In 1954, a suburban housewife, Dorothy Martin, was contacted by the ‘Guardians’, superior beings from the planet ‘Clarion’. They informed her that on December 21st, 1955, the ‘Supreme Being’ was going to sink all land masses on Earth, destroying the world as we know it. However, flying saucers would rescue the believers.
Doomsday came and went. Yet, the believers did not abandon their beliefs despite having been discredited. Instead, their conviction grew, and they began proselytizing with fervor.
In 2019, China designed and released a virus, that spreads through 5G networks as a biowarfare weapon. Pharmaceutical companies, seizing this opportunity, designed vaccines that contain microchips, with the goal of establishing a global surveillance system.
This is just one of the many conspiracy theories which have emerged and been debunked since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Yet, the believers have not abandoned their beliefs despite having been discredited. Instead, their conviction has grown, and they have been proselytizing with fervor.
Conspiracy theories, political partisanship, and information eco-chambers have infected nearly every topic of social or political importance, rendering us unable to arrive at a shared understanding of the world, our collective priorities, or values. Even in the face of a global pandemic, we demonstrated a disconcerting inability to unite.
A formidable impediment to this is our unwillingness to change our minds and amend our beliefs in the face of new evidence. This was true in 1955, with Dorothy Martin and her cult followers (i.e. the ‘Seekers’) and it continues to be true in 2022. However, this phenomenon is not limited to cults or a particular side of the political spectrum. We are all susceptible to this phenomenon. The question is, why?
In 1955, Dr. Festinger and his team of researchers infiltrated the Seekers hoping to provide an answer to that very question. Their research, which continues to be influential today, provided insights into the cult members’ behavior before and after the disconfirmation of the prophecy. Their analysis of these observations laid the foundation for the theory of motivated reasoning according to which, directional goals and motivations can distort our ability to reason properly.
Dr. Festinger summarized the essence of this theory, albeit with some creative liberties: “A man with a conviction is a hard man to change… Tell him you disagree, and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point… 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.”
In its early iterations, the theory of motivated reasoning claimed that people experience discomfort or dissonance when presented with evidence that contradicts their beliefs. To ease their discomfort, they adapt. Following the disconfirmation of her prophecy, Dorothy Martin claimed that humanity was spared from the flood due to the “force of Good and Light” her followers had spread. This reinterpretation of the events became widely accepted by her followers, who continued to support her and her recruitment efforts. This is a form of rationalization. Other forms include blaming others and attributing the failure or contradicting evidence to human error.
In subsequent iterations, the theory of motivated reasoning identified and further characterized these and other adaptation strategies people employ.
One such strategy is confirmation bias, which refers to our tendency to search and recall information that validates our preexisting beliefs. This phenomenon can be particularly insidious in the age of social media and personalized news feeds. Platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter curate our information sources to capture our attention, creating informational echo chambers that limit our exposure to alternative viewpoints and reinforce our biases. Compounding the effects of confirmation bias is our tendency to perceive evidence that contradicts our preexisting beliefs as weaker and evaluate evidence confirming preexisting beliefs with less scrutiny.
It may be easy to attribute these cognitive biases to a lack of intelligence or an inability to understand, contextualize and interpret evidence. But that is not the case. In fact, one study showed that intelligent people are more likely to engage in motivated reasoning – perhaps because they are better at crafting sophisticated justifications for their beliefs or counterarguments.
Beliefs are also not merely cognitive constructs. They are intertwined with our emotions, identities, and social networks. During the COVID-19 pandemic, this was especially true for vaccine or public health-related information, as they had broad implications for individual values, religious beliefs and/or political affiliations. Under these conditions, the costs of relinquishing one’s convictions can be steep, both personally and socially, adding yet another dimension to motivated reasoning.
The story of Dorothy Martin’s prophecy may seem like a relic of the past or a historical oddity. But in truth, it represents a timeless lesson and cautionary tale about the power of beliefs and the boundaries of our rationality. In the decades since the Seekers, we’ve seen this phenomenon play out time and again, most recently in the debates about climate change and vaccines.
Could we break free from this cognitive trap and embrace uncertainty and curiosity instead? Can we see challenges to our beliefs as opportunities for growth, rather than threats to our security and status? Maybe, but it may require a radical shift in our mindset and values. It may also require a collective effort to create a culture of intellectual humility, diversity, and generosity.
Peer Editor: Rachel Sharp
Illustrator: Emily Jennings Tallerday