The recent date of 21st December 2012 was associated with a number of end of the world predictions. End of the world predictions have occurred throughout history with various associations. Psychologist Leon Festinger studied one group who believed the world would end on December 21st and summarised his findings in the work ‘When Prophecies Fail’. Festinger’s described the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance in his later work ‘A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance’ to explain how the group members responded when the world did not end. Festinger proposed that people holding two contradictory beliefs will experience distress which he referred to as cognitive dissonance. Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance has been widely studied and successfully applied to psychotherapy. Although the 2012 December 21st date was associated with a number of ‘end of the world’ predictions the heterogeneity of belief systems and dissemination through global media complicates the close study of the effects of this specific belief.
The aim of the present review is to examine the health effects of specific ‘end of the world’ predictions in group settings in which the groups could be defined on the basis of these beliefs and quantitative data was available.
‘End of the world’ incidents were identified using the Wikipedia page ‘List of Dates Predicted for Apocalyptic Events‘. Events were selected in which there were details on the number of group members and the outcome including mortality data. Further sources were used to triangulate the data.
189 predictions or collections of predictions for specific dates that have passed were identified at the time of writing. Of these the following 3 events were selected
1. The December 21st 1961 event (Festinger et al, 2008). Festinger’s meticulous description of the people in the group describes 15 people following the passing of the date in 1961. No people died in this event.
2. The 1996 Comet Halle Boppe event. There were 39 members in the group mansion. All 39 members died in this incident.
3. The 1998 Garland event (Prather, 1999). There were reported to be 150-160 members of the group. No people died in this event.
The analysis from the above events suggests in one case there was significant mortality associated with an ‘end of the world’ group based event. Such events are characterised by a group belief that the members will witness the end of the world on a specified date. There is however a marked variation between the groups. Although the Comet Halle-Boppe event may be considered an outlier there are numerous other events that have resulted in a similar outcome although being less well characterised. These events have occurred throughout history.
The events considered here are distinct from almost all of the recent December 21st 2012 predictions. In these events, one of the groups had formed and continued for periods of up to 20 years. The beliefs had not depended on media transmission but instead on interpersonal communication. Other group events surrounding the central belief were important in considering the context and influence of the belief (Festinger, 2008). The groups are defined not be disparate individuals sharing this belief but rather a closed community who are in regular contact. This distinguishes these groups from individuals who have become transiently interested in such predictions and maintained this interest through the media.
In the groups above other phenomenon were observed including people quitting their job (Festinger, 2008, p.81) and throwing away personal possessions (Festinger, 2008, p83). Festinger’s study has been previously criticised as there were a number of atypical features surrounding the 21st December 1961 event. In particular the group had been infiltrated by a group of social scientists. In addition to these ‘observers’ the group was small and consisted of several doctors as well as a social science student. The group had formed relatively recently prior to the predicted event. Additionally there was a frequent influx of journalists during the day of the prediction.
In the Garland 1998 event local authorities had provided up to 70 police personnel as well as other emergency personnel in order to manage any potentially adverse outcomes (indeed there were similar incidents in the 21.12.12 event). The event also attracted a strong media presence and members of the group would give intermittent press announcements. In the 1996 Comet Halle Boppe event the group had formed over a period of 22 years. Prior group events played a potentially important role in the development of the ‘end of the world’ belief. There was no press or police presence preceding the event amongst the many characteristics distinguishing this incident from the others.
We can see therefore that this specific belief about an end of the world when held with firm conviction in the group setting can result in tragic consequences albeit in very specific circumstances and in association with other circumscribed beliefs. In Festinger’s study which formed the basis for cognitive dissonance theory there were two points which were not addressed. Firstly ‘end of the world’ beliefs may be distinct from other types of belief from an evolutionary perspective. In this setting the group is dealing with what is thought to be a very serious threat. Group behaviour to deal with significant threats has its basis in firmly conserved biological traits described in Darwinian theory.
The second point is the date of the Winter Solstice which was the date of the event that Festinger studied. This correlates with a distinct astronomical event which can be understood by considering the tilt of the Earth’s axis relative to the sun.
Explanation of the Earth’s Tilt Relative to the Seasons
This event may reflect a subtle human adaptation to the environment. Almost all species on the Earth have developed adaptations to the Earth’s changing relationship with the sun and moon. One has only to look at phenomenon such as hibernation, photosynthesis, intertidal zone colonisation and the migration patterns of birds to find convincing evidence of this. There is also an abundance of evidence showing that circadian rhythms that serve as the biological timing mechanisms of countless species are entrained by sunlight (producing an exogenous rhythm). Nevertheless the sun appears very much more brightly to us than starlight. Despite this Emlen has demonstrated through the use of Planetarium experiments that birds are even able to use the relative positions of stars and constellations to navigate. Returning to the Winter Solstice it is interesting to note that it is defined not by an arbitrary standard but rather by a distinct property of the physical world. This event is recognised in human societies across the world.
With regards to the December 21st 2012 predictions there were no significant outcomes in terms of health that I am aware of at the time of writing other than those described previously. Nevertheless in comparison with the closely studied events above, outcomes for the former event are dependent on media reports in the absence of cohort or cross-sectional studies. Causality is more difficult to establish when events are identified. In relation to the above three events there were reports of police presence in specific areas to minimise risk of harm. There were also reports of people allocating significant resources to prepare for an event in the company of others.
One final point is that many hundreds of years ago rumours about pending events could have significant consequences. In today’s world, the global population is well connected. Furthermore we have the advantage of a better collective understanding of how the world works. Rumours about solar flares and a mysterious planet in the solar system were confronted directly by NASA which is an established authority on matters relating to space science. How do people decide what to base their decisions on? NASA was effectively the voice for ‘mainstream science’ and was responding to several alternative descriptions of how the universe works. Nevertheless there wasn’t a proper ‘space’ in which to have the dialogue. NASA’s explanations were clear and enabled the press globally to disseminate sensible information to the public. This most likely allayed the fears of many. However it would be beneficial to have a repository of information perhaps on the internet which can be consulted to answer questions such as these and which is authoritative and internationally agreed to be a reference point (NASA is obviously authoritative although there are varying approaches to the difficulties raised depending on geographical location). Until such time heterogenous answers of varying quality will be generated de novo from multiple sources and the global public will need to make choices about which is the most effective answer to allay concerns.
Further research is needed in relation to health outcomes associated with such predictions.
Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken and Stanley Schachter. When Prophecy Fails. First Edition 1956 (Reprinted 2008).
* ‘The Fox and the Grapes‘ is given as an example of cognitive dissonance although it is equally possible to consider this as an example of denial as described by Sigmund Freud. The distinction between cognitive dissonance and denial is an interesting point to consider.
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