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Cognitive Dissonance

The following is an excerpt from When Prophecies Fail—; Sociological Perspective on Failed Expectation in the Watchtower Society by Randall Watters from the Bethel Ministries Newsletter May/June 1990 (now the Free Minds Journal). As of 5/10/2005 it appeared in full at freeminds.org/psych/propfail.htm. It is interesting to note that it was written in 1990, five years before the change of generation teaching, yet predicted the inevitability of such a change.

Few aspects of the Jehovah's Witness movement are more fascinating to the outside observer than their predictions of the end of the world. Yet the predictions themselves are just the surface ripples of a much deeper current in the lives of the movement's adherents. How the prophecies affect the members, how their belief in the prophecy gets stronger, and how they cope with disillusionment and finally regroup with greater strength is far more fascinating food for thought.

There have been plenty of end-times scenarios that could be studied since the time of Christ. As early as the second century, the charismatic leader Montanus gained a following around the belief that the second coming of the Lord was at hand, and that this would occur at a specific location according to his "New Prophecy". Harold O.J. Brown says,

"Montanus' conviction that the end of the age was at hand led him to call on Christians to abstain from marriage, dissolve marriages already contracted, and gather in an appropriate place to await the descent of the heavenly city. The heavenly city did not descend when expected, and consequently Montanus and his followers had to come to terms with its delay, as the whole church had to learn to deal with the postponement of Christ's Second Coming." [1]

What is interesting, however, was that the Montanists did not die out right away, but continued as a small cult for several centuries in Phrygia of Asia Minor."

Leon Festinger's Theory

In studying this phenomena, credit must be given to Leon Festinger for his cognitive dissonance theory, [2] as developed in his book When Prophecy Fails, originally published in 1956 and co-authored by Festinger, Henry W. Riecken and Stanley Schachter.

In brief, Festinger explains the cognitive dissonance theory thusly: "Dissonance and consonance are relations among cognitions that is, among opinions, beliefs, knowledge of the environment, and knowledge of one's own actions and feelings. Two opinions, or beliefs, or items of knowledge are dissonant with each other if they do not fit together that is, if they are inconsistent, or if, considering only the particular two items, one does not follow from the other. For example, a cigarette smoker who believes that smoking is bad for his health has an opinion that is dissonant with the knowledge that he is continuing to smoke. He may have many other opinions, beliefs, or items of knowledge that are consonant with continuing to smoke but the dissonance nevertheless exists too.

"Dissonance produces discomfort and, correspondingly, there will arise pressures to reduce or eliminate the dissonance. Attempts to reduce dissonance represent the observable manifestations that dissonance exists. Such attempts may take any or all of three forms. The person may try to change one or more of the beliefs, opinions, or behaviors involved in the dissonance; to acquire new information or beliefs that will increase the existing consonance and thus cause the total dissonance to be reduced; or to forget or reduce the importance of those cognitions that are in a dissonant relationship." (p. 25-26)

"Alternatively, the dissonance would be reduced or eliminated if the members of a movement effectively blind themselves to the fact that the prediction has not been fulfilled. But most people, including members of such movements, are in touch with reality and cannot simply blot out of their cognition such an unequivocal and undeniable fact. They can try to ignore it, however, and they usually do try. They may convince themselves that the date was wrong but that the prediction will, after all, be shortly confirmed; or they may even set another date as the Millerites did.... Rationalization can reduce dissonance somewhat. For rationalization to be fully effective, support from others is needed to make the explanation or the revision seem correct. Fortunately, the disappointed believer can usually turn to the others in the same movement, who have the same dissonance and the same pressures to reduce it. Support for the new explanation is, hence, forthcoming and the members of the movement can recover somewhat from the shock of the disconfirmation." --Leon Festinger, Henry W. Riecken, and Stanley Schachter, When Prophecy Fails, (New York: Harper and Row, 1956), pp. 27, 28.)

The authors comprised a research team who conducted a study of a small cult-following of a Mrs. Marian Keech, a housewife who claimed to receive messages from aliens via automatic writing. The message of the aliens was one of a coming world cataclysm, but with the hope of surviving for the elect who listened to them through Keech and selected other mediums. What Festinger and his associates demonstrated in the end was that the failure of prophecy often has the opposite effect of what the average person might expect; the cult following often gets stronger and the members even more convinced of the truth of their actions and beliefs! This unique paradox is the focus of attention in this article, and will be later applied specifically to the Jehovah's Witness movement.

Festinger observes:

"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.

"We have all experienced the futility of trying to change a strong conviction, especially if the convinced person has some investment in his belief. We are familiar with the variety of ingenious defenses with which people protect their convictions, managing to keep them unscathed through the most devastating attacks.

"But man's resourcefulness goes beyond simply protecting a belief. 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. [3]

When Prophecy Fails focuses on the failure of prophecies to come true, termed disconfirmation by Festinger, and the accompanied renewal of energy and faith in their source of divine guidance. His theory presupposes the cult having certain identifying features, such as: (a) belief held with deep conviction along with respective actions taken, (b) the belief or prediction must be specific enough to be disconfirmed (i.e., it didn't happen), (c) the believer is a member of a group of like-minded believers who support one another and even proselytize. All of these characteristics were present in the saucer cult.

