Commentary: QAnon and the failure of prophecyLeadership
There have been many reports since January 20 about QAnon adherents and the failure of their prophecy about the inauguration of President Joe Biden. The advocates of the prophecy believed, among other things, that there would be an inauguration day coup that would keep Donald Trump in power.
The coup did not materialize, and the Q-anon disciples found themselves facing the onslaught of cognitive dissonance. What will happen to those adherents now that the prophecy has failed?
I was a Psychology major in college, adding Religion as a second major about mid-way through my university education. My final class in religion, which needed to meet graduation requirements, was a Senior Thesis class. This class required the presentation of a paper defending my thesis, along with an explication to the class.
The majority of my grade was predicated on doing this successfully. I decided to combine the two disciplines I was studying, psychology and religion. My thesis was entitled, "Increased Proselyting, A Means of Resolving Cognitive Dissonance in Pre-Millennial Groups."
I passed the course and graduated with two majors. Still, I never forgot what I learned about cognitive dissonance and how groups respond to disconfirmation of any prophecy to which they are devoted to believing.
Cognitive dissonance, simply stated, occurs when a person struggles with inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially those as related to their behavioral decisions and attitude.
Leon Fetsinger and associates offered one of the first published studies of cognitive dissonance in the 1950s. They noted that cognitive dissonance is intolerable, and people seek to resolve the dissonance in one of three ways.
First, some will deny that there is a conflict. Even in the face of overwhelming evidence, a person may decide to fabricate an alternative narrative, denying the facts before them.
Second, some will rationalize. This tends to be the person who says, "Yes, but…" There is an alternative explanation that acknowledges the facts but effectively neutralizes the dissonance by believing the contrived rationalization that explains away the facts.
Finally, some accept the facts and the evidence. This is often the most difficult choice for a person heavily invested in a disconfirmed belief.
On January 20, as Joe Biden took the oath of office and became our nation's 46th president, all three reactions occurred among the QAnon adherents. Some accepted that they were wrong about the QAnon prophecy regarding the President. Many did not.
So, what will become of the denying and rationalizing QAnon advocates in the wake of their failed prophecy? I firmly believe they will change their narrative, become even more fervent, and seek more converts. They cannot tolerate the dissonance caused by the refutation of their belief.
The increased proselytizing will be evident, but angry and increasingly fringe statements will be just as prevalent.
Those who follow Jesus Christ must avoid the traps of judgment and reaction, but we still must be mindful of Jesus' directive in Matthew 10:16, (ESV): "Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves."
We need wisdom in the face of the dangerous and destructive narrative.
I also remind you of the words of Jesus in Matthew 7:15 (NLT): "Beware of false prophets who come disguised as harmless sheep but are really vicious wolves. 16 You can identify them by their fruit, that is, by the way they act. Can you pick grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? 17 A good tree produces good fruit, and a bad tree produces bad fruit. 18 A good tree can't produce bad fruit, and a bad tree can't produce good fruit. 19 So every tree that does not produce good fruit is chopped down and thrown into the fire. 20 Yes, just as you can identify a tree by its fruit, so you can identify people by their actions."
Finally, consider this:
From Wikipedia, January 22, 2021 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/When_Prophecy_Fails)
When prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group That Predicted the Destruction of the World is a classic work of social psychology by Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter published in 1956, which studied a small UFO religion in Chicago called the Seekers that believed in an imminent apocalypse and its coping mechanisms after the event did not occur. Festinger's theory of cognitive dissonance can account for the psychological consequences of disconfirmed expectations. One of the first published cases of dissonance was reported in this book.
Festinger and his associates read a story in their local newspaper headlined "Prophecy from Planet Clarion Call to City: Flee That Flood." The prophecy came from Dorothy Martin (1900–1992), a Chicago housewife who experimented with automatic writing.
Martin claimed to be receiving messages from superior beings from a planet she referred to as Clarion, and these messages included a prophecy that Lake City would be destroyed by a flood before dawn on December 21. Martin had previously been involved with L. Ron Hubbard's Dianetics movement, and she incorporated ideas from what later became Scientology. The group of believers, headed by Martin, had taken strong actions to indicate their degree of commitment to the belief. They had left their jobs, college, and spouses, and had given away money and possessions to prepare for their departure on a flying saucer which was to rescue the group of true believers. These messages claimed that the world would end in a great flood before dawn on December 21, 1954.
After the failure of the prediction, Martin was threatened with arrest and involuntary commitment, and left Chicago. She later founded the Association of Sananda and Sanat Kumara. Under the name Sister Thedra, she continued to practice channeling and participating in contactee groups until her death in 1992. The Association is active to this day.
Festinger and his colleagues saw this as a case that would lead to the arousal of dissonance when the prophecy failed. Altering the belief would be difficult, as the group was committed at considerable expense to maintain it. Another option would be to enlist social support for their belief. As Festinger wrote, "If more and more people can be persuaded that the system of belief is correct, then clearly it must, after all, be correct."
In this case, if the group's leader could add consonant elements by converting others to the basic premise, then the magnitude of her dissonance following disconfirmation would be reduced. Festinger and his colleagues predicted that the inevitable disconfirmation would be followed by an enthusiastic effort at proselytizing to seek social support and lessen the pain of disconfirmation.
Festinger stated that five conditions must be present if someone is to become a more fervent believer after a failure or disconfirmation:
• A belief must be held with deep conviction, and it must have some relevance to action, that is, to what the believer does or how he or she behaves.
• The person holding the belief must have committed himself to it; that is, for the sake of his belief, he must have taken some important action that is difficult to undo. In general, the more important such actions are, and the more difficult they are to undo, the greater is the individual's commitment to the belief.
• The belief must be sufficiently specific and sufficiently concerned with the real world so that events may unequivocally refute the belief.
• Such undeniable disconfirmatory evidence must occur and must be recognized by the individual holding the belief.
• The individual believer must have social support. It is unlikely that one isolated believer could withstand the kind of disconfirming evidence that has been specified. If, however, the believer is a member of a group of convinced persons who can support one another, the belief may be maintained and the believers may attempt to proselytize or persuade nonmembers that the belief is correct.
David McEntire is the Senior Pastor at First Lakeland UMC.
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