When the Rapture Doesn’t Happen, How Will Harold Camping React?
~ 4 min read
There will be no rapture on Saturday, May 21st.
And I can’t wait to see how Harold Camping reacts on Sunday when he’s still alive, on this Earth, and in this human body.
That said, let’s talk about a method of persuasion called “social proof.” In Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion, Dr. Robert Cialdini describes social proof as follows:
“In general, when we are unsure of ourselves, when the situation is unclear or ambiguous, when uncertainty reigns, we are most likely to look to and accept the actions of others as correct” (p. 129).
We’re familiar with this concept. Should I laugh at this joke? Better wait and see if anyone else laughs first. Should I join a sorority? Better wait and see if one of my friends joins first. Should I subscribe to Belief XYZ? Better wait and see if anyone else subscribes to that belief first.
The bottom line of social proof: if someone else does it, we know it’s socially acceptable, valid, and perhaps even truer.
In one chapter of his book, Cialdini recounts the story of three scientists who joined a doomsday cult (incognito, of course) to study its inner workings back in the 1950’s.
The cult was led by two people: a college physician who was fascinated by UFO and mysticism, and a woman (the researchers’ pseudonym for her was Mrs. Keech) who claimed to be receiving messages from aliens called “The Guardians” via automatic writing. The duo’s teachings, according to Cialdini, were “loosely linked to traditional Christian thought” — especially after one of the aliens revealed itself to Mrs. Keech as the current embodiment of Jesus.
Then, a horrific transmission from one of the aliens: a giant flood was coming to the Earth! Of course, The Guardians had good news as well: they wanted to save the true believers by whisking them away to safety via a flying saucer.
Many of the members were so committed to the cult and to this “end times” scenario that they quit their jobs, gave away their belongings, dropped out of school, and severed connections with non-believers. They informed the public about the impending disaster, but they didn’t actively seek new converts. The press was hard on them; the media mocked their beliefs.
See any similarities here?
When it came time for the UFO to arrive, the three undercover scientists sat with the rest of the cult members waiting for the clock to strike midnight. Everyone sat around quietly with their coats on their laps. They waited. And waited.
And then the clock struck midnight. And absolutely nothing happened.
No UFO had come to save them. No “rapture,” so to speak, before the impending flood. (No flood ever came, either.)
A bit dismayed, the group then went through the following four stages:
1. They examined the prediction again.
2. The leaders “re-iterated their faith” to the group.
3. Everyone contemplated the predicament.
4. One of the leaders broke down & cried.
It seemed as if the group were about to dissolve into embarrassed disbelievers. But that’s not at all what happened.
Mrs. Keech then received another alien transmission and wrote it down on paper: “The little group, sitting alone all night long, had spread so much light that God saved the world from destruction.”
This sentiment placated a few of the cult members, but they needed something else to rationalize the fact that the doomsday scenario for which they’d given up their lives, belongings, and jobs didn’t pan out. So, they went to the media…and sought publicity. Each cult member took turns calling a different media outlet to share the good news: their little group, sitting alone all night long, had spread so much light that God saved the world from destruction!
Why were they suddenly seeking publicity after such an awful failure of prediction? To obtain social proof, Cialdini argues.
“Oddly, it was not their prior certainty that drove the members to propagate the faith; it was an encroaching sense of uncertainty. It was the dawning realization that if the spaceship and flood predictions were wrong, so might be the entire belief system on which they rested…[t]he group members had gone too far, given up too much for their beliefs to see them destroyed; the shame, the economic cost, the mockery would be too great to bear” (p. 127).
Lacking physical proof for their beliefs (in this case, a UFO landing followed by a great flood), the cult’s only remaining hope was to establish social proof for their beliefs. The more people who believed their story of having prevented a great flood, the more validated the cult members would feel about their efforts — and their faulty prediction.
“The greater the number of people who find any idea correct, the more the idea will be correct,” Cialdini wrote. That’s the principle of social proof: if so many people believe it, it must be true. Right?
So, back to Harold Camping and the folks who believe in his doomsday scenario: what will he do when the rapture doesn’t happen? How will he (and his followers) rationalize the fact that they’re still alive, on this Earth, and in their human bodies?
Drawing from the cult story above, my predictions are as follows:
1. After the rapture doesn’t happen, Camping and the populace of rapture-ready folks will go through a similar series of four stages: they’ll examine the prediction again (whoops, wrong date?), re-iterate their faith in the rapture, take time to contemplate, and become emotionally distressed.
2. After the rapture doesn’t happen, Camping (or another opinion leader on the subject) will put out a statement that essentially paraphrases what Mrs. Keech had written after the UFO didn’t arrive: “The little group, sitting alone all night long, had spread so much light that God saved the world from destruction”.
3. After the rapture doesn’t happen, Camping and his followers will be strengthened in their beliefs — especially those who gave up their livelihood or property in anticipation of the end. They won’t admit that Harold’s prediction was incorrect — the burden of admitting this will be too much to bear — so they’ll begin to believe more deeply in order to avoid a sense of shame.
4. After the rapture doesn’t happen, Camping and his followers will begin to proselytize more strongly. The social proof that they receive by doing this will make them feel validated and fuel further recruitment.
Only the coming days and weeks will tell, but I can’t be too far off in my predictions. (After all, I’m basing my predictions on science and history, not numerology.)
It’s also worth noting that Harold Camping had previously calculated a definite doomsday for the year 1994, so he’s already used up the “wrong date” excuse before.
Fool me once.
Further reading: When Prophecy Fails by Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter.
About Summer BeretskySummer Beretsky enjoys writing about her experiences with anxiety, panic, and Paxil. She had her first panic attack as an undergrad at Lycoming College and plenty more while she worked toward her M.A. in Communication from the University of Delaware. Summer blogs over at Panic About Anxiety and also contributes to the World of Psychology blog here on PsychCentral. She has also written for the Los Angeles Times. Follow her on Twitter @summerberetsky.
Beretsky, S. (2011). When the Rapture Doesn’t Happen, How Will Harold Camping React?. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 26, 2016, from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2011/05/19/when-the-rapture-doesnt-happen-how-will-harold-camping-react/