Of particular interest in Festinger's book is how the followers of Mrs. Keech reacted to each disconfirmation (failed date). Little attempt was made to deny the failure. The strength to continue in the movement was derived, not largely from the rationalizations , but from the very energy of the group itself and its dedication to the cause. This explains why proselytizing was so successful later in reinforcing the group's sagging belief system. Festinger relates:

"But whatever explanation is made it is still by itself not sufficient. The dissonance is too important and though they may try to hide it, even from themselves, the believers still know that the prediction was false and all their preparations were in vain. The dissonance cannot be eliminated completely by denying or rationalizing the disconfirmation. But there is a way in which the remaining dissonance can be reduced. If more and more people can be persuaded that the system of belief is correct, then clearly it must, after all, be correct. Consider the extreme case: if everyone in the whole world believed something there would be no question at all as to the validity of this belief. It is for this reason that we observe the increase in proselytizing following disconfirmation. If the proselytizing proves successful, then by gathering more adherents and effectively surrounding himself with supporters, the believer reduces dissonance to the point where he can live with it." [4]

In the end, the members of the flying saucer cult did not give up their faith in the Guardians from outer space with their promises of a new world. Despite numerous prophecies and the resultant disappointment accentuated by many personal sacrifices, the group remained strong. Summarizing the final stages of the flying saucer cult, Festinger says:

"Summarizing the evidence on the effect that disconfirmation had on the conviction of group members, we find that, of the eleven members of the Lake City group who faced unequivocal disconfirmation, only two, Kurt Freund and Arthur Bergen, both of whom were lightly committed to begin with, completely gave up their belief in Mrs. Keech's writings. Five members of the group, the Posts, the Armstrongs, and Mrs. Keech, all of whom entered the pre-cataclysm period strongly convinced and heavily committed, passed through this period of disconfirmation and its aftermath with their faith firm, unshaken, and lasting. Cleo Armstrong and Bob Eastman, who had come to Lake City heavily committed but with their conviction shaken by Ella Lowell, emerged from the disconfirmation of December 21 more strongly convinced than before..." [5]

Application to the Watchtower

Festinger and co-authors review a few of the historic millennial movements. Among them were the Millerites, a cult centered around the advent hopes for the end of the world to come in the year 1843 as taught by William Miller. The feelings of those in the Millerite movement after the 1843 prophecy had passed were conveyed in the memoirs of F.D. Nichol (who continued to defend William Miller even after the disconfirmed date):

"Our fondest hopes and expectations were blasted, and such a spirit of weeping came over us as I never experienced before. It seemed that the loss of all earthly friends could have been no comparison. We wept, and wept, till the day dawn. I mused in my own heart, saying, my advent experience has been the richest and brightest of all my Christian experience. If this had proved a failure, what was the rest of my Christian experience worth? Has the Bible proved a failure? Is there no God, no heaven, no golden home city, no paradise? Is all this but a cunningly devised fable? Is there no reality to our fondest hope and expectation of these things? And thus we had something to grieve and weep over, if all our fond hopes were lost. And as I said, we wept till the day dawn." [6]

Interestingly, Festinger fails to discuss the International Bible Students (later known as Jehovah's Witnesses) who borrowed extensively from several millennial theories of the day. In January 1876 Russell began a partnership with Nelson H. Barbour, a former Millerite. Barbour convinced Russell that the year 1873 marked the end of 6000 years of human history.

Historian M. James Penton tells us that Barbour had gone far beyond Wendell and his associates, who had originally believed that 1873 would see the second advent and the consummation of the earth by fire. When nothing visible had happened in that year, they were at first quite perplexed until B.W. Keith, a reader of the Herald, discovered Benjamin Wilson's translation of parousia as "presence" Then, like Russell, Barbour and Paton began to believe in the idea of an invisible presence of the Christ, which they felt had begun on schedule in 1874." [7]

Penton, a Watchtower historian and critic of the movement, relates additional information regarding the prophecies of Russell:

"No major Christian sectarian movement has been so insistent on prophesying the end of the present world in such definite ways or on such specific dates as have Jehovah's Witnesses, at least since the Millerites and Second Adventists of the nineteenth century who were the Witnesses' direct millenarian forbears. During the early years of their history, they consistently looked to specific dates-1874, 1878, 1881, 1910, 1914, 1918, 1920, 1925, and others-as having definite eschatological significance...When these prophecies failed, they had to be reinterpreted, spiritualized, or, in some cases, ultimately abandoned. This did not deter Russell or his followers from setting new dates, however, or from simply proclaiming that the end of this world or system of things was no more than a few years or perhaps even months away." [8]

The results of disconfirmation of prophecy within the organization was later admitted by the Watch Tower itself:

"The Watch Tower, and its companion publications of the Society, for forty years emphasized the fact that 1914 would witness the establishment of God's kingdom and the complete glorification of the church. During that period of forty years God's people on earth were carrying on a witness work, which work was foreshadowed by Elijah and John the Baptist. All of the Lord's people looked forward to 1914 with joyful expectation.

