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Leon Festinger (May 8, 1919 – February 11, 1989) was a social psychologist from New York City who became famous for his Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (Festinger, 1957). Festinger earned his Bachelor of Science degree from the City College of New York in 1939. After completing his undergraduate studies, he attended the University of Iowa where he received his Ph.D. in 1942. Festinger studied under Kurt Lewin, who is often considered the father of social psychology.
Over the course of his career, Leon Festinger taught at a number of universities, including the University of Iowa, the University of Rochester, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the University of Minnesota, the University of Michigan, and 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 who would proceed to become influential in their own careers (e.g. Elliot Aronson). In 1968 he went to the New School for Social Research in New York City, where he remained until his death in 1990.
Festinger is best known for his theory of cognitive dissonance, which suggests that inconsistency among beliefs or behaviors will cause an uncomfortable psychological tension, leading to people to change their beliefs to fit their behavior instead of changing one's behavior to fit their belief, as conventionally assumed. Festinger also proposed social comparison theory, according to which people evaluate their own opinions and desires by comparing themselves with others.
Born to self-educated Russian-Jewish immigrants Alex Festinger (an embroidery manufacturer) and Sara Solomon Festinger in Brooklyn, New York, Leon Festinger attended Boys' High School and received a bachelor's in science at City College of New York in 1939. He received a Master's in psychology from the University of Iowa in 1942 after studying under prominent social psychologist Kurt Lewin, who was trying to create a "field theory" of psychology (by analogy to physics) to respond to the mechanistic models of the behaviorists.
Lewin created a Research Center for Group Dynamics at MIT in 1945 and Festinger followed, becoming an assistant professor. Lewin passed away in 1947 and 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. His 1953 book Research Methods in the Behavioral Sciences (with Daniel Katz) stressed the need for well-controlled variables in laboratory experiments, even if this meant misinforming the participants.
In 1955 he moved to Stanford University. Finally, in 1968 he became Staudinger Professor of Psychology at the New School for Social Research in New York.
Example of cognitive dissonance
Main article: When Prophecy Fails
Festinger's theory of cognitive dissonance can account for the psychological consequences of disconfirmed expectations. One of the first published cases of dissonance was reported in the book, When Prophecy Fails (Festinger et al. 1956). Festinger and his associates read an interesting item in their local newspaper headlined "Prophecy from planet clarion call to city: flee that flood."
Festinger and his colleagues saw this as a case that would lead to the arousal of dissonance when the prophecy failed. They infiltrated Mrs. Keech's group and reported the results, confirming their expectations.
- Leon Festinger, Henry W. Riecken, & Stanley Schachter, When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group that Predicted the End of the World (University of Minnesota Press; 1956).
- Jon R. Stone (ed.). Expecting Armageddon: Essential Readings in Failed Prophecy (Routledge; 2000). ISBN 0-415-92331-X.
- Leon Festinger, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (Stanford University Press; 1957).
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