What Is Cognitive Dissonance? The Story of Dorothy Martin and a Chicago Based UFO Cult in 1955


What is cognitive dissonance? How did it come about? How does cognitive dissonance work? Today’s journal entry is the history of cognitive dissonance. Its centers around a Chicago based UFO cult, an announcement of the coming end of the world in the Chicago Tribune, and how Leon Festinger and his students penetrated this doomsday cult to illustrate what happens when prophecy fails. This is how theory was translated into practice when people couldn’t realize that they were indeed wrong about Dorothy Martin.


“Dissonance is as fatal in ailments of the mind as it is in those of the body.”
Georges Rodenbach, Bruges-La-Morte

“It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succor of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after they may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule”

The Lord of the Rings Gandolf ‘The Last Debate’




Before I get into this topic let me start by saying that I am not psychologist. I took a psychology class in college and if I am wrong in any of what I write here I invite correction. My study was history not psychology yet I’ve been around the block enough times when it comes to religion and faith to have seen some of this play out personally. In the 1950’s a Leon Festinger, a social psychologist from the University of Minnesota and two of his colleagues published a new book called, When Prophecy Fails. This is how the book opened up:

“A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts and figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point. We all have experienced the futility of trying to change a strong conviction, especially if the convinced person has some investment in  their belief. We are familiar with the variety of ingenious defenses with which people protect their convictions, managing to keep them unscathed through the most devastating attacks. But man’s resourcefulness goes beyond simply protecting a belief. Suppose an individual believes something with his whole heart; suppose further that he has a commitment to his belief, that he has taken irrevocable actions because of it; finally suppose that he is presented with evidence, unequivocal and undeniable evidence that his belief is wrong: what will happen? The individual will emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before. Indeed, he may even show a new fervor about convincing and converting other people to his view.”  

The roots of cognitive dissonance lay in a small grant from the Ford Foundation which allowed Festinger to study and integrate work in mass media and interpersonal communication. Festinger and his colleagues took on the project and what perplexed them was reading a report about a 1934 Indian earthquake. What puzzled Festinger were the rumors that circulated after the devastating earthquake. Those rumors predicted of an even more devastating earthquake were coming. In discussing it with his colleagues Festinger concluded that the additional rumors served as a coping mechanism in order to deal with current anxiety. Another way to describe this is because the population was filled with grief; a greater future tragedy was imagined or anticipated so that the current situation would not look at bad. This is what allowed the theory of cognitive dissonance to be born. But the true test of cognitive dissonance was an experiment in a UFO cult that would led to the publishing of When Prophecy Fails.

In the Chicago Tribune in December of 1954 an article appeared about a Michigan doctor who predicted the end of the world. That doctor who was named “Charles Laughead” predicted a tidal wave, volcanic action and “a rise in the ground extending from the Hudson’s Bay [in Canada] to the Gulf of Mexico which will seriously affect the center of the United States.” Dr. Laughead in reality was the spokesman for a 54 year old Housewife who lived in Oak Park, Chicago named Dorothy Martin. Martin had proclaimed that she received communications from “outer space” from the planet Clarion. Martin’s prophecy had stated that “there will be much loss of life, practically all of it in 1955…It is an actual fact that the world is in a mess. But the Supreme Being is going to clean house by sinking all the land masses as we know them now and raising the land masses from under the sea.” Martin had been enthralled with R Lon Hubbard’s Scientology and theosophy. Laughead however was into mysticism, UFO’s and was also a former Christian missionary. Together they had created a new religion that had borrowed from Christianity, Scientology, atomic age science fiction, and Paradise Lost. (Can someone explain to me what Paradise Lost is? Question by Eagle..I researched it but I don’t know what it is) A number of individuals got involved with Martin’s group. The world was predicted to end on December 21, 1955 and on the evening of December 20 a UFO was going to come pick up the believers and save them. Many people had vacated apartments, left jobs, liquidated their savings, and walked away from their homes to get ready for the end. Unbeknownst to either Dorothy Martin or Dr. Laughead appeared 3 “believers” including Leon Festinger who were there to study how the group would react when the prophecy failed. Festinger had a prediction that stated the following: The believers who had not made a strong commitment to the prophecy – who awaited the end of the world at home, hoping they wouldn’t be killed would quietly and slowly lose their faith in Dorothy Martin. Meanwhile those who risked everything – given away possessions, left jobs, etc… and who were awaiting the spaceship to come would increase their belief in mystical abilities and their faith would grow stronger. After the failed prophecy they would do everything they could to get others to join them. Another way of saying this is that they had invested so much into Dorothy Martin that they couldn’t believe or accept the fact that they were wrong. On the night of December 20 1955 Dorothy Martin’s husband who didn’t believe his wife went to bed and slept soundly. The group had waited in eager anticipation for a space ship to land in Oak Park, Illinois. At midnight the group was nervous that no space ship had showed up in Dorothy Martin’s yard. By 2 AM they had grown seriously worried. Finally at 4:45 Dorothy Martin had another “prophecy” that the world had been spared because of the faith of their group. Martin had said, “And mighty is the word of God…and by his word have ye been saved – far from the mouth of death have ye been delivered and at no time has there been such a force loosed upon the Earth. Not since the beginning of time upon this earth has there been such a force of Good and light as now floods this room.” And with that the group celebrated and many on the fence placed their faith in Dorothy Martin. Members of the group left her home and started calling the Chicago newspapers and other forms of press to report the miracle that they had been saved from destruction. Soon they were out on the streets evangelizing and trying to convert more people into the UFO sect. That night Dorothy Martin was wrong…the world did not end on December 21, 1955. But as for Leon Festinger his experiment and the reaction by the group validated one of the greatest psychological breakthroughs in the 20th century, as he had proven how cognitive dissonance worked.

