The End of the World and other beliefs

Why do we believe what we believe?

What convinces us we’re right, that what we believe is the ‘truth’ and that we must convince others of this ‘truth’?

A very interesting programme on BBC Radio 4’s All in the Mind programme a few weeks back featured Kris de Meyer, a psychologist, who made a film about Christian evangelist Harold Camping and his followers who believed that the End of the World would take place on 21st May 2011.

As far as I know, the End of the World didn’t happen. Please add a comment if you know different!

de Meyer was interested in how otherwise rational people could construct such a belief and how they dealt with the psychological consequences of the belief being proved wrong.

Notwithstanding the extreme, out-of-the-ordinary nature of Camping’s belief and the fact he is American, what de Meyer revealed in his interview with the excellent Claudia Hammond may, I think, stand as a lesson for all our belief creation and perhaps give us pause for thought and humility when we feel the need to stridently assert our beliefs in the public spaces of human discourse. Let’s not forget that many of those who gave up their jobs, gave away their wealth, and broke up relationships with friends and families on the strength of their belief that the world would end on 21st May 2011 were university graduates, academics, scientists, and professionals.

Here’s my summary of de Meyer’s findings.

  1. TRUST. The followers trusted Camping. Although the basis of this trust was not discussed in the programme, I assume it was based on Camping’s Christian teachings over the radio. So his followers were already predisposed to believe him. Camping obviously believed his own prophecy too, but we know of leaders who have led their followers into some very dark who did not have such integrity.
  2. DECISION. At the points in time that Camping made his prophecy public, listeners had a choice to make. They could either believe him or not. Many could not follow him. Even those who did believe Camping, on the evidence of his previously sound biblical teaching, needed further proof. They decided to ‘look into’ his prophecy.
  3. LOOKING INTO. For de Meyer, this was a crucial step in becoming convinced of the truth of the prophecy. Again there was not a lot of detail in the programme in terms of what ‘looking into’ actually entailed, but I would hazard a guess that ‘looking into’ leads one into the logical structure of the leader’s belief, like a fly into a spider’s web. Once inside that structure, it is difficult to get out. The ‘fact’ of the belief is so overwhelming it blots out other realities. This belief becomes your life and you adjust you life to match this new belief – you leave your job, give away your money…whatever the new belief requires of you in the name of cognitive assonance. (I’ll come back to that).
  4. PROSELYTISE. The belief is reality. It’s unbearable to think that others can’t see the truth that is staring you in the face. You must go out and convert others to the truth. It’s incredibly important for humans to relieve their cognitive dissonance – in this case, the need to resolve the fact that you know an absolute truth that others are either ignorant of or deny.

De Meyer’s associates, Aronson and Tavris, use the analogy of a pyramid to describe this process. Once you step off the top, where to a large extent you share your world view with your friends, family and associates, you are on the downward slope to belief in a different reality to them; and gravity just keeps you going.

Finally, the psychologists looked at the impact of the beliefs of Camping’s followers when the End of the World failed to materialise.

The psychologists sat with Camping and his followers waiting for news of the massive earthquake in Asia that was to herald the destruction of the world.

Their discomfiture grew as the predicted hour approached and passed without the news the were waiting for.

de Meyer ascribed this uneasiness to cognitive dissonance – reality and belief competing for the same neural pathways in your brain.

There are two ways Camping and his followers dealt with cognitive dissonance: some found reasons to sustain their belief in the world’s end by suggesting that the calculation of the date may have been out. Camping himself, soon after 21st May, did a minor mea culpa and told the world he’d miscalculated – the new date for the end of the world would be 21st October. As that happens to be my birthday, I was quite pleased to learn that this date too passed without the end of the world materialising.

The other way followers dealt with their cognitive dissonance was to accept that their belief had proved false. Once they admitted this, they found it difficult to understand how they’d even held the belief that the world would end on 21st May 2011. As one follower said: “How did we not see what was going on? We’re not naive people.”

To believe in something is to be human. Belief is a powerful motivator of human action. We attack and kills others who do not share our beliefs. We fight wars over our beliefs. Are we any wiser than Camping’s followers?

A diagram of cognitive dissonance theory. Diss...

A diagram of cognitive dissonance theory. Dissonance reduction can be accomplished in various ways, broadly including the addition of more, consonant elements, or else changing the existing elements. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)