Leon Festinger (pronounced Feh-sting-er) (New York City, May 8, 1919 – New York City, February 11, 1989), a prominent social psychologist, responsible for the development of the theory of cognitive dissonance, social comparison theory, and the discovery of the role of propinquity in the formation of social ties as well as other contributions to the study of social networks.
Festinger is perhaps best known for the [cognitive dissonance|Theory of Cognitive Dissonance]], which suggests that inconsistency among beliefs or behaviors will cause an uncomfortable psychological tension. This will lead people to change their beliefs to fit their actual behavior, rather than the other way around, as popular wisdom may suggest.
Festinger was also responsible for social comparison theory, which examines how people evaluate their own opinions and desires by comparing themselves with others, and how groups exert pressures on individuals to conform with group norms and goals.
Festinger also made important contributions to social network theory. Studying the formation of social ties, such as the choice of friends, among freshmen housed in dorms, Festinger (together with Stanley Schachter and Kurt Backand) showed how the formation of ties was predicted by propinquity, the simple physical proximity between people, and not just by similar tastes or beliefs, as laymen tend to believe. That is, people simply tend to befriend their neighbors. .
Earlier in his career he explored the various forms that social groups can take and showed, together with Schachter and Back , "how norms are clearer, more firmly held and easier to enforce the more dense a social network."
Festinger earned a Bachelor of Science degree from the City College of New York in 1939, and proceeded to receive a PhD from University of Iowa in 1942, where he studied with Kurt Lewin, another pioneer in social psychology. Over the course of his career, Festinger was a faculty member in the University of Iowa, the University of Rochester, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the University of Minnesota, the University of Michigan, Stanford University, and the New School for Social Research.
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 working to create a "field theory" of psychology (by analogy to physics) to respond to the mechanistic models of the behaviorists.
The same year, he married pianist Mary Oliver Ballou with whom he had three children (Catherine, Richard and Kurt) before divorcing.
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 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 deceiving the participants.
In 1955 he moved to Stanford University. Finally, in 1968 he became a Professor of Psychology at the New School for Social Research in New York (chair endowed by Staudinger).
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.