On 21 December 1954, a group of people gathered in a small house in Chicago. This group was not gathering to celebrate Christmas, despite the fact they were singing Christmas carols. They had gathered for a different purpose.
They were awaiting the arrival of an alien spaceship. The group belonged to a cult led by Dorothy Martin, which believed the Earth was going to be destroyed by a great flood.
Martin had received instructions the day before telling her the group was to wait for a flying saucer to land and whisk them away to safety. Midnight was the magical time they would be escorted to the spacecraft by an alien visitor.
The group waited and waited until midnight hit and there was no sign of any visitor. One member of the group noticed that a different clock in the room showed the time as 11:55. The group agreed it was not midnight yet.
The second clock struck midnight, yet there was still no sign of the visitor. The group sat in stunned silence, baffled by the no-show of their supposed rescuer. The prophesied flood was a matter of hours away, what was going to happen?
A few hours passed and the group was still in silence, a few members began to cry. It was at this point that Martin received another message. It stated that the God of Earth had decided to spare the planet from destruction.
The cataclysm had been as abruptly called off as it was announced. Despite the intransigent belief of the group and its leader, no aliens showed up and the flood never materialised.
Faced with the realisation that their belief system had faltered the group did not back down, instead, they doubled down on their belief, revising the narrative to fit with the sequence of events.
What caused these people to preserve their beliefs with all the evidence being contrary to their belief? Why do we persist and refuse to change our beliefs when it becomes clear they are wrong?
We all possess beliefs which shape the reality we live in. There are those who believe in the existence of a deity, while there are others who do not. These differing opinions alone indicates a lack of agreement on which is correct.
Our beliefs stem from the experiences we have gathered during our lifetimes and from familial relations. I hail from a working-class family, which has shaped my views regarding politics. Had I been born into a wealthier family, my views would have likely been different.
These beliefs are not an issue by themselves. What is an issue is when we are confronted with evidence that points to them being incorrect. It is how we react to this moment that is crucial Do we double down, or do we acknowledge we may have been wrong?
Residents of New Jersey were faced with this dilemma in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene and Sandy. The hurricanes caused significant damage to America’s East Coast which ran well into the billions of dollars.
Before the hurricanes hit, voters in New Jersey were likely to react negatively towards a politician espousing green policies. In the aftermath of the hurricanes, this changed. Those same residents who were previously opposed to green policies were more likely to embrace green policies. This was especially true for those affected by Hurricane Sandy.
Faced with a devastating disaster and severe personal loss, the residents were forced to accept reality and acknowledge they had been wrong. Often, it takes a disaster such as this, or a personal loss to focus one’s mind and realise you may have been wrong all along.
There is no shame in being wrong. We are all wrong at some point throughout our lives, in fact, we are more often wrong than right. However, we find it hard to admit we were and change our beliefs accordingly.
Psychologists refer to this as cognitive dissonance. It is a mental discomfort experienced by a person who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas or values. This discomfort is often triggered by a situation in which the person’s beliefs clashes with new evidence which points to the contrary.
In order to relieve this discomfort, the person often neglects to acknowledge the new information to maintain psychological consistency. Thus, instead of facing up to the new data, it is explained away to keep one’s mental state in equilibrium.
We will all be faced with these moments in our lives whether we like it or not. Advances in technology will cause our realities to become more and more removed from what we were used to. Our belief structures will be challenged more than ever. How we face up to this will determine the quality of the life we will lead.
Changing our minds when our views are so entrenched is one of the hardest things to do. It’s uncomfortable to accept that views you have held may be wrong. However, it is important to embrace the tipping point as we approach it, where the overwhelming data in opposition cause our beliefs to shift.
While we can take the approach of Martin’s cult and change the facts to suit the evidence, we are only fooling ourselves when we do so. It akes a lot of responsibility to face up to shattered beliefs, but the alternative is much worse.
A life spent in denial. Living a lie and pretending that the uncomfortable truths we have encountered do not matter. Martin’s cult was examined in a book, When Prophecy Fails, written by Leon Festinger, who along with two other researchers had infiltrated the cult.
Despite her failure to accurately predict the arrival of aliens and the end of the world, Martin remained steadfast in her beliefs. She went on to found the Order of Sananda and Sanat Kumara, referring to herself as “Sister Thedra.”
What the researchers learnt from their experiences and the aftermath is prescient:
“A man with a conviction is a hard man to change.”
Even with all the evidence pointing to the contrary, Martin refused to budge. Festinger offered a reason for this: “it may even be less painful to tolerate the dissonance than to discard the belief and admit one had been wrong.”
This is the crux of the matter. We do not like to admit we are wrong, even when it is obvious that we are. At moments such as this, it is necessary to swallow our pride and accept the cold, hard reality we are facing.
The beliefs and value we hold underpin our lives, we must ensure that when faced with a dilemma such as Martin’s we do not ignore it, but embrace and admit we were wrong.
As much as we may think so, there is no shame in being wrong. We are only human after all.