be called "When P rophecy F ails." And the title is set in that most new age of fonts, Papyrus; figuring out how a typeface introduced in 1982 is appropriate for a facsimile edition of a book published in 1956 is generating a certain amount of cognitive dissonance of my own.

Open the book and things get even worse: the inside front cover, frontispiece, copyright and dedication pages are all from a completely different book: "Live, Learn and Be Happy With Epilepsy" by Stacey Chillemi. Festinger's book starts with the table of contents. According to the information on the back page, the printers appear to be "Lightning Source UK Ltd." of Milton Keynes. Didn't anyone there do a quality check when this book was produced?

Festinger's text is complete, so if you're willing to put up with the appalling printing job, you'll be able to read the original work. Anyone else should look elsewhere.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
'Cognitive Dissonance' is now a recognised term for describing a particular state of mind; a state which seeks to deny an inconvenient truth. The 'truth' in question, in Festinger's study in 1950s America, was the failure of Jesus to return to earth on a flying saucer.

A group of flying saucer enthusiasts had convinced themselves, due to the broadcast 'insights' of one of their number, that the world was about to end. Hope for salvation lay in awaiting Christ's imminent return to rescue a faithful few and take them to a distant star.

The daily meetings of this deluded group were infiltrated by some research students. This book records the students' every observation. The refusal to acknowledge the disappointment at Jesus' non arrival, and the world's continued existence after the prophesied date, gave rise to the term 'cognitive dissonance'.

Festinger remarks on parallels with the Millerites of the 1840s, another, much larger, group, whose End of the World prophecies were confounded. Rather than acknowledge they were wrong, they regrouped as the Seventh Day Adventists who meet to this day. A respectable case is made for the survival of Christianity beyond the disappointment of the Crucifixion. So much had been invested in the hopes for Jesus' salvific mission that adjusting to a a new reality proved, and for many still proves, impossible.

A global movement has lasted for two millennia on account of man's refusal to harmonise reality (Christ was crucified and has not been seen since, save in a mythical resurrection and ascension)with cognition (Christ is alive and will return to Earth).

Festinger's experiment can be seen to reflect that delusion, not on a global scale, but within the confines of a suburban house and
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Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
It's difficult to rate this book, because it isn't like any other book I've ever read, and doesn't try to be. It is also a very important book, on one of my favourite subjects, "Cognitive Dissonance".

The book is mainly one very long documentary on a small group of people who believed that the world was going to be flooded and that they would be rescued by UFO's.

They make a number of prophecies that obviously never come true and the book explains in great detail and precision what happened to each member for every prophecy.

It goes into so much detail that you can really understand why the people held onto their beliefs. Unfortunately I do consider it to be a bit more detail than I would have liked. It would have been great if the book was half the length that it is.

At the end of the book it explains all the difficulties that the authors and observers had while trying to gather information without affecting the outcome. It also explains that they had sixty-five hours of tape recordings that they had to transcribe into almost a thousand pages, so luckily they have cut it down a lot.

This book gives a great insight into how religious people think.

If you're looking for more on understanding cults, Steve Hassan's Combatting Cult Mind Control: The Number 1 Best-selling Guide to Protection, Rescue and Recovery from Destructive Cults has been recommended by ex-Jehovah's Witnesses.

Stephen Oberauer
Author of The Mischievous Nerd's Guide to World Domination
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