Cognitive Dissonance is the basic theory that people prefer a situation where their cognitions are consistent with each other and their cognitions are consistent with their behaviors. If there are inconsistencies among a person’s cognitions or between cognitions and behaviors, these will cause disquiet in the person, leading him or her to seek some resolution from discomfort. This definition is what I chose from the Encyclopedia of Religion and Society from the Hartford Institute of Religion Research, Hartford Seminary. There are many things that I would like to write about in the coming weeks. Cognitive dissonance has been a part of my life twice now, and I would like to write about that in further detail. My first brush with cognitive dissonance in religion occurred in college when I got involved with Mormonism. How did I start to get involved? Why did I ignore the red flags? Why did I proceed to get further involved to the worry of those around me? How did I rationalize the theological problems? How did I rationalize the problems of Joseph Smith? I plan on journaling that in further detail. Another example of cognitive dissonance occurred when I rejected the Christian faith and embraced agnosticism/atheism. How was it that I could not see that atheism is a faith system? How did I miss that fact? Why is it that at the Reason Rally in Washington, D.C. that I began to realize that I traded the likes of John Piper for someone like Richard Dawkins? Both of these situations I would like to explore in time. Plus I would also like to explore the cognitive dissonance in organizations like Sovereign Grace. When you have blogs like SGM Survivors which document the problems in SGM, and SGM churches why would you go to an outfit like Sovereign Grace? I would like to write about all this in the near future. Please bear with me as I have a lot on my plate! In closing I just want to throw some Kelly Clarkson up as well.


7 thoughts on “What Is Cognitive Dissonance? The Story of Dorothy Martin and a Chicago Based UFO Cult in 1955

  1. First, “Paradise Lost” is a famous 17th Century epic poem by Puritan John Milton, dealing with the Biblical story of The Fall in the style and manner of a Classical Greek Epic. It is the source of the line “Better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven”.

    Second, this UFO cult is a typical Space Brothers Contacteee cult of the time, with an Earth Changes/Saucer Rapture tack-on. (Though not to the later extreme of “Join Bo & Peep behind Hale-Bopp”.) Ufology of the time was split between two mutually-hostile groups: The Nuts-and-Bolts UFOlogists and the Contactees. Both BE-LEEEVED 100% in The Extraterrestrial explanation (“We Are Being Visited”), but otherwise were completely opposite. The Nuts-and-Bolts types (who grouped into an organization called NICAP) tunnel-visioned on the Alien Technology of The Saucers to the point that the aliens themselves became irrelevant, while the Contactees (split between a lot of splinter cults) channeled messages from godlike/angel-like Space Brothers to their founder, such contact being either in-person (Adamski et al, usually including Saucer rides and philosophical lectures) or through what’s now called trance channeling (such as Van Tassel, Spaceship Ruthie, and this cult). These two groups did NOT hang out together; the only thing they agreed on was The Vast Gubmint Conspiracy (usually centered around the Air Force) to cover everything up “to prevent panic”. (How do I know all this? I learned my Ufology from Adamskyite “Scriptures” at age 12 in the 1960s. In the words of Steven King, “tours of some interesting tracts of mental landscape.”)


  2. P.S. In the Chicago Tribune article, I noticed the head Contactee’s quoted pronouncements appear to be written in Kynge Jaymes Englyshe.

    And her Space Brothers prophecy was basically a Rapture of the Faithful from an Earth Changes Armageddon, prophesied in pseudo-Christianese. Guess you can take the boy out of the Baptists but you can’t take the Baptist completely out of the boy.

    And her later career, channeling Clarion first at Mount Shasta (weird religion capital of Northern Californian from way back — Remember Lemuria?) then at Sedona (ditto for Central Arizona, but with shorter historical precedent).


  3. Hmmmm…..Sounds like Edgar Cayce, too. (California will fall into the sea!! Atlantis will rise!!!). He was my youthful folly. (It hurts like the very devil to admit this, but since we’re being painfully open about this sort of thing…).


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