At 6 o’clock on ChristmasEve, 1954, a small group of people gathered on the street outside DorothyMartin’s home in Oak Park, Illinois, singing Christmas carols and waiting. Butthis was no symbolic vigil; they weren’t waiting for the birth of baby Jesus.They were waiting to depart the Earth, and 200 more people had come to watchthem wait.
A day earlier, Martin hadreceived a message telling her the group was to wait at that place, at thattime, for a flying saucer to land. They waited for 20 minutes for the“spacemen” to pick them up, as the message had promised. When none arrived,they went back inside.
This wasn’t the first timethey were disappointed. It was the fourth.
It all started with aprophecy that a massive flood was coming on December 21, 1954. The message wasjust one of many that Martin, who was involved in Scientology and interested inflying saucers, claimed to receive from beings she called the Guardians.
“I felt a kind of tingling ornumbness in my arm, and my whole arm felt warm right up to the shoulder,” shesaid, describing the way she would receive the messages. “Without knowing why,I picked up a pencil and a pad that were lying on the table near my bed. Myhand began to write in another handwriting. I looked at the handwriting and itwas strangely familiar, but I knew it was not my own. I realized that somebodyelse was using my hand.” The flood warning, like all the others, had flowedthrough her as she wrote it out, her arm possessed by these otherworldlybeings.
With warnings of the comingtide came the promise that she and the other believers would be rescued by theGuardians before the flood came, on December 17. One of her most ardentsupporters was Charles Laughead, a staff doctor at Michigan State in EastLansing, Michigan, who was asked to resign his position for teaching hisbeliefs and upsetting students. (In a Chicago Tribune article fromthe time, he maintained that he was fired.)
But a few of the otherbelievers who would end up singing carols with Martin on Christmas Eve weren’tactually believers at all. They were scientists.
A team of researchers fromthe University of Minnesota studying social movements had learned of Martinearlier that year, and considered her and her followers a perfect field study.They began spending time with Martin in October, eventually earning herconfidence, and watched how she and her followers dealt with disappointmentover the next several months as their predictions repeatedly failed to pan out.
Three of the Minnesotaresearchers, Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter, recountedthe believers’ story in detail in their book When Prophecy Fails,published nearly 50 years ago on January 1, 1956. The experiences of Martin andthe other believers were influential on Festinger’s theory of cognitivedissonance.
According to the book, thespacemen’s arrival was originally scheduled for 4 o’clock on December 17. Thebelievers removed all the metal from their bodies, “an act considered essentialbefore one might safely board a saucer,” the authors write, and went out intoMartin’s backyard, scanning the skies. Ten minutes went by, and then Martin,who is given the pseudonym Marian Keech in the book, “abruptly … returned tothe living room.” Others trickled away, and the last believers went back insideby 5:30.
In the house, they discussedwhat went wrong, eventually landing on the explanation that it must have justbeen a practice session. “The saucers would indeed land when the time was ripe,but everyone had to be well trained, ‘well-drilled actors,’ so that when thereal time arrived, things would go smoothly,” the book reads. “The spacemenwere not testing their faithfulness, but were simply unwilling to leave anypossibility that their human allies would make a mistake.”
Sometimes in the face ofevidence against their beliefs, people will lean in to those beliefs even more.Martin got caught in this cycle.
Faced with evidence thatdirectly contradicted their beliefs, the group experienced cognitivedissonance—two thoughts that are inconsistent. This is uncomfortable, and thenatural instinct is to try to make it go away. People can do that in a fewdifferent ways: by trying to forget about the dissonant things, by changingtheir minds, or by looking for new information that gets rid of thecontradiction.
Sometimes this can mean, asthe alien-less Christmas demonstrated, people can react to evidence againsttheir beliefs by leaning in to those beliefs even more. At midnight, when the17th became the 18th, Martin claimed to receive a message that the flyingsaucer was coming right then and everybody had to get on boardor be left behind. For her followers, this new message served as confirmationthat they had been were right to believe. They scrambled outside, being sure toremove any remaining metal from their persons.
