Festinger, Leon

views updated Jun 11 2018


(b. Brooklyn, New York, 8 May 1919; d. New York, New York, 11 February 1989),

social psychology, cognitive dissonance, groups, communication, influence, social comparison and level of aspiration.

Festinger was recognized in 1959 with the American Psychological Association’s Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award for his theory and research on social behavior as arising from a “thinking organism continually acting to bring order into his world” (Boring, Cronbach, Crutchfield, et al., 1959, p. 784). Five years earlier, Festinger was honored by Fortune Magazine as one of ten top young scientists in universities for his research on people using groups as a testing ground for their views and self-concepts, an experimental demonstration of the power of social determinants on beliefs and abilities. Best known for his theory of cognitive dissonance, first introduced in 1956 in the coauthored book When Prophecy Fails, Festinger’s social psychology departed from mechanistic notions of humans, and he can well be considered as part of the vanguard of social psychologists who revamped views of cognition in line with the information and communication theory of the mid-twentieth century, and who brought these into play with individual and group dynamics. Festinger also often is regarded as at the forefront of a post–World War II remodeling of experimental social psychology, making seminal the control and manipulation of variables and finely staged laboratory situations aimed at evoking a sense of realness in human subjects. Elected to the American Academy of Sciences in 1959 and the National Academy of Sciences in 1972, Festinger was celebrated in 1980 by the Distinguished Senior Scientist Award from the Society of Experimental Social Psychology.

Early Years and Education . Born in Brooklyn, New York, Festinger was the son of Russian immigrants—Alex Festinger, an embroidery manufacturer, and Sara Solomon— who left Eastern Europe before World War I. After Boys High School, Festinger entered the College of the City of New York, and, on obtaining a BS, left in 1939 for Iowa City to study under German émigré Kurt Lewin, completing his MA in 1940 and his PhD in 1942, both in the Child Welfare Research Station from the University of Iowa, although his own work was not in the area of child research. As Festinger himself wryly reflected, “technically my PhD is in child psychology—although I never saw a child” (Patnoe, 1988, p. 252). Neither had one of social psychology’s more recognized researchers studied social psychology, as Festinger often noted with similar irony: “I had never had a course in social psychology. My graduate education did nothing to cure that. I never had a course at Iowa in social psychology either.” What drew Festinger to Iowa were Lewin’s ideas, developed with his Berlin group, on “tension systems and the remembering and completion of interrupted tasks,” force fields and Umweg situations (Festinger, 1980, p. 237). To Festinger, there was to these ideas a sense of “creativity, newness” and “importance,” along with a “closeness between theory and data” (p. 237). The appeal for Festinger was thus both with Lewin’s ideas and with his exquisite articulation of the relation between theory and the empirical world, an interest underlying Festinger’s attraction to science: “You have very strict ground rules in science and your ideas have to check out with the empirical world” (Cohen, 1977, p. 133). Time after time, Festinger brackets together his love of science and “fascination of games,” especially chess. While science absorbed his interest from early on, Festinger’s entry into psychology, and social psychology in particular, was thus, as he himself acknowledged, more by fiat than design. As he took courses in one and another science, his impression of psychology grew as a science where there were “still…questions to be answered” (p. 132), a field awaiting new contributions— an irresistible draw to a young scientist and chess enthusiast.

At least two significant influences steered Festinger’s interests as an undergraduate. One was Clark Hull’s Hypnosis and Suggestibility (1933), which Festinger recalled discovering while scouting out books in various sciences in the library. He described this work as a “beautiful series of studies in which he [Hull] took what is still an obscure phenomenon and examined it” (Cohen, 1977, p. 132). Festinger himself conducted two experiments in prestige and suggestibility for his honors thesis, looking at subjects’ suggestibility as a function of their tendency toward stabilizing decision estimates (1939). A second significant influence was Lewin’s “conceptual framework of goal valences, goal potencies, and restraining forces,” a framework used by Tamara Dembo and Sybille Escalona in their research on aspirations to attain a goal. Festinger, under the supervision of Max Hertzman, conducted a study of levels of aspiration, which they published together in 1940 in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

