On December 17, 1954, The Chicago Tribune ran the following headline:
DOCTOR WARNS OF DISASTERS IN WORLD TUESDAY
The paper interviewed Dr. Charles Laughead at the home of Dorothy Martin. Dr. Laughead informed the paper that Martin received communications “from outer space.”
He told reporters these communications from outer space revealed to Martin that the world would be ravaged by a great flood that would end practically all life on earth, save for the small group of people who were stationed at Martin’s home.
Martin convinced her supporters that superior beings from a planet called Clarion sent her messages promising they would save her followers if they would only become true believers.
Dr. Laughead further explained, “There will be a tidal wave, a volcanic action, and a rise in the ground extending from Hudson’s Bay [in Canada] to the Gulf of Mexico which will seriously affect the center of the United States. There will be much loss of life, practically all of it, in 1955. It is an actual fact that the world is a mess. But the Supreme Being is going to clean house by sinking all of the land masses as we know them now and raising the land masses now under sea.”
Laughhead claimed Martin had received intel from the “Supreme Being” which told her they would be sending a spacecraft to save her group from this cataclysmic event.
The newspaper didn’t put much faith in these prophecies as they only ran a short story on page 3 of the paper that day but Martin’s followers were certainly true believers in her word. She informed her disciples that as long as they followed her teachings they would be spared.
This group of roughly 30 people was so committed to the cause they sold all of their possessions, quit their jobs or stopped going to school in preparation.
One person admitted, “I have to believe the flood is coming on the 21st because I’ve spent nearly all my money. I quit my job, I quit school, and my apartment costs me $100 a month. I have to believe.”
After completely upending their lives for their prophet, they had no choice but to believe they would be picked up by a flying saucer.
As the group sat outside of Martin’s home on Christmas Eve they sang carols and waited with anticipation for the coming of their saviors. Unfortunately, this was the fourth time the group had been told to stand outside waiting to hitch a ride on the interstellar highway. Each time they waited with bated breath but their spaceship never arrived.
And each time they didn’t show, Martin informed her followers of a message that had been relayed from the aliens as a reason for their tardiness. There was always a good excuse, so they convinced themselves each time it didn’t happen it must have been a practice session.
According to Martin, the aliens told her the final pick-up time before the end of the world was midnight on Christmas Eve. So they stood on her front lawn and waited. And waited and waited and nothing happened.
After the aliens failed to show, the group sat motionless in her living room. They were all confused, trying their hardest to come up with reasons for the no-show by their alien brethren. After being at a loss for words, Martin finally garnered up the energy to talk to her believers.
As luck would have it, the group had spread so much light that God had saved the world from destruction. Martin told them there was no longer a need to exit stage left for Clarion in a UFO.
A few short hours after their failed predictions, Dr. Laughead said the following:
I’ve had to go a long way. I’ve given up just about everything. I’ve cut every tie. I’ve burned every bridge. I’ve turned my back on the world. I can’t afford to doubt. I have to believe. And there isn’t any other truth.
There was no soul-searching for what went wrong for the simple reason that these people were far too invested in the outcome.
The members could have chosen to look themselves in the mirror and realize their end of the world prediction was ridiculous but that would have required admitting all of the outlandish actions they took and beliefs they held leading up to that point were false.
When faced with the prospect of admitting you’re wrong or looking for a better explanation, most people get busy looking for an explanation.
The concept of cognitive dissonance was developed by psychologist Leon Festinger in the 1950s. It arises when a person holds two different beliefs that are inconsistent with one another. The theory is that when this happens it causes our minds discomfort which we then seek to reduce. Whenever this inconsistency in our attitudes, ideas or opinions kicks in our default is to eliminate that dissonance.
Humans have evolved over time to avoid discomfort, so when we encounter issues that we disagree with it’s much easier to give ourselves a mental break to avoid an internal conflict.
In Festinger’s original experiment he asked participants to perform a series of boring tasks for an hour. Once those tasks were completed these people were supposed to tell another waiting subject that what they were doing was all very exciting to entice them to do the same. They were then paid either $1 or $20 for this acting performance.
The researchers found that those who were only paid $1 actually rated their experience performing a dull task as being more enjoyable than the people who were paid $20. The $1 group talked themselves into it being enjoyable to reconcile internally with the fact that they wasted time, earned very little and lied to others about it. This dissonance was only overcome by the false belief that what they did was more enjoyable than it actually was while the people who were paid $20 were able to recognize they were simply doing it for the money.
Basically, cognitive dissonance leads to self-delusion.
Most psychology experiments are conducted in a laboratory or classroom but Festinger speaks from experience.
He and a team of researchers at the University of Minnesota heard about Martin and her followers and decided it would be the perfect situation for a real world study. They earned her confidence in fall of 1954 and were able to infiltrate the house to observe their actions and words.
The researchers not only witnessed this group leading up to their end of the world prediction but in the aftermath of the failed prediction as well. Their research findings were documented in the groundbreaking book When Prophecy Fails.
A person with conviction is nearly impossible to reason with, even when presenting them with facts to the contrary. Festinger wrote:
Suppose an individual believes something with his whole heart; suppose further that he has a commitment to this belief, that he has taken irrevocable actions because of it; finally, suppose that he is presented with evidence, unequivocal and undeniable evidence, that his belief is wrong: what will happen? The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before. Indeed, he may even show a new fervor about convincing and converting other people to his view.
Think about all of the conspiracy theories people now hold because of what they’ve been told on social media or other places on the Internet. Do you think these people will learn from their mistakes when it becomes abundantly clear they’ve been misled?
In a rational world they would but we do not live in a rational world.
People latch onto arguments that support what they already believe and ignore even plausible evidence to the contrary.
This is why an abundance of information like we have at our disposal today doesn’t necessarily change people’s minds. There is so much data, analysis, opinions, and information available that you can spin almost any argument in your favor if you so choose.
The outcome is almost beside the point in most cases since your brain is already convinced you’re right, regardless of the evidence to the contrary.
Your brain would rather win an argument than get to the bottom of the issue at hand.
If those same aliens were to land on earth today, I wonder what they would think about the fact that we earthlings have access to the sum of all human knowledge in the palm of our hands and yet a large percentage of the population still believes in conspiracy theories.
Maybe that’s why they never showed.
This piece was adapted from my book Don’t Fall For It: A Short History of Financial Scams.