Daniel Cecil / July 16, 2018
Once people believe something, they want to keep believing it, even if they are presented with incontrovertible evidence that their belief is incorrect. In fact, being confronted with contradictory evidence can make them want to express their questionable belief with even more conviction. In our current perpetually appalling discourse, this is often called “doubling down.” The famous and powerful are constantly doubling down on one thing or another, nearly always to embarrassing or terrible effect. The rest of us also do it, thankfully to smaller audiences. This awkward attempt at damage control was observed by a social psychologist named Leon Festinger in the middle of the 20th century, and he explained it as part of something he called cognitive dissonance.
Cognitive dissonance is something that most of us experience on a regular basis, like breathing, eating, and shaking our fists at the sky as hot tears stream down our anguished faces. (Maybe that last one is just me.) It happens because our brains resist confusion and want to hammer the world into submission by any means necessary. Festinger and his colleagues knew this from simple observation, but he wanted to closely study a group of people in the throes of the starkest possible cognitive dissonance in order to better understand it.
Festinger took inspiration from the case of the Millerites, a group of 19th century Christians across several denominations that followed the apocalyptic teachings of William Miller, a Baptist preacher who, after years of adding up numbers in the Bible, hit upon the novel notion that the Second Coming was nigh. Miller always resisted giving exact dates for the joyous occasion, but many of his followers were not as reticent. A series of possible dates set by these followers came and went in 1843 and 1844, each one touted by Millerite publications with names like Signs of the Times and The Midnight Cry. What interested Festinger most was that the Millerite movement only seemed to grow stronger after each failed prediction, its members growing ever more fervent in the face of repeated disappointments.
The Millerites had a breaking point, though, and it came on October 22, 1844. This was yet another day on which Jesus was supposed to return, but the Millerites had coalesced around it more completely and energetically than with previous predictions. As you probably know, Jesus did not come back, and, due to the emotional devastation and ultimate dissolution of the Millerites, the event rather hilariously became known as The Great Disappointment. While reading this history was all well and good, Festinger wanted to study a group like the Millerites in real time in order to advance his theories. It was while searching for the right cohort of stubborn believers that Festinger read a story in the Chicago Tribune about a group of UFO enthusiasts who claimed they were in contact with aliens. The aliens communicated to this select few that our planet was soon to be rocked by terrifying cataclysms that would bring human life to its long-awaited conclusion. The aliens had set our expiration date for December 21, 1954, and the only earthlings who might survive the ensuing horrors were those who heeded the warning and found an intergalactic Lyft off our doomed rock. It was exactly what Festinger had been looking for, and that is how an apocalyptic UFO cult became the focal point of a landmark work of social science.
The cultists in question called themselves the Seekers, and they were led by a suburban Chicago housewife named Dorothy Martin. Martin had begun her forays into the esoteric with automatic writing, and she claimed that the spirits of the dead used her as a vessel to communicate with the the living via pen and paper. But at some point in the early ‘50s, she began to say that she was receiving messages from living aliens instead of dead people. This change of address isn’t as surprising as it may seem, because aliens were apparently quite anxious to contact us throughout the first two decades of the postwar period. People all over the world had begun saying that they had a direct line to the mothership. It was the beginning of the era of alien contactees, and understanding that is key to understanding why the Seekers existed at all.
The modern UFO era is generally said to have begun with Kenneth Arnold’s sighting on June 24,1947 near Mt. Rainier in Washington. Arnold was flying his small plane when he realized that what appeared to be nine unusual objects were sharing the sky with him. He described the movement of the objects as “like saucers skipping across water” and, with that, the flying saucer was born. Only a couple of weeks later, news came that one of the newly-minted flying saucers had crashed near Roswell, New Mexico and was being held at the military base there. While the air force would go on to say that Arnold had seen a mirage, and that they themselves had captured a mere weather balloon (several decades later, they would admit that it was a different kind of balloon), a new subculture had been born.
George Adamski was one of the first people in the modern UFO era to claim that he was in contact with the inhabitants of the saucers (most prolifically, a Venusian named Orthon). He’d spent the ‘40s saying that he was psychically channeling the spirits of mysterious Tibetan masters, but, in a move that Dorothy Martin would emulate later, the source of the voices in his head soon changed. He told of being taken on board spaceships and produced many suspicious photographs and films of those spaceships that were published in several books recounting his alleged sojourns among the stars. He called the aliens Space Brothers and assured his readers that they had our best interests at heart. The Brothers simply wanted to stop us from blowing ourselves up with nuclear weapons—and generally to stop sucking so hard. Adamski’s story, whatever its veracity, was fascinating. He was pulp science fiction made real. He made the rounds of many television and radio shows around the world and sold many thousands of books.
Inspired by people like Adamski and the wave of UFO sightings kicked off by Kenneth Arnold, UFO clubs sprang up all over the country. For the most part, there was nothing cultish about these clubs. They were simply groups of fascinated people who wanted to get together and discuss the phenomena behind their fascination. On rare occasions, though, the clubs did serve as starting points for something far more intense, which brings us back to Dorothy Martin. According to her, the same nuclear blasts that worried Adamski’s aliens had broken open some sort of ethereal dam in the Earth’s atmosphere, and that was why she could now communicate with extraterrestrials. Specifically, she was speaking with an evolving cast of beings from a planet called Clarion. They had names like Elder Brother and Sananda (who was really Jesus!), and they said things like, “There is no advantage to thinking when we are studying the teaching of the Creator.” It’s hard to argue with that.
