It was in 1954 when Dorothy Martin predicted the end of the world as we know it (and became part of psychology's history in the process).
Born in 1900 in Mount Shasta, California, she was a housewife living in the Chicago area when she first came to national attention. Having a longstanding interest in psychic phenomena and theosophy (and was also "cleared" by a dianetics group), she first came in contact with advanced beings from the planet Clarion through her experiments in automatic writing. Through these beings (the most important of whom was her personal mentor, Sananda), she was informed that they had been visiting Earth and monitoring fault lines in the planet's crust. They warned her that a great flood would strike the Chicago area just before dawn on December 24, 1954. The flood would then form an inland sea stretching from the Arctic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico and a subsequent cataclysm would destroy much of the West Coast from Seattle, Washington down to South America. A flying saucer would come to rescue those who were true believers.
Martin had already become involved with a local flying saucer cult known as "The Seekers" and they responded eagerly to the messages from Sananda and the other Clarions. Their efforts to warn the public of the coming disaster were published in a local newspaper story under the headline: PROPHECY FROM PLANET. CLARION CALL TO CITY: FLEE THAT FLOOD. IT'LL SWAMP US ON DEC. 21, OUTER SPACE TELLS SUBURBANITE (it didn't make the front page for some reason). The two-column story was accompanied by a photograph of Martin with a pencil and pad in her hand and described her experiences in communicating with the "superior beings" who had relayed the warning. It was this newspaper article that first attracted the attention of social psychologist, Leon Festinger.
As later written in the seminal classic When Prophecy Fails (published in 1956), Festinger and his colleagues, Stanley Schacter and Henry W. Riecken, first interviewed Martin in October, 1954 . Given that she was making a prediction about a specific future event which had already become the focus of media attention, the researchers decided to carry out a field study examining apocalytic belief. They also viewed it as an ideal test of Festinger's fledgeling theory of cognitive dissonance.
Mrs Martin and her fellow Seekers (in the book, her name was changed to Marian Keech) strongly believed in her prediction and had already started making arrangements for their departure for Clarion. The three researchers and their fellow cohorts were able to infiltrate the group and provide a fascinating look at what happened before and after December 21. When the Seekers' attempts at "telling the world" were largely ignored, their efforts at proselytizing ended in September when Dorothy Martin was reportedly told by two strange visitors to end all warning efforts and "await further orders". The exact number of Seekers involved in the movement was never made clear but their mailing list ran to hundreds of names.
There was a surprising lack of effort on the part of the Seekers to recruit new members and the researchers had difficulty in infiltrating the movement. Their meetings mainly involved readings of Dorothy Martin's teachings, sharing of mystical experiences, and writing letters urging President Eisenhower to reveal the "secret information" that the U.S. Air Force had collected on flying saucers. Plans to relocate to the mountains were scrapped in favour of waiting for Sananda and the other "Guardians" to transport them from the Seekers' headquarters in Dorothy Martin's house in Chicago.
Then came December 20 when the final group of fifteen to twenty Seekers met in the Martin home to await their salvation. Based on Dorothy Martin's messages from Sananda, the aliens would come at midnight to take them to their new home. To prevent being burned by contact with the alien spacecraft, the Seekers were instructed to remove all metal from their bodies (including zippers and bra straps). The book describes with some detail the suspense as midnight approached and passed and the group became increasingly disappointed. Finally, at 4:45 am, Dorothy Martin received another message stating that the cataclysm had been called off by the "God of Earth". Apparently their group had impressed God with their faith and the human race was spared as a result.
Now came the hard part of telling the world. Dorothy Martin and her supporters were dismayed at the negative reaction that they received from the newspapers and wire services that they contacted. Martin took news of earthquakes in Italy and California as confirmation of her predictions of disaster but there was little else in the weeks that followed. As media interest trickled off, the group slowly dwindled. Dorothy Martin received other messages but they tended to be even more incomprehensible with time.
Responding to complaints from her neighbours, police warned Dorothy Martin that would be arrested and possibly committed to a psychiatric hospital if she persisted with her activities. She went into hiding and eventually joined a dianetics centre in Arizona. The book ends with the group being entirely dispersed although that was not quite the case as we shall see.
Discussing the social psychology surrounding persistence of belief in failed prophecies, Festinger and his colleagues proposed the following five necessary conditions: 1. There must be conviction. 2. There must be commitment to this conviction. i.e, believers have to have taken an important action that is hard to undo (such as quitting a job or selling a house). 3. The conviction must be amenable to unequivocal disconfirmation, i.e, there must be a way of testing the conviction 4. Such unequivocal disconfirmation must occur. 5. Social support must be available subsequent to the disconfirmation (Groups of believers can support one another better than isolated believers).
Despite failures to replicate these findings with other apocalytic groups (and there are more of those around than you might think), When Prophecy Fails represents a fascinating inside look at the mechanics of belief and how it interacts with human behaviour.
Dorothy Martin lived in Peru for several years before returning to Arizona. In 1965, she founded the Association of Sananda and Samat Kumara. Under her new name of "Sister Thedra", she continued to act as a channel for Sananda and was prominent in the UFO contact community until her death in 1992. The association that she founded is still active.