“We got back outside again andEdna took me aside and said, ‘How about your brassiere? It has metal clasps,doesn’t it?’” one of the observers reported. “I went back in the house and tookmy brassiere off. The only metal on me was the fillings in my teeth and I wasafraid someone would mention those.”
They waited until 2 a.m. thistime. Still no spacemen.
But the next day, theGuardians reassured Martin with a long message that repeatedly stated: “I havenever been tardy; I have never kept you waiting; I have never disappointed you inanything.”
At midnight on the 21st, thescene played out again. This time, nobody but the five observers wanted to talkafterwards about what had happened. And then came the Christmas Evedisappointment, which had so many witnesses because the believers had sent outa press release about it. By this point, the cognitive dissonance was strong,as evidenced by this (condensed) conversation between Laughead (given thepseudonym Thomas Armstrong in the book) and a news reporter after the ChristmasEve debacle:
Newsman: Dr. Armstrong, I wanted to talk to you withreference to this business about—you know—you’re calling the paper to say youwere going to be picked up at 6 o’clock this evening. Ahh, I just wanted tofind out exactly what happened. … Didn’t you say they sent a message that youshould be packed and waiting at 6 p.m. Christmas Eve?
Newsman: No? No, I’m sorry, sir. Weren’t the spacemensupposed to pick you up at 6 p.m.?
Armstrong: Well, there was a spaceman in the crowd with ahelmet on and a white gown and what not.
Newsman: There was a spaceman in the crowd?
Armstrong: Well, it was a little hard to tell, but of course atthe last when we broke up, why there was very evidently a spaceman therebecause he had his space helmet on and he had a big white gown on.
Newsman: And what did he say? Did you talk to him?
Armstrong: No, I didn’t talk to him.
Newsman: Didn’t you say you were going to be picked up by thespacemen?
Newsman: Well, what were you waiting out in the street forsinging carols?
Armstrong: Well, we went out to sing Christmas carols.
Newsman: Oh, you just went out to sing Christmas carols?
Armstrong: Well, and if anything happened, well, that’s allright, you know. We live from one minute to another. Some very strange thingshave happened to us and—
Newsman: But didn’t you hope to be picked up by the spacemen?As I understand it—
Armstrong: We were willing.
Newsman: Uhuh. Well, how do you account for the fact thatthey didn’t pick you up?
Armstrong: Well, as I told one of the other news boys, I didn’tthink a spaceman would feel very welcome there in that crowd.
Newsman: Oh, a spaceman wouldn’t have felt welcome there.
Armstrong: No, I don’t think so. Of course, there may have beensome spacemen there in disguise, you know. We couldn’t see. I think—I thinkthat’s quite possible.
Perhaps the most powerfulexample of trying to reaffirm beliefs after these disappointments was onChristmas Day, when a new observer affiliated with the researchers showed up onMartin’s doorstep, attempting to gain entry into the group. Suspecting thatthis new visitor may be a spaceman, Martin and Laughead questioned himintensely, asking him to tell stories and seating him at a place of honor at thedinner table. But the next day, Martin got fed up, asking him, “Are you surethat you have no message for me? Now that we are alone, we can talk.”
“The experiences of thisobserver well characterize the state of affairs following the Christmascaroling episode—a persistent, frustrating search for orders,” Festinger andhis co-authors write. After this, the believers began to disperse, leavingMartin’s home for their own, though not all of them lost their faith. Martindid not—in fact, she went on to found the Order of Sananda and Sanat Kumara(the names of two of the Guardians), calling herself “Sister Thedra.”
The lesson the researcherslearned from all this, as they wrote in the introduction to WhenProphecy Fails: “A man with a conviction is a hard man to change.” And whenthat conviction is as important as the promise salvation coming from the sky,“it may even be less painful to tolerate the dissonance than to discard thebelief and admit one had been wrong.”
Julie Beck is a seniorassociate editor at The Atlantic, where she covers health.