On arriving in Iowa, however, Festinger discovered Lewin’s main interest had turned to social psychology and groups, even though he continued to pursue his ideas on life spaces, forces, and tension systems. Festinger claims his “youthful penchant for rigor” led him to pursue further research on aspiration for his master’s thesis and to develop a mathematical model of decision making for his dissertation. His thesis “Wish, Expectation, and Group Performance as Factors Influencing Level of Aspiration” (1940) extended his undergraduate research, a study of tensions between individual and group comparison in levels of aspiration under varying conditions of expectations, intentions, wishes, ideals, and goals. His thesis, like his undergraduate research, demonstrates the influence of Lewin’s field theory concepts of need, tension, valence, force, and energy. While still conceptualized through life space and tension system, Lewin’s own work had turned at this time toward the study of groups and leadership (“autocratic” and “democratic”), a shift many attributed to Lewin’s experiences with anti-Semitism in Germany and “his feelings about the growing repression he saw around him” (Patnoe, 1988, p. 3). Directed by Lewin, Festinger’s dissertation “An Experimental Test of a Theory of Decision” (1942) represented an effort to bridge motivation theory (a more Lewinian approach) with psychophysics for a quantitative theory of decision. Festinger also did work on statistics, and, in his own words, “even strayed to doing a study using laboratory rats” (Festinger, 1980, p. 237).

Turn to Social Psychology . It would not be until three years after completing his doctoral studies that Festinger “immersed [himself] in the field [of social psychology] with all its difficulties, vaguenesses, and challenges” (Festinger, 1980, p. 237). In the intervening years he taught statistics in the Army Specialized Training Program, granting him a deferral from service; was a research associate in psychology at the University of Iowa from 1941 to 1943; and was then once more deferred from the draft by working as a statistician for the Committee on Selection and Training of Aircraft Pilots at the University of Rochester (1943–1945). In fact, Festinger’s rush to complete his doctoral studies in three years was motivated, he said, to avoid the war, claiming to be one of the “original draft dodgers” (Patnoe, 1988, p. 253).

In 1945 Festinger moved again to become an assistant professor in Lewin’s newly founded Research Center for Group Dynamics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). On joining Lewin, along with Ronald Lippitt, Dorwin Cartwright, and Marian Radke, Festinger devoted himself to the field of social psychology.

The Research Center for Group Dynamics gathered at MIT a pioneering group of psychologists and graduate students in psychology, who simultaneously carved out the work of the center and launched their careers at the cutting-edge of the field. In addition to the faculty mentioned above, there were several outstanding graduate students—Kurt Back, Morton Deutsch, Harold Kelley, Albert Pepitone, Stanley Schachter, and John Thibaut— who would become defining figures in the field of social psychology. Festinger’s social psychological research in this groundbreaking venture began with his work with Back and Schachter on a study of graduate student housing (the Westgate housing study). Many of the graduate students had interrupted their studies to serve in the war, as was the case with Schachter (with whom Festinger formed a close and lifelong friendship and colleagueship). Their study of Westgate housing offered a social ecology of group and friendship formation; people living close to or coming into frequent informal contact with one another (mail room, stairwell, etc.) often develop friendships. Close proximity or propinquity was thus found to be key to small group and/or friendship formation. Later, when the center relocated to the University of Michigan, Schachter followed up on the housing study findings in experimental laboratory work he conducted for his dissertation on deviation, rejection, and communication.

Movement between studies in situ and the laboratory became a defining signature of Festinger’s early and most well-known social psychological research. As he saw it, the laboratory could limit theory and research because one has “purified the thing so that you can see whether or not what you are looking for is there.” To Festinger, switching “back and forth between laboratory studies and studies in the real world,” or “field studies,” as he referred to them, helped to “clarify theory and get hunches and that kind of thing” (Patnoe, 1988, p. 255). There was thus a kind of feedback loop created between the “real world” and the laboratory, each serving to refine theory and research, as opposed to one site serving as the testing ground for application in the other. Two of Festinger’s most definitive contributions to social psychology followed this methodological course. From the Westgate housing study came Festinger’s formulation on informal communication and social comparison processes, especially what Festinger called a pressure toward uniformity, or the tendency of individuals to compare and then align opinions with those whose views are closer to one’s own. But the more famous of the two real-world studies is Festinger’s covert study of a small millennialist group in Oak Park, Illinois, a study serving to lay the theoretical groundwork for cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive Dissonance . The Oak Park study began while Festinger was professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota in 1951, and was published shortly after he went to Stanford University in 1955. The resulting 1956 book, When Prophecy Fails, recounts the undercover participation

