Leon Festinger

From New World Encyclopedia

Leon Festinger (May 8, 1919 – February 11, 1989) was an American psychologist. He is regarded as one of the most significant social psychologists of the twentieth century, his work showing that it is possible to use the scientific method to investigate complex and significant social phenomena previously considered not amenable to measurement. Festinger's work was significant not only within the academic discipline of psychology, but also impacted the general public's understanding of human behavior. For example, he is best known for his theory of cognitive dissonance, which suggests that inconsistency, or “dissonance,” among beliefs or behaviors and evidence causes an uncomfortable psychological tension that must be eliminated in order to restore balance, which has numerous applications to our everyday lives. Thus, in consumerism when a person makes a choice to buy one product over another generally avoids further comparisons with other products that might have better features, and when forced to confront such features changes his evaluation of the importance of the dissonant features. The cognitive dissonance model also explains why those who join a group after going through an initiation process such as "hazing" value their membership highly, regardless of whether the group actually fulfills expectations.

Festinger strove to address important issues in human life using precise methodologies. Although committed to the scientific method, he rejected any type of Reductionism, such as the Behavioristic approach dominant in his time that attempted to explain human behavior entirely in terms of associations between stimulus and response. Festinger recognized human beings as creatures of great complexity. His final (unpublished) research involved study of the impact of religions on cultural development. Festinger's relentless pursuit of truth about human nature inspired his students, colleagues, and later researchers to continue to strive to better understand human social behavior.


Leon Festinger was born on May 8, 1919, in Brooklyn, New York, to self-educated Russian-Jewish immigrants Alex Festinger (an embroidery manufacturer) and Sara Solomon Festinger. He attended Boys' High School and received a Bachelor's of Science degree at City College of New York in 1939.

After completing his undergraduate studies, he attended the University of Iowa where, as a student of Kurt Lewin, he received a Master’s in psychology and then his Ph.D. in 1942. The same year, he married pianist Mary Oliver Ballou, with whom he had three children (Catherine, Richard, and Kurt). They later divorced.

Lewin created a Research Center for Group Dynamics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1945, and Festinger followed, becoming an assistant professor there. After Lewin died in 1947, Festinger left to become an associate professor at the University of Michigan, where he was program director for the Group Dynamics center. In 1951, he became a full professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota. In the 1950s, Festinger was given a grant from the Behavioral Sciences Division of the Ford Foundation. This grant was part of the research program of the Laboratory for Research in Social Relations which developed Social Comparison Theory (Festinger, 1954).

In 1955, Festinger moved to Stanford University. During his years at Stanford in the 1950s and 1960s, he was at the height of his influence and trained many young social psychologists, such as Elliot Aronson, who would proceed to have influential careers. In 1968, he became Staudinger Professor of Psychology at the New School for Social Research in New York. He remarried the following year to Trudy Bradley, a professor at the NYU School of Social Work.

Festinger received a number of honors and awards during his distinguished career. In 1959, he received the Distinguished Scientist Award of the American Psychological Association (APA). He was also elected fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in that year. Other honors included the Distinguished Senior Scientist Award of the Society of Experimental Social Psychology.

In 1988, Festinger was diagnosed with cancer of the liver. He died on February 11, 1989.


At MIT, Festinger began a series of experiments on social influence and communication using rigorous experimental methods and theoretical precision. Having directed a study of housing satisfaction among MIT students, Festinger developed experiments to go beyond the correlational data obtained from questionnaires in order to investigate the mechanisms and causal relationships among the social factors involved. This work led Festinger and his students to develop an “experimental laboratory program of research that many consider the birth of systematic experimental social psychology” (Schachter 1994).

Festinger’s work in experimental social psychology led to the theories of propinquity and social comparison theory. However, his most well known work was the theory of cognitive dissonance. His interest in this area was initiated at MIT with Kurt Lewin’s research group, and further developed in Michigan and Minnesota. After masterful experimentation on this topic, culminating in the publication of work that has been referred to as “the most important development in social psychology to date” (Brehm and Cohen 1962), Festinger moved on to new areas of research. He became interested in the study of visual perception, conducting experiments on a variety of issues in this field for several years (Schacter 1994). He then began an exploration of the “nature of man” based on archaeological data, visiting archaeological sites and working with specialists in the field. He published his ideas, which included speculations on the development of division of labor in primitive society, in The Human Legacy {Festinger 1983). His final area of interest was the history of religion. Working with medieval and Byzantine scholars he researched differences between the Eastern and Roman churches and the role these might have played in technological development, although he died before this work was published (Schachter 1994).


