How to Change the World
People hardly ever change their minds.
In perhaps psychology’s coolest study that wasn’t rigged bullshit (i.e. Milgram and the Stanford Prison don’t count), Leon Festinger infiltrated a sect whose members believed aliens from a planet called ‘Clarion’ would destroy the earth December 21st, 1954. However, as true believers, the cult-members would be saved and transported to their new home planet in UFOs (they were “instructed” to wait in parked cars in a Chicago suburb).
Of course, when time came, nothing happened. The earth went on existing just fine and the parking lot remained unvisited by aliens.
In light of their forthcoming deportation, and the annihilation of their former home planet, some of them had cut ties with loved ones, quit their jobs, et cetera.
How do people deal with an undeniable refutation of a belief in which they’ve invested so much?
Festinger found that, rather than concluding that the prophecy was wrong, the cult went on to deduce that, since the prophecy could not have been false, the fact that they believed in it and acted upon it, saved the earth. Thanks to them, the aliens showed mercy. And they weren’t mistaken. They could hold on to their beliefs.
According to the theory of ‘cognitive dissonance’, when reality falsifies our deepest beliefs, we rather fiddle with reality than update our worldview.
This raises the question: can new ideas actually change the world?
How not to yield an idea
I think ideas can change the world, but that such change comes about in a way that’s completely different than commonly assumed.
Since that infamous December night in 1954, numerous studies have confirmed Festinger’s discovery. If the facts don’t fit our worldview, that’s too bad for the facts (nerdy aside: Hegel would have been proud). Festinger presented his findings in a paper titled When Prophecy Fails, and his words ring prophetic for our era of fake news and echo chambers:
A [person] with a conviction is a hard [person] to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see…