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on 5 January 2008
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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on 27 May 2012
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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on 22 October 2012
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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on 13 October 2009
'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
garden.
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on 1 May 2016
I understand that Festinger's work has been increasingly scrutinized and also criticized. In the density of the details reported, I almost feel that this book 'misses the woods for the trees'. The introduction was promising, but the rest of it read to me like a record of a research project which fails to ask some of the most interesting questions. There is no in-depth psychological profiling of the people most deeply involved in the story, for example, although there is abundant and detailed recount of events.
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on 21 November 2014
A seminal work on cognitive dissonance ......yes but also a surprisingly funny and enjoyable read. The conclusions of the book leave a large 'elephant in the room' question about how to apply to our own history the specific lessons learned.
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on 8 March 2009
I was really disappointed with this book, mainly because it was nothing like I thought it would be. The book tells the in-depth story of how Festinger's group of researchers gained access to a 'cult' and what they observed during the process. In actuality, Festinger and his researchers seem to take advantage of a small group of flying saucer enthusiasts who take their assertions a little far and get noticed because of a slow news day. By the end of the book, I certainly felt sorry for those involved and could certainly understand how they might perceive the actions of the researchers (and subsequent account) as a white wash. I think Festinger's idea that this was indeed a 'cult' is highly questionable and the actions/quotes of individual members don't seem a million miles away from the rubbish purveyed on satellite TV. You could take the hard-line Dawkins position that such people should be castigated for holding anti-scientific beliefs; I think this would be a little unfair.

The second thing that annoyed me about the book was the absence of theoretical depth. The whole point of the book for me was for Festinger et al to expand on the theory of cognitive dissonance. A brief mention is made in the first chapter but that is it. This makes the book read like one very long description of a non-event (sorry to spoil the plot but the world did not end on the specified date) that could have been summed up far more briefly. Festinger et al seem to suggest that they can make up for the methodological weaknesses (their research team actively participated in the creation of the group; shaping its development and expression) by providing lots of detail (in a kind of reader decide for yourself if we did shape events argument). For me the book was a missed opportunity to put in some social commentary, dissonance theory, up-dates in the light of new research and a follow-up as to where are the characters now? A new edition with a diligent editor would improve this book no end.
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on 17 January 2016
An interesting look at the maintenance of beliefs
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