Leon Festinger’s early work in social psychology involved the theory of propinquity, which relates physical or psychological proximity between people with corresponding likelihood to form friendships. He and his colleagues developed this idea in what came to be called the Westgate studies conducted at MIT (Festinger, Shachter, and Back 1950).

The propinquity effect is the tendency for people to form friendships or romantic relationships with those whom they encounter often. In other words, relationships tend to be formed between those who have a high propinquity. The typical Euler diagram used to represent the propinquity effect is shown below where U = universe, A = set A, B = set B, and S = similarity:


The sets are basically any relevant subject matter about a person, persons, or non-persons, depending on the context. Propinquity can be more than just physical distance. Residents of an apartment building living near a stairway, for example, tend to have more friends from other floors than others. The propinquity effect is usually explained by the mere exposure effect, which holds that greater exposure to a stimulus leads to an increase in familiarity and likability.

Social comparison theory

Festinger initially proposed social comparison theory in 1954. This theory states that there is a drive within individuals to look to outside images in order to evaluate their own opinions and abilities. These images may be a reference to physical reality or a comparison to other people. People look to the images portrayed by others to be obtainable and realistic, and subsequently, make comparisons among themselves, others, and the idealized images.

In developing this idea, Festinger used research from colleagues that focused on social communication, group dynamics, the autokinetic effect, compliant behavior, social groups, and level of aspiration (Festinger, 1954; Kruglanski & Mayseless, 1990). In his article, he sourced various experiments with children and adults; however, much of his theory was based on his own research (Festinger, 1954).

In his initial theory, Festinger hypothesized several things. First, he stated that human beings have a drive to evaluate themselves by examining their opinions and abilities in comparison to others. To this, he added that the tendency to compare oneself with some other specific person decreases as the difference between his opinion or ability and one’s own become more divergent. He also hypothesized that there is an upward drive towards achieving greater abilities, but that there are non-social restraints which make it nearly impossible to change them, and that this is largely absent in opinions (Festinger, 1954).

He continued with the idea that to cease comparison between one’s self and others causes hostility and deprecation of opinions. His hypotheses also stated that a shift in the importance of a comparison group will increase pressure towards uniformity with that group. However, if the person, image, or comparison group is too divergent from the evaluator, the tendency to narrow the range of comparability becomes stronger (Festinger, 1954). To this, he added that people who are similar to an individual are especially good in generating accurate evaluations of abilities and opinions (Suls, Martin, and Wheeler, 2002). Lastly, he hypothesized that the distance from the mode of the comparison group will affect the tendencies of those comparing; that those who are closer will have stronger tendencies to change than those who are further away (Festinger, 1954).

While there have been changes in Festinger’s original concept, many fundamental aspects remain, including the similarity in the comparison groups, the tendency towards social comparison, and the general process that is social comparison (Kruglanski and Mayseless, 1990).

Cognitive dissonance

Main article: Cognitive dissonance

The theory of cognitive dissonance was developed by Leon Festinger in the mid-1950s, to explain why people of strong convictions are so resistant to changing their beliefs even in the face of undeniable contradictory evidence. Paradoxically, some people in such a situation act with great fervor to convert others to their belief. This can be noticed both in everyday life, such as when an individual purchases a new car and then is confronted with reports and advertising that another model is superior, and in the millennial hopes of religious groups whose prophecies fail.

Based on his earlier work, Festinger recognized that people like consistency in their lives. This consistency is expressed in their behavior, such as sitting in the same seat on a bus or train on their way to work, and in their beliefs. The introduction of a new cognition or a piece of knowledge that is discordant or inconsistent with a currently held cognition creates a state of "dissonance." Festinger explained that dissonance is uncomfortable and that people attempt to reduce dissonance in one of three ways:

The person may try to change one or more of the beliefs, opinions, or behaviors involved in the dissonance; to acquire new information or beliefs that will increase the existing consonance and, thus, cause the total dissonance to be reduced; or to forget or reduce the importance of those cognitions that are in a dissonant relationship (Festinger et al. 1956).

