The psychology of the end of the world

I’ve written an article for Slate on tomorrow’s predicted doomsday and how believers cope with the non-arrival of the apocalypse.

Although many people are familiar with When Prophecy Fails, a book by psychologist Leon Festinger that charted how a flying saucer cult dealt with the non-arrival of the Armageddon, it’s less widely know that it is only one among many studies that investigated how believers coped with failed prophecies.

When Prophecy Fails has become a landmark in the history of psychology, but few realize that many other studies have looked at the same question: What happens to a small but dedicated group of people who wait in vain for the end of the world? Ironically, Festinger’s own prediction—that a failed apocalypse leads to a redoubling of recruitment efforts—turned out to be false: Not one of these follow-ups found evidence to support his claim. The real story turns out to be far more complex.

Psychologists and sociologists have eagerly accompanied those waiting for the second coming of Christ, alien visitation and nuclear apocalypse to see how the followers would react.

While none of the apocalyptic groups reacted as Festinger predicted, they have given us a fascinating insight into how we make sense of stark contradictions and have helped us understand why our beliefs are more resilient that many would assume.

Link to Slate article on the psychology of failed prophecy.

2 thoughts on “The psychology of the end of the world”

  1. My son asked me (we have a billboard very near by) how many people will be homeless or destitute after tomorrow–as a result of dropping everything for the rapture. I have to say, I’m also curious how high that number might be.

    I can’t help thinking about the Millerism every time I see that billboard.

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