- 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
- "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.