Under certain conditions people who are presented with undeniable evidence that their beliefs are wrong will not change their beliefs but rather increase their conviction of their truth and act with great fervor to convince others to believe also. Festinger suggested five conditions that would lead to such paradoxical behavior: The individual must have a deeply held conviction; actions must have been taken for the sake of this belief that are difficult to undo; the belief must be able to be disconfirmed by events in the world; such undeniable disconfirmatory evidence must occur and be recognized by the individual; and the individual believer must have social support (Festinger et al. 1956). Historical examples, such as the Millerite movement that expected the second coming of Christ in the year 1843, generally support this thesis but Festinger wanted more detailed and verifiable data to support his theory.

An opportunity to conduct a field test of the theory arose when Festinger and his associates read an interesting item in their local newspaper headlined "Prophecy from planet clarion call to city: Flee that flood." A housewife, Mrs. Marion Keech, had mysteriously been given messages in the form of automatic writing from alien beings on the planet "Clarion," who revealed that the world would end in a great flood before dawn on December 21. The group of believers, headed by Mrs. Keech, had taken strong behavioral steps to indicate their degree of commitment to the belief. Some had left jobs, college, and spouse to prepare to leave on a flying saucer, which they believed would arrive to rescue the group of true believers.

Festinger saw this as a case that would lead to the arousal of dissonance when the prophecy failed. Altering the belief would be difficult. Mrs. Keech and the group were highly committed to it, and had gone to considerable expense to maintain it. A more likely option would be to enlist social support for their original belief. As Festinger wrote, "If more and more people can be persuaded that the system of belief is correct, then clearly it must, after all, be correct" (Festinger et al 1956). In this case, if Mrs. Keech could add consonant elements by converting others to the basic premise, then the magnitude of her dissonance following disconfirmation would be reduced. Festinger predicted that the inevitable disconfirmation would be followed by an enthusiastic effort at proselytizing to seek social support and lessen the pain of disconfirmation.

Festinger and his colleagues infiltrated Mrs. Keech's group and reported their results. His prediction was confirmed, and the theory of cognitive dissonance was presented to the public (Festinger et al. 1956, Festinger 1957).

Festinger did not rest his theory on such observational data alone. He proceeded to test it experimentally. In Festinger and Carlsmith's (1959) classic experiment, students were asked to perform tedious and meaningless tasks. Before the participants left they were asked to inform the next students that the tedious tasks were interesting, even enjoyable. The participants were divided into two groups: Subjects in one group were paid 20 dollars for doing this, while those in the other were paid one dollar. When asked afterwards if they really enjoyed the tasks, those who were paid one dollar reported that they found it fun while those paid twenty dollars stated the tasks were boring, as did the control group who only performed the tasks. This result is in accord with the theory of cognitive dissonance since those paid twenty dollars (a considerable sum for students in those days) experienced little dissonance since they were well rewarded, while those paid only one dollar had to justify spending time doing boring and pointless tasks and then having to pretend that this was enjoyable. Facing insufficient justification for their behavior, these subjects sought to relieve their resulting stress by changing their attitude. This process allowed the subjects to genuinely believe that the tasks were enjoyable. Simply put, Festinger concluded that in a situation of induced compliance, such as being asked to lie without being given sufficient justification, human beings will convince themselves that the lie they are asked to tell is actually the truth.

Beyond Festinger's own experiments involving induced or forced compliance, the theory of cognitive dissonance generated considerable research among social psychologists for many decades. While a highly established theory, cognitive dissonance has not gone without its share of criticisms. Methodological ambiguities were reported in classic cognitive dissonance studies (Chapanis and Chapanis 1964). Such criticisms encouraged experiments that were more soundly designed, yielding additional data supporting the phenomenon as well as alternative explanations of the mechanisms involved.


