Leon Festinger - Social Psychology - The Canon

Psychology: Essential Thinkers, Classic Theories, and How They Inform Your World - Andrea Bonior 2016

Leon Festinger
Social Psychology
The Canon


BORN 1919, New York City, New York


DIED 1989, New York City, New York


Educated at City College of New York and the University of Iowa



Leon Festinger was one of the most eminent psychologists of modern times, contributing theories to social psychology that have become pillars of the field. He was also a person of varied interests, eventually studying visual perception, history, and even archaeology, which, he argued, are as much about psychology as anything else.

Festinger’s greatest theory, that of cognitive dissonance, says that when we have two simultaneous and seemingly incompatible thoughts, we will do what we can to minimize the discrepancy by adjusting our thoughts accordingly. We don’t like the discomfort that the incompatibility creates, and so we are motivated to get rid of it, even if we have to change what we believe. These thoughts can involve our attitudes, our observations, or even our acknowledgment that we are engaging in certain behaviors. When the brain catches the discrepancy, we become uncomfortable. And so we search for a way to make the discrepancy go away.

Experiments that Festinger conducted showed that such an attitude change is even more likely when we feel that we have a choice about our actions, and when we are able to foresee the consequences. We are also more likely to accept responsibility for our behavior when we don’t think that someone else is coercing us; and, having accepted responsibility for our behavior, we can feel the discomfort of cognitive dissonance when it turns out that our behavior isn’t making a lot of sense, and so we force it to make sense.

The concept of cognitive dissonance also applies to situations in which we have to choose between two options. We want to convince ourselves that the choice we’ve made was correct, and so we increasingly view the option we chose as attractive, and we increasingly downgrade the choice we rejected, to bat away the dissonance of seeing it, too, as an attractive option. In fact, research shows this pattern in voting behavior—we hold our chosen candidates in higher esteem right after we vote for them than we did right before. We want to justify our decisions, to know that our attitudes and our behavior are aligned, and to avoid the discomfort of thinking that we should have chosen something or someone else.

Another area of Festinger’s work that made great waves is social comparison theory. This theory says that we constantly try to assess our own characteristics as they compare to those of others, sizing ourselves up to see where we stand in terms of our values and abilities. And the more we identify with certain people, the more we care about how we measure up to them. This tendency can sometimes serve to bolster our opinions: “She believes that, and she’s pretty much like me, so I should believe it too.” Or it can make us choose the opposite opinion: “I can’t stand her. If she supports that candidate, I probably shouldn’t.” Sometimes it serves to help us define our abilities: “Everyone else seems to be out of breath walking up these stairs, so I must not be in such bad shape after all.” We may feel unsure or downright confused when we’re alone with our own thoughts or actions, but when we can justify or validate them by comparing ourselves to others, we feel much better, and we convince ourselves that we have a more accurate evaluation of ourselves.


Festinger was also the first to conclusively establish how much proximity matters in the development of friendships, and how the everyday familiarity and random interactions that come from simply being near someone may matter more than many other factors in terms of how likely we are to develop a friendship. Sometimes we get lucky. Perhaps the colleagues and roommates we fell in with are good people. But if proximity draws us into a friendship that turns out not to have been the best choice, then the power of proximity looks less benign.


The concept of cognitive dissonance led to all kinds of new research on interactions between attitudes and behavior. Festinger’s work directly influenced later psychologists who studied decision making. Among his students were the notable social psychologists Elliot Aronson and Stanley Schachter (the latter studied how physiological arousal can send us searching for an explanation that determines how we label our emotions).


Let’s say you’ve spent all night waiting in line to get tickets to the premiere of a long-awaited movie. Once inside the theater, you settle in with your popcorn. But as you watch the movie, you start to notice that the special effects, the dialogue, and the acting are all underwhelming. You are beginning to understand that you chose, of your own free will, to put yourself through considerable sacrifice in exchange for getting to see this terrible film. Cognitive dissonance has struck. What will you do now? Leon Festinger would say that you’ll try to relieve the dissonance in any way you can. You can’t change the fact that you spent all night waiting in line, but you can change what you think of the movie. “I was up all night,” you’ll tell yourself, “so I’m probably just tired. The movie’s not so bad. Actually, it’s pretty good.”

More fascinating is a cultural phenomenon that Festinger studied methodologically—the doomsday cult. For his 1956 book When Prophecy Fails, coauthored with Henry W. Riecken, Festinger infiltrated the Seekers, a group headed by a Chicago-area housewife whom Festinger called Marian Keech. She foretold a great flood that would end the world on December 21, 1954, but not before a flying saucer swept her and her followers off to the planet Clarion. Festinger waited and watched with the Seekers as the hour of the Earth’s demise came and went. Finally Keech announced that the Earth was to be spared after all. Most of her followers, instead of cutting their losses, reaffirmed their faith and doubled down on proselytizing—a clear example of cognitive dissonance in action.