of Festinger, Schachter, Henry Riecken, and a complement of graduate students who entered the Seekers. The group’s prophetess, Dorothy Martin (alias Mrs. Keech), foretold of the world ending on 21 December 1954. Festinger was interested in how the group would respond to the discrepancy between their beliefs and the failed prophecy of an apocalypse. Cognitive dissonance was conceptualized as a tension between opposing beliefs or between belief and behavior, with the tension functioning as a motivational force driving one to reduce the emotional or cognitive strain. His theory’s counterintuitive predictions held great appeal. Groups faced with evidence that discon-firms their beliefs may find ways to use it to shore up those beliefs rather than disband previously held convictions. One year after publishing his book on failed prophecy and cognitive dissonance, Festinger presented the full scope of his theory in A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (1957). Within two years of its publication, research studies on cognitive dissonance began to fill journals of experimental social psychology, and after a decade, reached three hundred “separate, published, theoretical, critical and/or research publications” (Margolis, 1969, p. 923). Fifty years after its first appearance, citation counts of works in the psychological database exceeded fifteen hundred.

But the influence of the theory of cognitive dissonance and the original study of the millennialist group has been far more extensive than numbers alone can convey. It has inspired works of fiction and stimulated research in other disciplines, including religious studies, political science, economics, sociology, legal theory, and philosophy of science. Some religious studies scholars claim this work helped to shape what is now “the standard paradigm [in the sociology of religion] for understanding failed prophecy” (Dein, 2001, p. 384), and others claim it as a “key text for understanding the logic of the ‘dynamics of commitment’” of New Left groups (Gitlin, 2005). The term cognitive dissonance has since its conception entered into everyday conversation, and is used routinely in newspaper and popular journals as shorthand for mental tension, or conflicting beliefs, or inconsistency in belief and behavior across topics as wide-ranging as war, eating disorders, and risk and denial. Within psychology, Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance has been heralded as “revolutionizing the way social psychologists think about human behavior” (Aronson, 1999). Popularized and part of everyday utterance, cognitive dissonance’s cultural resonance has been both so vast and so deep as to prompt reference to early twenty-first-century America as an “age of dissonance.”

Despite its broad appeal, Festinger’s work has been dogged by controversy. Almost from its inception, cognitive dissonance was met with trenchant critique, whether for “not find[ing] a place for the description of phenomena” (Asch, 1958, p. 195), for assuming that action and cognition somehow have to be brought into line with one another (Bruner, 1957), for reducing complex social psychological phenomena to two discrepant statements (Chapanis & Chapanis, 1964), or for the evidence fitting a theory of self-perception better than cognitive dissonance (Bem, 1967). Historian of psychology Edwin G. Boring (1964) went so far as to parallel Festinger’s studies of cognitive dissonance with the condition of the scientist, instancing occasion after occasion where the scientist persists and perseveres in the face of cognitive dissonance. Whereas the experimental laboratory research into cognitive dissonance was also met with forceful critical analysis of its methodological shortcomings (Chapanis & Chapanis, 1964), the original “real-world” study was, in contrast, quite remarked upon as “a far more illuminating and provocative account of it than mere natural history description would be likely to have given us” (Smith, 1957, p. 90).

The debates on cognitive dissonance are instructive on Festinger’s contributions on several counts, and on developments in post–World War II psychology, especially social psychology. For that reason, reference to Festinger’s revolutionary approach should be placed within the broader debate on theory and research. Festinger, along with many of his contemporaries, was seeking to rectify American psychology’s slighting of cognitive phenomena in favor of behaviorism. To many, he rearticulated the relation between stimulus and response by focusing on what goes on between the two, looking at the “relation and interactions among the contents of the life space” (Heider, 1957, p. 207), and perhaps even proposing work that “lies astride the junction of general psychology, the psychology of personality, and social psychology (Bruner, 1957, p. 153). This attention to what transpires in-between inputs and outputs also revealed Lewin’s influence in attention to a “psychological representation of reality in individual consciousness,” relations of one person to another or group and the environment (Zukier, 1989, p. xiii). Festinger filtered Lewinian notions of life space, force fields, and tension in developing his theory of cognitive dissonance, influencing the larger shift-change in mid-twentieth-century U.S. psychology away from behaviorism, toward what some saw as a more imaginative side to human life (Gruber, Hammond, & Jessor, 1957).