Leon Festinger is regarded as one of the most significant social psychologists of the twentieth century. His work demonstrated that it is possible to use the scientific method to investigate complex and significant social phenomena without reducing them to the mechanistic connections between stimulus and response that were the basis of Behaviorism. Festinger was concerned with important issues in human life and his inventive mind led him and his colleagues to devise numerous experimental manipulations to investigate a wide variety of phenomena that were heretofore considered not amenable to measurement. He inspired his students, colleagues, and later researchers to continue to strive to better understand human social behavior.

Festinger's work has not only stimulated research and theoretical development within psychology, it has impacted the general public's understanding of human behavior. For example, his cognitive dissonance interpretation has numerous applications to our everyday lives. It is observable in consumerism, such as when a person makes a choice to buy one product over another. Any comparison of the bad features of the chosen product and the good features of the product not chosen results in dissonance. The consumer, in order to lessen the discomfort of such conflicting cognitions, generally avoids further comparisons, and when forced to confront such features changes his evaluation of the importance of the dissonant features. The cognitive dissonance model also explains why those who join a group after going through a difficult qualification process value their membership highly, regardless of whether the group actually fulfills their expectations. Thus, the practice of "hazing" new members of college fraternities and sororities guarantees loyalty, as the new member cannot change the behavior they were required to go through in order to join, and so can only change their belief that membership in the group is valuable and justifies such behavior.

Major publications

  • Festinger, Leon. 1950. Informal social communication. Psychological Review 57: 271-282.
  • Festinger, Leon. 1954. A theory of social comparison processes. Human Relations 7(2): 117-140.
  • Festinger, Leon. 1957. A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. ISBN 0804701318.
  • Festinger, Leon. 1983. The Human Legacy. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 0231056729.
  • Festinger, Leon, and J. M. Carlsmith. 1959. Cognitive consequences of forced compliance Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 58: 203-211. Retrieved July 23, 2008.
  • Festinger, Leon, Henry W. Riecken, and Stanley Schachter. 1956. When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group that Predicted the End of the World. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 0061311324.
  • Festinger, Leon, Stanley Schachter, and Kurt Back (eds.). 1950. Social Pressure in Informal Groups: A Study of Human Factors in Housing. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. ISBN 0804701741.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Brehm, Jack W. 1998. Leon Festinger. In Portraits of Pioneers in Psychology, Volume III. Michael Wertheimer and Gregory A. Kimble (eds.). Lawrence Erlbaum. ISBN 0805826203.
  • Brehm, Jack W., and A. R. Cohen (eds.). 1962. Explorations in Cognitive Dissonance. New York: Wiley. ISBN 0471101796.
  • Chapanis, N. P., and A. Chapanis. 1964. Cognitive Dissonance: Five years later. Psychological Bulletin 61: 1-22.
  • Cooper, Joel. 2007. Cognitive Dissonance: 50 Years of a Classic Theory. Sage Publications Ltd. ISBN 978-1412929721.
  • Harmon-Jones, Eddie, and Judson Mills. 1999. Cognitive Dissonance: Progress on a Pivotal Theory in Social Psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. ISBN 1557985650.
  • Kruglanski, A. W., and O. Mayseless. 1990. Classic and current social comparison research: Expanding the perspective. Psychological Bulletin 108(2): 195-208.
  • Milite, George A. 2001. Festinger, Leon (1919-1989). Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology, 2nd edition. Gale Group. Retrieved July 23, 2008.
  • Schachter, Stanley. 1994. Leon Festinger. National Academy of Sciences Biographical Memoirs 64: 99-111. Retrieved July 23, 2008.
  • Stone, Jon R. (ed.). 2000. Expecting Armageddon: Essential Readings in Failed Prophecy. Routledge. ISBN 978-0415923316.
  • Suls, Jerry M., R. Martin, and Ladd Wheeler. 2002. Social comparison: Why, with whom and with what effect? Current Directions in Psychological Science 11(5): 159-163.
  • Suls, Jerry M., and Richard L. Miller. 1977. Social Comparison Processes: Theoretical and Empirical Perspectives. John Wiley & Sons Inc. ISBN 0470991747.
  • Suls, Jerry M., and Ladd Wheeler. 2000. Handbook of Social Comparison: Theory and Research. New York: Springer. ISBN 0306463415.

External links

All links retrieved October 25, 2022.


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