So, May 21st has come and gone and the world didn’t end. Presumably all those people who believed Harold Camping’s numerological interpretations of the Bible will now realise he’s a nut, switch off Family Radio and go and do something useful with their lives. Right?
Wrong. Why? Because of a little thing called Cognitive Dissonance.
Cognitive Dissonance is what happens when a person absolutely, positively believes something, and then reality doesn’t live up to those expectations. Confronted with evidence completely blowing their beliefs apart most people simply won’t be able to discard their beliefs. This is both because of the way neural pathways work in the brain, and the sheer amount of investment a true believer puts into their creed. What kind of investment? I’m glad you asked.
Keeping with the example of Harold Camping, some of his followers will have blown everything they have on his prophecy. They will have shed their physical assets – selling their homes and businesses and emptying their bank accounts to fund his message and spread the word, aiming to “save” as many people as possible. They will have also burned up all their social capital, proclaiming to their families, their friends, their neighbours, their workmates, colleagues and random people on the street that they’re right, and anyone who disagrees will be literally damned for their foolishness. Many will have severely damaged – if not totally destroyed – important relationships with their parents, children, friends and families. They’ve thrown everything they have into the belief system, and to turn around and admit that they were wrong, and it was all for nothing is just far, far too difficult and far too painful for most human minds to come to terms with.
So, what will happen?
They’ll come up with an excuse. A compromise. Their brains will turn the facts over and over again until they figure out a modification to their belief system that prevents their sacrifices and investment from being in vain, while still admitting that the end of the world didn’t happen. The classic excuse for failed end-of-the-world predictions is that God (or whoever/whatever) was so impressed by the believers’ actions that he decided to spare the world for a bit longer and called off the destruction. We’ll have to wait and see what will eventuate in this case, but it’s a fairly good stab at whatever the dominant excuse will be.
So, Harold Camping will keep on crunching his numbers, and Family Radio will keep spreading it’s messages to a slightly smaller, but still substantial flock. The same as human belief has ever been, and ever shall be, world without end.