Controversy also surrounded Festinger’s complex experimental laboratory situations—aimed, as he argued, toward making them “real” for subjects. By “real,” Festinger meant the subjects must experience powerful forces acting on them—which usually required a high degree of control, manipulation of variables, and a “great deal of subterfuge and much attention to technical detail” (Festinger, 1953, p. 153). Festinger sought to create situations that were “real and important to the subject,” arguing that only then might scientific psychologists be studying what subjects are experiencing, what some call “hot” cognitions set off by motivational and/or emotional forces, rather than “cool” cognitions, regarded as the product of rational thought. Staging elaborate laboratory experiments was likened by Festinger and some of his students to the work of a playwright; in this case, art and science worked hand-in-hand to call out a “real” experience—what students of Festinger subsequently dubbed “experimental realism” (Aronson & Carlsmith, 1968). But such carefully scripted laboratory experiments involving role-playing and clever stratagem became, ironically, precisely the point of contention among scientific psychologists: some claimed their effect was to turn laboratory psychology into games whose internal rules and logic bore little to no connection to reality.

Arising out of his interest in communication and influence, especially Jamuna Prasad’s 1950 study in rumors following a severe earthquake in Bihar, India, in 1934, Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance reigned for almost a decade of experimental social psychology, and continues to spawn research in other disciplines. The research coming out of Festinger’s collaboration with May Brodbeck, Don Martindale, Jack Brehm, and Alvin Boderman, a project funded by the Behavioral Sciences Division of the Ford Foundation, which moved from the field to the laboratory, book-ended Festinger’s years of research in social psychology. Cognitive dissonance may well serve as his signature in social psychology and as a marker of ideas prevalent in post–World War II psychology. Perhaps Festinger offered the most apt description of this moment when he quoted from Fritz Heider’s unpublished work: “the relationships among people and among sentiments” are predominantly concerned with “balanced, or harmonious, states,” such that “if no balanced state exists, … relations will be changed through action or cognitive reorganization” due to the tension produced by the state of imbalance. To this, Festinger added that if one “replaces the word ‘balanced’ with ‘consonant’ and ‘imbalance’ with ‘dissonance,’” Heider’s process concerning interpersonal relations and his own could be seen to be the same (Festinger, 1957, pp. 7–8). Ideas on balance and imbalance, or consonance and dissonance, marked the age and its preoccupations with homeostatic processes. Throughout Festinger’s research there runs the common thread of “calculated tension between alternatives or contrary forces, which impel a change in thinking, feeling, or behavior” (Zukier, 1989, p. xvii). Although Festinger later reflected that homeostatic notions and theories may well be related to a “Zeitgeist or philosophy underlying assumptions …in human beings,” whereas he intended cognitive dissonance “as an explanation …of a broad range of psychological phenomena” (Cohen, 1977, p. 141), one is nonetheless struck first by the longevity of the concept of cognitive dissonance and second by its resonance with two moments of heightened political and cultural strain in the mid-twentieth- and early-twenty-first-century United States.

Later Research Interests . After just over a decade of research on cognitive dissonance, Festinger left the field of social psychology for research in perception and eye movements. Then, in 1968, he moved back east to take a position at the New School for Social Research, where he briefly continued his research in perception before changing his field once more to archaeology and history. With forty years of experimental psychology research behind him, Festinger closed his laboratory and turned to till new fields of inquiry—anthropology, archaeology, and history—to wrestle with a larger question of what makes humans human, a quest of the origins of human societies and culture. Although a full explanation of his unusual intellectual trajectory is wanting, Festinger himself mused on the draw of certain questions on reaching a certain age: “Older people have too much perspective on the past and, perhaps, too little patience with the future. Very few small discoveries turn out to be important over the years; things that would have sent me jumping and shouting in my youth now left me calm and judgmental.… And even worse… we do not seem to have been working on many of the important problems” (Festinger, 1983, p. ix). With customary dynamism, Festinger sought out colleagues in his new fields of interest, much as he drew together colleagues and students in his years of experimental research, including, during his early years, the well-remembered “Tuesday Night Meeting” or the Lewin-style Quasselstrippe, weekly meetings wholly given to collaborating on research (Patnoe, 1988). Building collaborative networks among psychologists and graduate students went beyond the United States as Festinger created and directed the Committee of Transnational Social Psychology, and participated in its Summer Schools at which young scholars received training and at which were held scientific colloquia. Here, Festinger also contributed to the publication of the European Journal of Social Psychology.

