The phenomenon of cognitive dissonance

The American social-psychologist Leon Festinger (1919-1989) published in 1957 his now famous book A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. The book resulted from his study of a bizarre cult led by Mrs. Marian Keech. She claimed that aliens from Planet Clarion would destroy the earth on December 21, 1954 through a massive deluge. Despite the fact that this prediction did not come true, almost all of Mrs. Keech’s followers continued to believe in her alien messages. They refused to admit that they had been wrong, but now claimed that through them the calamity had been averted. Festinger tried to find an explanation for this strange phenomenon. With his theory of cognitive dissonance, he wanted to explain how people tend to deal with new information that conflicts with their previous ideas. They usually experience considerable “psychological discomfort” because of this “dissonance,” and they can deal with thin two ways. They may decide to revise their previous ideas, or they may repress them and continue to search for information that can somehow confirm their previous ideas.

An oft-cited example of “cognitive dissonance” is that of the Watchtower Society. The Jehovah’s Witnesses proclaimed that Christ would return in 1914. But 1914 passed without this happening. Subsequent predictions of the time of Christ’s return (1915, 1918, 1923, 1925, and 1975) also proved false. Yet, this did not lead to the end of this movement, as frustrated members walked away en masse, despite the “cognitive dissonance” they experienced when the course of history proved to be at odds with their earlier theological convictions. The theology of the Witnesses was adjusted by the leaders and most members agreed. An important factor in this process was that many members had invested so much time, energy, and emotion in their movement that they wanted to cling to every possible argument to save their movement!

We saw a very striking example of cognitive dissonance recently in the United States in the QAnon movement. At one point the bizarre theory emerged that there is an underground network of influential pedophile individuals, who are guilty of abducting and even murdering children, and that Q-the anonymous leader who wants to expose this movement-must be supported by all means possible. On December 4, 2016, the heavily armed Edgar Maddison Welch stormed the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Washington, DC, because he believed that Hillary Clinton was running a pedophile ring in the basement of this restaurant. However, Welch discovered that the pizzeria did not have a basement, that there were no pedophiles and that Hillary Clinton was also missing. Welch is now in jail, but the QAnon movement has not been discouraged by this. On the contrary. New “evidence” is continually brought forward as the thousands of followers continue to propagate the pedophile conspiracy of QAnon.

Cognitive dissonance does not always lead to the same result as in the cases of QAnon and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. But Seventh-day Adventists have every reason to be aware of this phenomenon. William Miller’s movement completely splintered when the prediction that Christ would return on Oct. 22, 1844, proved false. A small number of Miller’s followers, who would form the core of the later Church of the Seventh-day Adventists, did, however, feel this cognitive dissonance and developed a theological explanation for the 1844 disappointment. This is now very far behind us, and the church has recognized from the outset that the theory of Miller and his supporters was incorrect. The vast majority of church members never want to repeat the mistake of setting a date for Jesus’ return. But even among Adventists, the problem of cognitive dissonance still regularly rears its head, when it appears that earlier theological assertions–particularly regarding prophetic predictions–can no longer be defended. One clear example will have to suffice.

In the past there were attempts in many originally Christian countries to enforce strict Sunday observance by means of legislation. The expectation that the celebration of Sunday would be mandated worldwide became an integral part of the Adventist end-time scenario. Eventually, refusal to recognize Sunday as a day of rest and worship would even become life threatening. The reality is that this expectation has not been fulfilled. Quite the opposite has been the case. It is, however, proving difficult for many Adventists to accept that this mortal clash between Sunday observers and Sabbath observers is more and more unlikely to happen. This produces considerable cognitive dissonance. Numerous church members continue to search diligently for statements by spiritual leaders, or activities by often obscure organizations that are fighting a rearguard action to promote Sunday sanctification. Adventist organizations on the fringes of the church continue to warn against coming Sunday laws…. In 1983, Jan Marcussen published his booklet A NATIONAL SUNDAY LAW, which was translated into many languages (including Dutch). Marcussen’s supporters have now distributed some 47 million copies of this book. Why do they put so much energy into this? Because it is very difficult to give up a position once taken, and to which one has become so attached. If a long-held position is no longer tenable, we must, individually and collectively, have the courage to resolve the cognitive dissonance by giving up such a position rather than clinging to it, often with contrived and far-fetched arguments.

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