Leon Festinger was a 20th century psychologist who developed the theories of cognitive dissonance and social comparison. These theories continue to play a role in contemporary psychology.

Professional Life

Leon Festinger was born on May 8, 1919 in New York City. He graduated from Boys’ High School in New York, and earned his bachelor’s degree from the City College of New York. He completed his master’s and PhD in psychology from the University of Iowa, graduating in 1942. As a student, he attended classes led by Kurt Lewin, a psychologist who was developing his concept of “field theory”—the notion that an individual’s behavior is informed by present, coexisting facts. Festinger worked with Lewin as a research associate at the university for two years before moving on to teaching at the University of Rochester in 1943.

When Lewin formed the Research Center for Group Dynamics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Festinger joined the Center as an assistant professor in 1945. After Lewin’s death, the Center moved to the University of Michigan where Festinger worked an associate professor beginning in 1948. Three years later, Festinger moved to the University of Minnesota where he was a professor of psychology. In 1955, Festinger accepted a similar position at Stanford University where he remained until 1968 when he became the Else and Hans Staudinger Professor of Psychology at the New School for Social Research in New York.

Contribution to Psychology

Festinger developed several key psychological theories. His theory of cognitive dissonance was the indirect result of an earthquake. Festinger learned that Indian earthquake victims were terrified that a much bigger earthquake was coming, despite evidence to the contrary. Festinger believed that people bought these rumors because they served to justify fear that was already present. From this belief, Festinger developed the theory of cognitive dissonance, which is the state of discomfort a person experiences when he or she holds two conflicting beliefs.

Cognitive dissonance often springs from a person's values. For example, when people engage in practices or activities that they know to be harmful to themselves or others, such as smoking or adultery, they may experience cognitive dissonance. Festinger published his research in the book, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, which is considered his most important and lasting contribution to the field of psychology. In 1959, he won the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from the American Psychological Association for his work. He also published Conflict, Decision and Dissonance in 1964.

Festinger's social comparison theory argues that people evaluate their own ideas, values, and beliefs by comparing them to the ideas of others. Further, people tend to seek companionship with people who share their values, which is why friends and romantic partners often share similar belief systems. People are made uncomfortable by differences between themselves and loved ones, which means people try to bridge differences either by changing another person's beliefs or changing their own beliefs.

In the book When Prophecy Fails, Festinger and colleagues shared their experiences of infiltrating a small cult who believed the end of the world was imminent. The book examines the fallout that occurs when people's beliefs are disproved by evidence. Festinger observed that when doomsday prophecies turn out to be incorrect, this does not dissuade group members. Instead, people may point to their beliefs as the reason a prophecy failed. For example, one group that believed the end of the world was coming argued that their prophecies about the end of the world had actually prevented the world from ending.