Leon Festinger: Biography & Cognitive Dissonance Theory

Instructor: David McMillan
Psychologist Leon Festinger is known for his theory of cognitive dissonance, which concerns our actions and attitudes. Keep reading for a brief biography of Festinger and to learn more about cognitive dissonance.

Biography

Leon Festinger was born in Brooklyn, New York, on May 8, 1919. While a graduate student at the University of Iowa, Festinger worked with Kurt Lewin, who is known as the 'Father of Social Psychology'. Initially, Festinger wasn't interested in social psychology and instead put his gifted mathematical skills to use. However, he later rejoined Lewin and his group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Leon Festinger
Picture of Leon Festinger

Festinger's work at MIT is considered by many to be the beginning of experimental work in social psychology. He created methods to examine things that some previously thought could not be measured, such as affection and social cohesion (i.e., how close people feel to one another or how much they stick together). Festinger continued his work at the University of Michigan, the University of Minnesota, and Stanford University and went on to become the recipient of numerous scientific and psychological awards, including the American Psychological Association's Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award.

One of the theories he is most known for is the theory of cognitive dissonance. Keep reading to learn more about this concept.

Cognitive Dissonance

Imagine you're a high school driver's ed instructor, and you take great care to make sure your students know the traffic laws inside and out. This includes emphasizing - both in lectures and on the road with student drivers - that while many people speed up to make it through a yellow light, this light is actually cautionary and is intended to make you slow down because it's about time to stop.

At the end of a long day at school and riding with new teenage drivers, you're in a hurry to get home for dinner. On your drive home, you come to a stoplight that has turned yellow and, even though you have plenty of time to stop, you speed through it. You feel uncomfortable doing something that you repeatedly advise your students against, but you convince yourself that it's OK because you worked hard that day, you're tired, and dinner is getting cold.

This situation is a prime example of cognitive dissonance, which is the discomfort we feel when our beliefs (attitudes) are not in line with our actions (behaviors) or when we have two conflicting attitudes. Festinger theorized that this feeling of uneasiness causes us to adjust our actions or beliefs to justify our actions and thus restore personal harmony.

Dissonance in the Lab

In 1959, Festinger and student J. Merrill Carlsmith performed an experiment in which they had participants do a boring task (e.g., turning wooden pegs over and over for an extended period of time). The participants were then asked to convince the next subject (who was really a fellow experimenter) that the task was interesting. Finally, the participant was asked to fill out a questionnaire about his or her true feelings of the experiment.

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