What does it feel like to be wrong? In 2011, neuroscientist Kris De Meyer and filmmaker Sheila Marshall travelled to the USA to meet people who believed the world would end on 21 May. How do we become convinced we’re right – and what does it feel like to have our convictions challenged? Join Kris and Sheila to watch exclusive clips from their documentary Right Between Your Ears, at Wrong! A carnival of human error on Friday 5 July 2013 at Wellcome Collection.
It’s 20 May 2011. We are sitting on a terrace in sunny California, in a small town in the San Francisco Bay Area, having blueberry pancakes (American style) with Simon. He is a friendly and articulate man, a real-estate agent in an upscale part of town with a double university degree in computer science and biochemistry.
A little black bird is nesting in a tree in front of our table. Every time someone passes under the tree, it flies from its nest and, to our great amusement, pecks the person on the back of the head. Even an unsuspecting dog gets a peck. The food is good and the conversation wanders far and wide. It’s a beautiful, relaxing afternoon.
Except it could be our last…
At least, that is the conviction of Simon. We met him at Family Radio, a religious broadcaster in nearby Oakland. Family Radio is at the centre of a campaign to warn the world that 21 May 2011 will be Judgement Day. Like many of the people we met over the past weeks, Simon has wound down his business activities. Why amass more worldly goods if there is no tomorrow? Instead, he focuses on studying the prophecy and getting the word out. Belief in the Judgement Day prophecy comes at an emotional cost: friends and family regard him as crazy for his conviction.
When people are locked in personal conflicts and public debates, they may be divided by what they believe, but they share the feeling that they are right and those on the other side are wrong. Simon and his fellow believers would offer a rare insight into why this is. Despite his conviction, he will shortly find out whether his Judgement Day beliefs are right or wrong. Not according to someone else’s standards of the truth, but according to his own.
Psychologists have long been interested in the question of how our convictions form, why they can separate us from other people, and why it can be so difficult to own up to our mistakes. In 1954, social psychologist Leon Festinger and his colleagues joined an end-time prophecy group to observe how people react when they discover their beliefs are wrong. He was driven by his emerging theory of cognitive dissonance. In the following years, dissonance theory was tested and refined in everyday settings. Researchers found that it is especially when our self-image as good, kind, smart and competent people is under threat that dealing with the idea of being wrong becomes so difficult.
Lunch is finished and we get ready to leave. We have to return to Oakland, where we plan to go into the night of the prophecy with a group of believers. Our farewells are cordial. “The real me believes this, but there are other parts of me which are still in doubt,” Simon told us in an interview a few days before. The next day, on 21 May, he will be the first of the believers to call us.
To find out how he and the other believers dealt with being wrong, and what we learned from them, join us on 5 July at Wellcome Collection.