Apocalyptic Letdown

How will cult members cope when their predictions fail?

Fox News, December 21, 1999
By Adam Pasick

New York -- What happens when the end of the world doesn't come? Cult members who believe the apocalypse will coincide with the coming of the year 2000 will face a pivotal point, psychologists say. Some will leave, disillusioned; others will draw closer to their charismatic leader; in rare cases, they will commit suicide.

"There may be some of these groups where the leader has been telling them that if [the apocalypse] doesn't happen at midnight on the 31st, they should end it all," said psychologist Margaret Singer, Ph.D, professor emeritus at the University of California-Berkeley and author of Cults in Our Midst. "We don't know," said Dr. Michael Langone, executive director of the American Family Foundation, which tracks and studies cults. "Cult suicides are like airline accidents - there's going to be another one, but you can't predict when."

The end of the millennium (as most people are treating it, even though it will not officially end for another year) may prove to be just such a moment. At least one group, Concerned Christians, has spawned official concern over violence and suicides on or just before Jan. 1, with the group's leader convinced he is a character from the apocalypse-foretelling Book of Revelations. Concerned Christians members have been expelled from Israel and Greece; the group's current whereabouts are unknown. "Manipulative people know that a good way to get fearful, unsure people to follow them is to ... have this secret knowledge as to exactly when the end is coming," Singer said. "It's a way of keeping them worried if they're thinking about leaving or not giving money: this guy has control of the future."

Bringing Them Home

Most groups who expect the end of the world will not kill themselves or others when the prophecy goes unfulfilled. But with members disillusioned and depressed, it does present an opportunity for families and friends to convince their loved ones to leave the cult that has ensnared them.

"They're in a psychologically weak time," Singer said. "That's a good time to invite them home and say, 'We'd like to introduce to some of our friends who will help you reconsider what happened." Reaching out to a loved one in a cult should be handled carefully. "That's when the family needs not to fuss at them and tell them 'I told you so,' but say, 'Hey, we've always loved you. Come back with us,'" she added.

Tighten Up

Strangely, most cults grow even more insular and devoted after their leader's failed prophecy. The members devotion - and level of brainwashing - is so high that excuses and rationalizations are easily accepted. "If you have a militant group that's predicting the world is gonna end, and it doesn't, then there's a higher likelihood that there will be a tightening of the boundaries," Langone said.

A social psychologist named Leon Festinger studied the phenomenon in his 1957 book, When Predictions Fail. Describing a group called the Seekers whose leader (falsely) predicted the coming of UFOs and the end of the world, he coined the term "cognitive dissonance" to describe the brain's ability to reconcile facts to fit their beliefs.

"People start saying, 'Oh, there was a miscalculation, the leader got the wrong message,'" Singer said.

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