Monday, May 23, 2011

Why Rapture 2.0 was meant to fail, or why climate activists ride airplanes

By Jordan Tam

Soon after the predicted End, the vast majority of us were still here. Like déjà vu, the next predicted Armageddon (note December 21, 2012) is likely to unfold like yesterdays and those already passed. Perhaps this Rapture was another mathematical mistake (the given reason for the first botched Rapture of ‘94 provided by Mr. Camping, the failed prophet).

More predictable was the immediate response of those who believed the end was nigh. As a BBC article reports, some “...followers said the delay was a further test from God to persevere in their faith”. Cue sceptic and atheist eye-rolling.

However, are any of us innocent of this sort of rationalization?

Here we turn to a classic study in the annals of psychology by Leon Festinger and colleagues. In 1954, Festinger et al. managed to infiltrate a doomsday cult named the ‘Seekers’ led by one Mrs. ‘Marion Keech’. According to Mrs. Keech, who was purportedly able to transmit messages from aliens residing on planet Clarion, the End would come by way of a great flood on December 21, 1954. Non-believers would perish, but those who held their conviction would be saved and transported to safety aboard UFOs. Though Mrs. Keech had already falsely predicted several other End dates, it only served to strengthen her followers’ beliefs when the dates passed harmlessly. Indeed, as the morning of December 21st dawned and none of the Seekers had been whisked away at midnight, the once insulated group began an uncharacteristic media blitz to promote their beliefs under the impression that God had spared humanity because of their strength of faith.

“Well Camping’s followers and the Seekers are nothing like me! They’re fanatics and I’m logical!” you might say to yourself. Read on...

Intrigued by the response of the Seekers to the failed prediction, Festinger took his study to the laboratory. In Festinger’s 1959 experiment, Stanford psychology undergraduates were asked to complete, with little instruction, two very boring tasks, namely “putting 12 spools onto a tray, emptying the tray, and refilling it with spools, and so on” for half an hour and then, on a board “containing 48 square pegs”, the participants were told to “turn each peg a quarter turn clockwise, then another quarter turn, and so on” using only one hand for half an hour.

Participants were then assigned to either: a control group who did nothing; a group in which the participant was paid a dollar to instruct the next waiting participant on the nature of the tasks and describe their experience doing the tasks as “very enjoyable, I had a lot of fun, I enjoyed myself....”; and another group who was asked to do the same for twenty dollars.

After lying through their teeth, the one dollar and twenty dollar groups, as well as the control group were asked to rate how interesting and enjoyable they found the spool and peg tasks on “a scale from -5 to +5 where -5 means they were extremely dull and boring, +5 means they were extremely interesting and enjoyable”.

The result?

While individuals in the control group unsurprisingly found the tasks boring, and the twenty dollar group found it a little less mind numbing, individuals who were paid a dollar somehow convinced themselves that organizing spools and turning pegs was exciting work!

The results illustrate a phenomenon known in psychology as cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance theory predicts:

1) If a person is induced to do or say something which is contrary to his private opinion, there will be a tendency for him to change his opinion so as to bring it into correspondence with what he has done or said.

However, 2) the larger the pressure used to elicit the overt behaviour (beyond the minimum needed to elicit it) the weaker will be the above mentioned tendency.

In other words, twenty dollars was enough to pay for a lie but one dollar was barely sufficient, putting the one dollar liar in a strange situation. On the one hand they knew playing with pegs and spools was tedious yet had agreed to tell waiting participants it was fun and enjoyable for only a dollar. Clearly, they rationalized “I must have liked the task at least a little!”

...bringing us back to Seekers, the Rapture, and climate advocates. Often we act impulsively in ways that are incongruent with our internal beliefs and without anyone needing to pay us at all. And like Mr. Camping’s followers and Camping himself, we’re often forced to face contradictory evidence. In both these scenarios we are left with a sense of unease, motivating us to find ‘logical’ reasons why the Rapture failed to occur, or why it’s okay to fly around on airplanes for vacation even though we’re climate activists when we’re not on vacation. It’s not all that difficult to see how advocates for sustainable fisheries can indiscriminately gorge on sushi. Or why so many environmentalists just “needed” to buy their iPhone.

So while it’s easy to skewer and laugh at religious kooks, the conservation and environmental community would do well making case studies of their own behaviour, if only to better understand the challenges facing sustainability.

After all, people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.

Festinger, L., & Carlsmith, J. M. (1959). Cognitive consequences of forced compliance. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 58(2), 203.

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