Yesterday I was watching the zapping program APM! with some friends when, at a certain moment, Álvaro Ojeda, a well-known Internet “opinion maker”, appeared on the screen. Ojeda has become known, among other things, for the vehemence with which he defends his ideas: he shouts, hits the table he uses to record his videos and seems to always carry an important bad temper . Moreover, as he often touches on issues related to politics and uses an argument that is not very well worked out and is associated with the propaganda of the conservative Spanish right, outside the circles of people who think as he does, he tends to give the image of being the classic bar commentator who talks without having much of an idea of anything. For example, a button.
The point is that one of my friends did not know Álvaro Ojeda, and took for granted that he was a fictional character created by Catalan television to give a bad image of the conservatives by using a lot of stereotypes about them. When we explained to him that Catalan television had nothing to do with Álvaro Ojeda’s rise to fame and that, in fact, he has a lot of followers on his social networks, he not only did not believe us but was even more scandalized by the idea that a media outlet could direct such a convoluted plan from the shadows just to mislead a part of the population of Spain. Someone who normally attends to reason had just embraced a conspiracy theory invented at that time by himself.
The reason was probably that having identified Álvaro Ojeda with the stereotypes about conservative Spain in front of all of us, recognizing that he is not a fictional character and that he has become famous for the support that many people give him would mean admitting that those stereotypes describe quite well a part of the population. Somehow, was chained to what he had said before, and was not able to assimilate information that contradicted his initial ideas .
Leon Festinger and Cognitive Dissonance
This anecdote is an example of what social psychologist Leon Festinger called cognitive dissonance . The term cognitive dissonance refers to the state of tension and discomfort that occurs in us when we hold two contradictory beliefs at the same time , or when our interpretation of the facts we experience does not fit well with the most deeply held beliefs. But what is interesting about cognitive dissonance is not so much the subjective state of discomfort to which it leads, but what it leads us to do.
Since the state of slight stress that it produces in us is unpleasant and we want to reduce this tension, we try to make the dissonance disappear in one way or another. And, although this can be an important motor for learning and reflection, we often take the short route and “cheat” to make it seem that the contradiction between beliefs is not real , which can lead us to deny the evidence, as we have seen in the previous example. In fact, accommodating evidence to fit our belief system without causing too much discomfort not only does not happen exceptionally, but could be a law of life, judging by Festinger’s findings. In this article you can see some examples of this.
Thus, cognitive dissonance is something quite common, and often plays against our intellectual honesty . But… what happens when we don’t just cheat to neutralize beliefs in a specific way? In other words, how do we react when cognitive dissonance is so strong that it threatens to destroy the belief system on which our whole life has been built? This is what Leon Festinger and his team wanted to find out in the early 1950s when they set out to study the way in which a small cult dealt with disillusionment.
Messages from outer space
In the 1950s, an apocalyptic American sect called “The Seekers” ( The Seekers ) spread the message that the world was going to be destroyed on December 21, 1954 . Supposedly, this information had been transmitted to the members of the sect through Dorothy Martin, alias Marian Keech , a woman who was attributed with the ability to write chains of words of alien or supernatural origin. The fact that members of the fanatical group believed in the authenticity of these messages was one of the reasons the religious beliefs of the entire community were reinforced, and as is typically the case with such cults, the life of each member revolved around the needs and goals of the community.
Being part of the cult required a significant investment of time, effort and money, but apparently all this was worth it; according to the telepathic messages that Keech received, devoting body and soul to the cult meant having salvation guaranteed hours before the apocalypse arrived on planet Earth. Basically, some spaceships were going to arrive to transport them to a safe place while the world was covered with corpses .
Festinger and his team members decided to contact the cult members to document how they would react when the time came that neither the end of life on earth nor a flying saucer would appear in the sky. They expected to find an extreme case of cognitive dissonance not only because of the importance the cult had for its members but also because of the significant fact that, upon learning of the day of the apocalypse, they had said goodbye to everything that bound them to their planet: houses, cars, and other belongings.
The end of the world that didn’t come
Of course, the alien Noah’s Ark didn’t arrive. Nor was there any sign that the world was cracking. Sect members gathered quietly at Marian Keech’s home for hours while Festinger and his collaborators remained infiltrated with the group. At a time when despair was palpable in the air, Keech reported that he had received another message from the planet Clarion: the world had been saved at the last minute by the faith of the Seekers . A sacred entity had decided to spare the life of humanity thanks to the dedication of the sect.
This obscurantist collective had not only given new meaning to the failure of the prophecy. It also had one more reason to strive in its endeavors. Although some members of the collective abandoned it out of pure disillusionment, those who remained showed a greater degree of cohesion and began to defend their ideas more radically, to disseminate their discourses and to seek greater visibility. And all this from the day after the false apocalypse. Marian Keech, in particular, continued to form part of this type of cult until her death in 1992.
The case of the Seekers and the 1954 apocalypse is covered in the book When Profecy Fails, written by Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken and Stanley Schachter. In it an interpretation of the facts is offered, relating them to the theory of cognitive dissonance .
The members of the sect had to make two ideas fit together: that the end of the world was going to happen the night before, and that the world was still existing after that moment. But the cognitive dissonance generated by this situation did not lead them to give up their beliefs. They simply accommodated the new information available to them to make it fit into their schemes, devoting as much effort to this readjustment as the tension produced by the dissonance was strong . In other words, the fact that they had been examining a whole system of beliefs for a long time had not served to make them more informed, but had made them incapable of recognizing the failure of their ideas, something that entailed making more sacrifices.
As the members of the sect had made many sacrifices for the community and the belief system it held, the maneuver to accommodate information contradicting the initial ideas also had to be very radical . The members of the cult began to believe much more in their ideas not because they demonstrated a better explanation of reality, but because of previous efforts to keep these beliefs afloat.
Since the 1950s, the explanatory model of cognitive dissonance has been very useful in explaining the internal workings of sects and groups linked to obscurantism and divination. They require the members of the group to make sacrifices which initially appear unjustified, but which could become meaningful considering that their very existence could be the glue that holds the community together.
Of course, it is not easy to identify too much with people who believe in apocalypse orchestrated by alien forces and mediums who have telepathic contacts with the upper echelons of the intergalactic realm, but there is something in the story of Marian Keech and her followers that we can intuitively relate to our daily lives. Although it seems that the consequences of our actions and decisions have to do with the way we change our environment and our circumstances (whether or not we have a university degree, whether or not we buy that house, etc.), it can also be said that what we do builds an ideological framework that keeps us tied to certain beliefs, without the capacity to manoeuvre between them in a rational way.
This, by the way, is not something that only happens in sects. In fact, it is very easy to find a link between the functioning of cognitive dissonance and the way they hold political and philosophical ideologies uncritically: Karl Popper already pointed out some time ago that certain explanatory schemes of reality, such as psychoanalysis , are so ambiguous and flexible that they never seem to contradict the facts. This is why the case study on Marian Keech’s sect is so valuable: the conclusions that can be drawn from it go beyond the typical function of apolcalyptic cults.
To know that we can so easily fall into a kind of fundamentalism through dissonance is, of course, an uncomfortable idea. Firstly because it makes us realise that we could be blindly carrying ideas and beliefs that are in fact a burden.But, especially, because the psychological mechanism studied by Festinger can lead us to think that we are not free to act rationally as people who do not have commitments to certain causes . As judges who can distance themselves from what is happening to them and decide what is the most reasonable way out of situations. There is a reason why, in social psychology, there is less and less belief in the rationality of human beings.