Festinger married Mary Oliver Ballou, a pianist, in 1942, and together they had three children: Richard, Kurt, and Catherine. When his first marriage ended in divorce, Festinger married his second wife, Trudy Bradley, a professor at the New York University School of Social Work. Following his 1983 publication of The Human Legacy, Festinger pursued questions in the history of religion, moving outside his field once more to medieval and Byzantine history. His questions “focused on differences between the Eastern and Western or Roman church and the role such differences might have played in the differential development and acceptance of material technology in these two parts of the Roman empire” (Schachter, 1994, p.106). Festinger died of cancer before publishing his last scholarly foray, leaving colleagues and others with a strong impression of Festinger as an active scholar and of the importance of stepping outside the confines of any one field or method in the study of human life.

Some of Festinger’s papers are archived in the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.



“Experiments in Suggestibility.” Honors thesis, College of the City of New York, 1939. (Leon Festinger Papers, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.)

“Wish, Expectation, and Group Performance as Factors Influencing Level of Aspiration.” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 37 (1942): 184–200. Originally written as master’s thesis, State University of Iowa, 1940.

“An Experimental Test of a Theory of Decision.” PhD diss., State University of Iowa, 1942.

“Laboratory Experiments.” In Research Methods in the Behavioral Sciences, edited by Leon Festinger and Daniel Katz. New York: Dryden Press, 1953.

With Henry W. Riecken and Stanley Schachter. When Prophecy Fails. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1956.

A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Evanston, IL: Row, Peterson, 1957.

Editor. “Looking Backward.” In Retrospections on Social Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.

The Human Legacy. New York: Columbia University Press, 1983.

“A Personal Memory of Stanley Schachter.” Leon Festinger Papers, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.


Aronson, Elliot. “Dissonance, Hypocrisy, and the Self-Concept.” In Cognitive Dissonance, edited by Eddie Harmon-Jones and Judson Mills, 103–126. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 1999.

Aronson, Elliot, and J. M. Carlsmith. “Experimentation in Social Psychology.” In The Handbook of Social Psychology: Second Edition, edited by Gardner Lindzey and Elliot Aronson. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1968.

Asch, S. “Cacophonophobia.” Contemporary Psychology: A Journal of Reviews, 3, no. 7 (1958): 194–195.

Bem, D. J. “Self-Perception: An Alternative Interpretation of Cognitive Dissonance Phenomena.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 1 (1967): 199–218.

Boring, Edwin G. “Cognitive Dissonance: Its Use in Science.” Science 145 (1964): 680–685.

Boring, Edwin G., L. J. Cronbach, R. S. Crutchfield, et al. “Distinguished Scientific Contribution Awards: 1959.” American Psychologist 14, no. 12 (1959): 784–793.

Brehm, J. W. “Leon Festinger: Beyond the Obvious.” In Portraits of Pioneers in Psychology, Vol. II, edited by Gregory A. Kimble, Michael Wertheimer, and Charlotte White. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 1998.

Bruner, J. “Discussion.” In Contemporary Approaches to Cognition, edited by H. Gruber, K. R. Hammond, and R. Jessor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1957.

Chapanis, N. P., and A. Chapanis. “Cognitive Dissonance: Five Years Later.” Psychological Bulletin 61, no. 1 (1964): 1–22.

Cohen, David. “Leon Festinger.” In his Psychologists on Psychology. New York: Taplinger, 1977.

Dein, S. “What Really Happens When Prophecy Fails: The Case of Lubavitch.” Sociology of Relgion 62, no. 3 (2001): 383–401.

Evans, Richard I. “Leon Festinger.” In his The Making of Psychology: Discussions with Creative Contributors. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996.

Gazzaniga, M. S. “Leon Festinger: Lunch with Leon.” Perspectives on Psychological Science 1, no. 1 (2006): 88–94.