Martin was joined by a small group of like-minded adventurers (there were typically somewhere between 10 and 20 members), the most prominent being Dr. Charles Laughead, a staff physician at Michigan State University. Laughead had actually met and spoken at length with George Adamski, coming away from the conversation with a head full of belief. He was the subject of the interview that initially attracted Festinger to the group. That newspaper story, as it turned out, had been a rarity. The Seekers had never sought publicity before, and they had made no great effort to evangelize, but the end of the world has a way of motivating people. They felt they owed it to their fellow humans to at least put out a plaintive whimper of warning.
The aliens said the end would begin in and around Chicago, with massive floods and earthquakes and the usual apocalyptic madness. The Earth would be purified and remade in decidedly biblical fashion, and anyone hanging around to watch the process would be very dead in short order. The Seekers planned their escape with the guidance of the Space Brothers, and those plans have a practicality that is bizarre when juxtaposed to the circumstances. For example, passports were issued to expedite the boarding process, seats were assigned on the flying saucers, and the acolytes were ordered to remove all metal (down to the tinfoil around each stick in a pack of gum). Once prepared, Martin and her crew excitedly awaited the predicted day.
Cognitive dissonance in action
Once people believe that flying saucers are coming to save them, they want to keep believing that flying saucers are coming to save them, even when the flying saucers fail to show up at the appointed time. So it was with the Seekers. They initially dealt with their cognitive dissonance by making themselves the heroes of the story. The force of their belief had defeated the end of the world. The failure of the craft to show up and take them away was actually proof of everything they had been saying. The disproof was the proof. “And mighty is the word of God,” Martin told her followers, “and by his word have ye been saved—for from the mouth of death have ye been delivered and at no time has there been such a force loosed upon the Earth. Not since the beginning of time upon this Earth has there been such a force of Good and light as now floods this room.”
One of the main aspects of cognitive dissonance that Festinger wanted to study was how the moment of ultimate disappointment would affect the group’s interactions with outsiders. Following what he had observed of other groups, he expected the Seekers to ratchet up their proselytizing efforts, because convincing more people to buy into a belief seems to help alleviate the cognitive dissonance engendered when that belief is under siege. As he wrote:
The individual believer must have social support. It is unlikely that one isolated believer could withstand the kind of disconfirming evidence we have specified. If, however, the believer is a member of a group of convinced persons who can support one another, we would expect the belief to be maintained and the believers to attempt to proselyte or to persuade nonmembers that the belief is correct… It is reasonable to believe that dissonances created by unequivocal disconfirmation cannot be appreciably reduced unless one is in the constant presence of supporting members who can provide for one another the kind of social reality that will make the rationalization of disconfirmation acceptable.
To digress for a moment: this is why the internet, for all its wonders, has proven to be the most powerful cognitive dissonance machine in human history. The people who will reinforce your beliefs are easily found, and they will provide you with all the rationalizations your confused little heart could desire. The most important thing is never admitting defeat. Or, as Dorothy Martin put it to her followers at one difficult point, “The plan has never gone astray. We don’t know what the plan is, but it has never gone astray.”
The Seekers did attempt to lure more pigeons into the coop. They welcomed anyone who showed up at Martin’s door, and Dr. Laughead went on an informal speaking tour of other UFO clubs. Their numbers never appreciably increased, though. In fact, since at least four of their members were minions of Festinger who had joined the group in order to study it, their numbers soon dwindled. Dr. Laughead lost his job in the midst of the hubbub and shuffled off to obscurity. Dorothy Martin began to call herself Sister Thedra and continued as a minor character in New Age circles, mostly channeling Sananda/Jesus until her death in 1992 at the age of 92.
When Prophecy Fails was published in 1956 to considerable acclaim and robust sales. The names of the the actors and the places they lived had been changed, but since the Seekers had made national news just a couple of years before, it’s hard to believe that anyone was fooled. There was criticism of the fact that those studying the group infiltrated it as earnest believers, rather than honest academics, but it must be admitted that there would have been serious problems with either approach. Leon Festinger died in 1989 and was hailed as one of the giants of social psychology, in large part due to his work on cognitive dissonance. In a weird way, I guess you could say that the alien contactees imparted some knowledge to humanity, after all.
* * *
If Martin had lived another few years, she would have witnessed another group of seekers in the news. In 1997, after decades of waiting for aliens to take them away from this miserable world, Marshall Applewhite and his Heaven’s Gate cult discovered the only known cure for cognitive dissonance. They were early adopters of the internet, building web sites for money and using their own web site (amazingly, still here) to spread their message. Like the Seekers and so many other UFO cults, Applewhite and his followers believed that Jesus was an alien (eventually Applewhite believed that he, himself, was the latest incarnation of Jesus), and their teachings were heavily steeped in Christianity.
The Heaven’s Gate group suffered the same indignity as the Seekers. Over and over, they were promised a ride that never arrived. And then the Hale-Bopp comet came hurtling our way, a spectacular ball of vaporizing ice that could be seen from Earth with the naked eye. I can attest that there was something magical about having it hang up there in the sky for weeks on end, like a bright smudge from a godlike finger. The cult believed that a spaceship was lurking in the tail of the comet, and that the spaceship was coming for them (this belief was aided by a hoaxster who faked and widely distributed a supposed photo of the ship in the tail). Like the Seekers, the Heaven’s Gate crew spoke of boarding passes for their upcoming flight. They filmed farewell videos, laced up their Nikes, and killed themselves.
When you read about the followers of Miller, Adamski, Martin, Applewhite, and all the others who turned to the sky for answers, it is impossible not to have sympathy for them. They were all frustrated, perhaps appalled, by the many failures of humanity. They all wanted a better world. The pity of it is that they felt humans couldn’t make that better world themselves.