Henry W. Riecken Jr., social scientist

January 8, 2013

Henry W. Riecken Jr., 95, a social scientist and former chief of the social sciences division of the National Science Foundation, died of intestinal cancer Dec. 27 at Grand Oaks assisted living facility in Washington, where he had resided for the past five years.

A son, Gilson Riecken, confirmed the death.

Dr. Riecken had been a social scientist on the faculties of Harvard University, the University of Minnesota and the University of Pennsylvania.

With two colleagues, Leon Festinger and Stanley Schachter, he was author in 1957 of “When Prophecy Fails,” a study of a small UFO cult that believed it had received a message from outer space that the world would end in a flood before dawn on Dec. 21, 1954.

From their research after the failure of that doomsday prophecy to materialize, the social scientists concluded that “true believers” could find a way to argue that conflicting factual evidence actually supports their original beliefs.

Their study is still cited in scholarly and popular media, including last month when Dec. 21 was predicted on the Mayan calendar to have been the ending of an old and beginning of a new cycle in time, and it was cited by economist Paul Krugman in a Dec. 24 newspaper column in the New York Times.

Henry William Riecken Jr. was born in Brooklyn. He graduated from Harvard in 1939 and received a master’s degree in psychology in 1941 from the University of Connecticut. He served in the Army Air Forces during World War II and in 1949 received a doctorate in social relations from Harvard. He later taught at Harvard and the University of Minnesota.

He came to Washington in 1958 to join the National Science Foundation, where he became the first director of the division of social sciences. From 1966 to 1971, he was vice president and then president of the Social Science Research Council, commuting from his home in Washington to the council’s New York office.

From 1972 to 1985, he was on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania. He returned to Washington in 1985 and was a consultant to the Council on Library Resources and other educational and nonprofit organizations.

He was a fellow of the American Psychological Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

His wife, Frances Manson Brown, whom he married in 1955, died in 2011. Survivors include three children, Susan Riecken of Washington, Anne Riecken of South Tamworth, N.H., and Gilson Riecken of San Antonio and San Francisco; and two grandchildren.

— Bart Barnes