Gitlin, Todd. “Jeremy Varon: Bringing the War Home: The Weather Underground, the Red Army Faction, and Revolutionary Violence in the Sixties and Seventies.” American Historical Review 110, no. 4 (2005): 1213–1214.

Gruber, H., K. R. Hammond, and R. Jessor. Foreword. In their Contemporary Approaches to Cognition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1957.

Heider, Fritz. “Trends in Cognitive Theory.” In Contemporary Approaches to Cognition, edited by H. Gruber, K. R.

Hammond, and R. Jessor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1957.

Margolis, S. T. “Cognitive Dissonance: A Bibliography of Its First Decade.” Psychological Reports 24 (1969): 923–935.

Moscovici, Serge. “Obituary: Leon Festinger.” European Journal of Social Psychology, 19, no. 4 (1989): 263–269.

Patnoe, Shelley. “Leon Festinger.” In her A Narrative History of Experimental Social Psychology. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1988.

Samelson, Franz. “Leon Festinger.” American National Biography 7 (1999): 863–864.

Schachter, Stanley. “Leon Festinger.” Biographical Memoirs 64 (1994): 99–110.

Smith, M. B. “Of Prophecy and Privacy.” Contemporary Psychology: A Journal of Reviews 2, no. 4 (1957): 89–92.

Zukier, Henri. Introduction. In Extending Psychological Frontiers: Selected Works of Leon Festinger, edited by Stanley Schachter and Michael Gazzaniga. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1989.

Betty M. Bayer

Festinger, Leon

views updated May 21 2018

Festinger, Leon 1919-1989


Leon Festinger was a prominent American social psychologist. His work in social psychology focused on the impact of the social environment on the formation and change of attitudes, on processes of social comparison by which individuals evaluate their attitudes and abilities, and on the manner in which cognitive inconsistencies cause changes in attitudes and behaviors. He is best known for his work A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (1957), which inspired a great deal of creative research and caused the term cognitive dissonance to become a part of public discourse.

Festinger was born on May 8, 1919, in Brooklyn, New York, and died on February 11, 1989. In 1939 he earned a bachelor of science degree in psychology at the City College of New York, where he became attracted to the work of psychologist Kurt Lewin (18901947). Festinger went to the University of Iowa to work with Lewin, and earned his PhD there in 1942. In 1945 Festinger joined Lewin in the Research Center for Group Dynamics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. When Lewin died unexpectedly in 1947, Festinger became director of the center and focused his attention fully on social psychology.

Festingers main contributions to social psychology occurred over the next twenty years. There are three landmark publications, each of which inspired research by many investigators. The first was Informal Social Communication, published in Psychological Review in 1950. This article showed how pressures toward uniformity of opinion in small, informal groups could lead to attitude change within the group. The second article, A Theory of Social Comparison Processes, was published in Human Relations in 1954. In this publication, Festinger used a set of formal propositions to explain the antecedent conditions and the consequences of comparing ones own attitudes and abilities to those of others. In so doing, he showed how the pressures to uniformity, hypothesized in the earlier article, arose from the process of social comparison.

In A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, Festingers third landmark publication, he hypothesized that any two bits of knowledge held by an individual could have three relationships to one another: they could be irrelevant to one another, consonant if one follows from the other, or dissonant if the obverse of one follows from the other. Festinger hypothesized that cognitive dissonance is an aversive state and that an individual would be motivated to reduce dissonance. Dissonance could be reduced by changing attitudes, altering perceptions and evaluations, or changing ones own behavior. Because the theory was stated in such simple, general terms, it could be applied to a wide variety of situations. Festinger and his students were creative in finding applications for the theory and in devising incisive experiments to test their predictions. A number of these experiments are reported in Festingers second book on dissonance theory, Conflict, Decisions, and Dissonance (1964).

Festingers work on dissonance theory was the target of a number of critiques in the early 1960s. Critics attacked the structure of the theory as being too broad and not clearly defining the conditions under which dissonance would occur, as well as the complex experimental protocols employed by dissonance theory researchers. Over the ensuing decade, research replicating and extending earlier findings, as well as conceptual clarifications, notably by Elliot Aronson, effectively rebutted these critiques. As dissonance theory gained scientific acceptance, the term cognitive dissonance came to be used by columnists and other commentators to describe the psychological discomfort that follows the arrival of unwanted or unexpected information or events. This lay use of the term became popular, even though the conditions necessary for the occurrence of the state defined in the theory may not have been met in the situation to which the term was applied.