"When that time came and passed there was much disappointment, chagrin and mourning, and the Lord's people were greatly in reproach; They were ridiculed by the clergy and their allies in particular, and pointed to with scorn, because they had said so much about 1914, and what would come to pass, and their `prophecies' had not been fulfilled." [9]

The disconfirmation of the 1914 date did not deter the majority of the Bible Students. Russell had the ability to lift up their spirits with new fervor and hope, as the December 15, 1914 issue of The Watch Tower illustrates:

"God has promised that He will give His true children the light at the time appointed, and that they shall have the joy of understanding His Plan at the appropriate season ... Even if the time of our change should not come within ten years, what more should we ask? Are we not a blessed, happy people? Is not our God faithful? If anyone knows anything better, let him take it. If any of you ever find anything better, we hope you will tell us. We know of nothing better nor half as good as what we have found in the Word of God." [10]

Russell reworked his chronology and moved the date for the end of the world up to 1915. After the end failed to materialize in 1915, the end was set for 1918, when "God destroys the churches wholesale and the church members by millions." [11]

At the death of C.T. Russell in 1916, J.F. Rutherford took over the role of the `prophet,' proclaiming in 1920 that Millions Now Living Will Never Die in a booklet and lecture by the same name. Rutherford set a new date for the end for 1925, also claiming that it would bring the resurrection of the ancient men of God to the earth, such as Abraham, Isaac, David, etc. So sure was Rutherford of this that he made the following statements:

"Therefore we may confidently expect that 1925 will mark the return of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the faithful prophets of old, particularly those named by the apostle in Hebrews chapter 11, to the condition of human perfection." 12

"The date 1925 is even more distinctly indicated by the scriptures than 1914." [13]

"Our thought is, that 1925 is definitely settled by the scriptures. As to Noah, the Christian now has much more upon which to base his faith than Noah had upon which to base his faith in a coming deluge." [14]


A Pattern for the Future

A pattern emerges when we examine the growth figures before and after each disconfirmation. Typically, there was a rapid growth in numbers at least two years before the prophetic date, followed by a falling away of some (viewed as a "cleansing" of the organization of the unfaithful), then another growth spurt as a new emphasis on evangelism was put forward.

It may seem incomprehensible how the Witnesses could ignore the implications of each disconfirmation. Outsiders view the Witnesses as lacking common sense for not leaving the organization after numerous failures. They fail to understand the dynamics of mind control as used by cults. Even many ex-JWs fail to understand that the further disconfirmation of the importance of 1914 and "this generation" will not seriously affect the numbers of those swelling the ranks of the Watchtower. The results of mind control and unquestioning obedience will have the same effect today as it did in Russell's day. His view was, "Where else can we go?" Harrison writes regarding this attitude,

"That, of course, is one of the keys to survival of the organization Russell founded on soft mysticism, glorious visions and worldly disaffection. The Witnesses had nowhere else to go. Their investment in their religion was total; to leave it would have meant spiritual and emotional bankruptcy. They were not equipped to function in a world without certainty. It was their life. To leave it would be a death." [24]

This same dependency-unto-death phenomena is at work in thousands of cults all over the world. People wondered at Jonestown: "Why didn't they leave when they saw what Jim Jones was becoming?" The people of Jonestown answered by their actions, "Where else would we go?" They had burned their bridges to follow their Messiah unto death.

A century and several failed prophecies later, the Watchtower movement is testimony that failed predictions do not mean the dissolution of a cult following. The failure of 1975 resulted in a decrease of less than 2%. ... When the dissolution of the Watchtower movement comes, as it inevitably will, it will more likely be due to dissension from within than from the disconfirmation of prophecy.


1. Harold O.J. Brown, Heresies (New York: Doubleday, 1984), p. 67.

2. Leon Festinger, Henry W. Riecken, and Stanley Schachter, When Prophecy Fails, (New York: Harper and Row, 1956), pp. 27, 28.

3. ibid., p. 3.

4. ibid., p. 28.

5. ibid., p. 208.

6. ibid., p. 22; quoted from Hiram Edson, fragment of ms. on his life and experience, pp. 8,9, quoted in Francis D. Nichol, The Midnight Cry (Tacoma Park, Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Company, 1944), pp. 247-248.

7. M. James Penton, Apocalypse Delayed (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985), p. 18.

8. ibid., pp. 34.

9. Joseph Rutherford, Light, Book I (New York: Watchtower Bible & Tract Society, 1930), p. 194.

10. The Watch Tower, 12/15/14, p. 377.

11. Watchtower Bible & Tract Society (WTBTS), The Finished Mystery, 1917 edition, p. 485.

12. WTBTS, Millions Now Living Will Never Die, 1920, p. 89.

13. The Watch Tower, 9/1/22, p. 262.

14. ibid., 4/1/23, p. 106.


24. Harrison, p. 167.

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