Historical Note on Festinger’s Tests of Dissonance Theory
Leon Festinger is a famous figure in social psychology. Festinger was, according to Jones (1985), “the dominant figure in social psychology for a period roughly spanning the two decades from 1950 to 1970” (p. 68). His theory of cognitive dissonance “is generally recognized as Festinger’s greatest creative contribution, and research related to dissonance dominated the journals of social psychology from the late 1950’s to the early 1970’s” (Jones, 1985, p. 69).
Stories of the foibles of famous figures hold a fascination, which leads them to be told and retold. When such a story about a famous figure in social psychology appears in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which is considered to be archival, it takes on an appearance of authenticity and may be presumed accurate by scholars of the field. A statement in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology about Festinger’s tests of dissonance theory will be regarded as factual unless corrected.
In a recent article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Anderson and Anderson (1996) stated that “Festinger is reported to have tried a number of ways to experimentally test dissonance theory, with limited success. Finally, Festinger and Carlsmith (1959) succeeded in getting the various parameters set in the range necessary for replicable dissonance results to be obtained” (pp. 741—742). That statement cannot be commented on by Festinger, who is no longer living. However, I was in position to know about Festinger’s tests of dissonance theory up to and including Festinger and Carlsmith (1959) and can attest, on the basis of personal knowledge, that the report in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology about Festinger’s tests of dissonance theory is inaccurate.
Festinger presented the first version of dissonance theory in January of 1954, in a graduate seminar at the University of Minnesota, which I attended, and I was Festinger’s research assistant from the fall of 1954 through the spring of 1957. In September 1956 at Stanford, Festinger showed a written description of the procedure that was to be used in Festinger and Carlsmith (1959) to Leonard Hommel, who was then also a research assistant to Festinger, and me, and he asked us to find some boring tasks and to devise measures. At the start of that study in the fall of 1956, Hommel was the first experimenter and I was the second experimenter who collected the ratings of the boring tasks, a role later shared with Robert Terwilliger, who interviewed half the participants in the published study. J. Merrill Carlsmith replaced Hommel in January 1957.
Except for the change in the first experimenter, the only substantial change in the procedure in Festinger and Carlsmith (1959) from the original design given by Festinger to Hommel and myself was inclusion of the mention of being on call in the future in the $1 and $20 conditions (which I believe was done to reduce refusals to accept the money). Festinger did not, before devising the procedure in Festinger and Carlsmith, try a number of ways to experimentally test dissonance theory with limited success. The procedure of Festinger and Carlsmith was not developed by altering various parameters until finally succeeding in getting them set in the range necessary.
Anderson, C. A., & Anderson, K. B. (1996). Violent crime rate studies in philosophical context: A destructive testing approach to heat and Southern culture of violence effects. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, 740—756.
Festinger, L., & Carlsmith, J. M. (1959). Cognitive consequences of forced compliance. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 58, 203—210.
Jones, E. E. (1985). Major developments in social psychology during the past five decades. In G. Lindzey & E. Aronson (Eds.), Handbook of social psychology (Vol. 1, 3rd ed., pp. 47—107). New York, NY: Random House.