Monday, August 25, 2008

Leon Festinger's UFO Group and the Spreading of Whedon's Gospel

Leon Festinger’s When Prophecy Fails is the classic study on cognitive dissonance and its role in religious and apocalyptic thinking. The book is built around the study of a UFO group. The leader of the group claimed to be receiving revelations from aliens. According to these aliens the Earth would soon be struck with a series of cataclysmic disasters. The aliens promised, though, that, before these cataclysms occurred, they would send a ship to save the members of the group, the true believers. Festinger had his students infiltrate the group to study the people involved. In particular he was interested in seeing how these people would react as the predictions made by the group’s leadership failed to come to pass; which people would maintain their faith? What Festinger found was that, while those who were only marginally attached to the group abandoned their beliefs as they were refuted by the reality on the ground, the inner circle, those who had actually made serious sacrifices because of their beliefs, not only maintained their faith but became even more convinced in their beliefs.

Another thing that Festinger observed was that, while initially the group had no interest in spreading their message to the outside world, once the final date for the group to be taken up in the alien spaceship had come and gone the remaining believers suddenly became very interested in spreading their message. While before they would not talk to reporters, now they eagerly sought the media to tell people that, while it might seem that they had been proven wrong by events, in truth what had happened was that earth had been given a second chance due, in large part to the group’s intercession with the aliens.

Based on his study, Festinger drew up a list of conditions for a person to believe in something despite it being refuted by empirical reality. This would have to be a belief built around the prediction of a clear cut event in time, such a date upon which the alien spacecraft would appear. The person needed to have made real life changes and sacrifices based on this belief such as losing a job. When the big event fails to happen, the person needs to be surrounded by a group of likeminded believers. The larger the group of likeminded believers the easier it is to maintain belief. This would explain the need to gain proselytes after the fact. If lots of people become believers after the fact then it would demonstrate that the belief really was true.

Festinger connected the actions of his UFO group to two groups in history, the original followers of Jesus and the Sabbatian movement. In theory Jesus getting crucified should have been the end of Christianity. On the contrary though, Jesus’ crucifixion inspired his apostles to preach the message to the entire world and created the world’s largest religion. Similarly the conversion of Sabbatai Sevi to Islam should have been the end of the Sabbatian movement. Chased underground by the Jewish establishment, the Sabbatians continued in their belief, convinced that their messiah’s apostasy was a necessary act in the unfolding drama of redemption. Elisheva Carlebach, in fact, uses Festinger in her course on Sabbatai Sevi to explain why the movement failed to die even when its messiah converted to Islam.

I would connect Festinger’s theory of proselytizing to Joss Whedon’s Firefly and the dedication of its followers, known as Browncoats. The television show Firefly lasted a grand total of eleven episodes (fourteen were actually made) before Fox canceled it. Rather than take this as a defeat, Browncoats made it their mission to spread Firefly to whomever they could. Aided by the internet and DVDs they managed to make Firefly a major cultural phenomenon. They even succeeded in getting a Firefly movie made, though like the television show, it failed to be a financial success. Earlier this month, cooped up in a hotel in Chicago for several days with my cousins, I brought along my Firefly DVDs and did my best to recruit new followers. Why would I be so loyal to this show, particularly as it was a failure? It is precisely because it failed. It is galling to watch a show as good as Firefly as it builds up its fantastic storyline only for it to end suddenly. It is like reading a good book only to find out that half of the book is missing and the book is out of print so you can never get a hold of another copy. One cannot just stand by and do nothing, one must act. The only thing that one can do is to spread the message wherever one can. The point is not even to bring Firefly back, highly unlikely at this point, but simply to show that Joss Whedon did not make a mistake. In decades to come when Firefly is listed as one of the greatest shows of the early twenty-first century no one is going to doubt Whedon’s vision.

On a side note, Firefly is now available to watch, legally, on Hulu. So now there is no excuse for anyone who claims to be a fan of science-fiction or to having a sense of humor not to have seen this show.


Anonymous said...

Dude, Browncoat. One word. Seriously. You're a fan? Really? Or maybe just taking the piss.

Anonymous said...

LOL, I saw this coming, but it was nice nonetheless. It took me around two years, but I finally got my brother to watch Firefly... suffice to say, he didn't need me to convince him of anything - it was right there for him to see.

Anonymous said...

it's cognitive dissonance, not dissedence.

Izgad said...

Thank you for the correction.

Izgad said...

I also stand corrected over the term Browncoat. I will make the change.

Anonymous said...


I don't get how being a Joss Whedon fan means I have anything in common with a bunch of nuts waiting for the mothership.

Izgad said...

It is not just nuts waiting for the mothership. This line of thinking also applies to people waiting for their messiah as well. (Not that they are not nuts too.)
This is a way to turn defeat into victory. Recruit as many believers as you can and it will not matter if you lost the battle. You will have the war for history.