IN THE LATE summer of 1954, a brilliant young psychologist was reading the newspaper when his eye fell on a strange headline on the back page:
prophecy from planet clarion call to city: flee that flood.
it’ll swamp us on dec 21,
outer space tells suburbanite.
His interest piqued, the psychologist, whose name was Leon Festinger, read on. “Lake City will be destroyed by a flood from Great Lake just before dawn, Dec. 21.” The message came from a homemaker in a Chicago suburb who had received it, she reported, from superior beings on another planet: “These beings have been visiting the earth, she says, in what we call flying saucers.”
It was precisely what Festinger had been waiting for. This was a chance to investigate a simple but thorny question that he had been puzzling over for years: What happens when people experience a severe crisis in their convictions? How would this homemaker respond when no flying saucers came to rescue her? What happens when the great flood doesn’t materialize? With a little digging, Festinger discovered that the woman, one Dorothy Martin, wasn’t the only one convinced that the world was ending on December 21, 1954. Around a dozen of her followers—all intelligent, upstanding Americans – had quit their jobs, sold their possessions, or left their spouses on the strength of their conviction.