Subsequently, Festingers research interests became focused on different issues. From 1963 to 1979 he studied human visual perception, making unique contributions to the research literature. He then turned his attention to early human history, producing a book, The Human Legacy (1983), in which he analyzed human problem solving and adaptation.

Leon Festinger left a legacy of enduring theoretical formulations, a distinctive style of experimentation in social psychology, and a large number of former students who have forged their own distinguished careers in social psychology.

SEE ALSO Aronson, Elliot; Attitudes; Cognitive Dissonance; Lewin, Kurt; Social Comparison


Festinger, Leon. 1957. A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Evanston, IL: Row, Peterson.

Wicklund, Robert A., and Jack W. Brehm. 1976. Perspectives on Cognitive Dissonance. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Darwyn E. Linder

Festinger, Leon

views updated May 23 2018

Leon Festinger

American psychologist who developed the concept of cognitive dissonance.

Many people know that cigarettes cause cancer and other diseases, but nonetheless continue to smoke. This is an example of what Leon Festinger called cognitive dissonancethe idea that when conflict arises in one's belief system, the resulting tension must be eliminated. People going through cognitive dissonance will find some rationale for whatever is causing the conflict, or they may choose to ignore the event in question altogether. Festinger believed that people want balance in their lives and that cognitive dissonance was a way to bring back a lost sense of balance.

Festinger was born in New York City, on May 8, 1919, to Alex Festinger and Sara Solomon. Interested in science at a young age, he decided to pursue a career in psychology. He received his bachelor's degree from City College of New York and went on to Iowa State University for his master's degree and his Ph.D. (which he received in 1942). For the next several years he made his living teaching at different universities until he went to Stanford in 1955.

Introduces theory of cognitive dissonance

At Stanford, Festinger began to fully develop the idea he called cognitive dissonance. The original idea stemmed from his observation that people generally liked consistency in their daily lives. For example, some individuals always sit in the same seat on the train or bus when they commute to work, or always eat lunch in the same restaurant. Cognitive dissonance is a part of this need for consistence. Essentially, Festinger explained, all people hold certain beliefs, and when they are asked to do something that runs counter to their beliefs, conflict arises. Cognitive dissonance comes into play when people try to reconcile the conflicting behaviors or ideas.

Festinger's research resulted in a number of interesting findings. One was that the level of cognitive dissonance would decrease as the incentive to comply with the conflict situation was increased. The reason was simple: where an incentive was involved, people felt less conflict. Festinger and his associates conducted a simple experiment to prove this point. College students were asked to perform a series of repetitive menial tasks for a specified period of time. As they finished, they were instructed that they had to inform the next group of students that the tasks had been enjoyable and interesting. Later, the subjects were asked to describe their true feelings about the task. Half the group was offered a $1 bill; the rest were offered a $20 bill. Subjects were asked afterward whether they really did find the tasks enjoyable. Interestingly, the students who had been paid one dollar stated that they actually did find the tasks enjoyable. There was little or no dissonance among the students who had been paid the $20, since, after all, they were well rewarded for their participation. The other students, however, had to justify having spent time doing useless tasks and getting only a dollar as a reward. They were the ones who were in a state of cognitive dissonance. By convincing themselves that the tasks they performed were not all that boring, they could rationalize having gone through what was essentially a waste of their time.

Cognitive dissonance soon became an important and much-discussed theory. Over the years it has generated considerable research, in part because it is one of a number of theories based on the idea that consistency of thought is a strong motivating factor in people.

Continues research at the New School

Festinger continued his work at Stanford until 1968 when he returned to New York City to assume the Else and Hans Staudinger professorship at the New School for Social Research. He continued his research on cognitive dissonance as well as other behavioral issues. He was also active in professional organizations including the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He continued to work until his death on February 11, 1989, from liver cancer. He was survived by his wife Trudy and four children.

George A. Milite

Further Reading

Festinger, Leon. The human legacy. New York: Columbia University Press, 1983.

Festinger, Leon. A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1962.