Theory of Cognitive Dissonance by Leon Festinger

All human beings form their own thoughts and beliefs. All humans think, act and behave differently based on what these thoughts and beliefs are. Whether it is their surroundings or their upbringing that shaped them, humans tend to be consistent with their own thoughts and beliefs. What occurs when these thoughts or beliefs are contradicted based off acquired information? It is believed that the feelings of discomfort that follow after that contradiction are addressed in the Cognitive Dissonance theory by Leon Festinger.

This research paper will identify Leon Festinger as the theorist, his educational and professional background and well as his contributions to the field, followed by the definition and examples that demonstrate this theory. Lastly, a reflection of what one can learn from this research.

Leon Festinger is a half Russian half Jewish American who was born in Brooklyn New York on 8th May 1919. His parents were Alex Festinger, who was an embroidery manufacturer, and Sara Solomon Festinger. Leon attended Boys’ High School in Brooklyn and afterward attended the College of New York city where he attained his Bachelor of Science.

In 1939, after finishing his education at the College of the City of New York he left to pursue a higher education in Iowa city and studied under Kurt Lewin at the University of Iowa. While studying in Iowa he received his MA (Master of Arts) in 1940 and his Ph.D. (doctor of philosophy) in 1942, both of which were in the child welfare research station (Festinger, 2018). Despite his time at Iowa, he never took any kind of course on social psychology.

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Festinger reflected on the irony of his educational background, “I had (never had a course in social psychology. My graduate education did nothing to cure that. I never had a course at Iowa in social psychology either.”.

Leon was originally drawn to Iowa by Kurt’s ideas on tension and the idea that an individual’s behaviors are affected and informed by present coexisting facts. Lewin also had theories on a system of tension, remembering and the completion of interrupted tasks. Festinger felt that these ideas had a sense of newness, creativity, and importance and that they showed a closeness between theory and the empirical world. While he was an undergraduate Leon was heavily influenced by two significant works of literature, one of the was Hypnosis and Suggestibility by Clark Hull. Leon felt this was a “beautiful series of studies in which Hull took what is still an obscure phenomenon and examined it.” Festinger conducted extensive experiments on suggestibility and subject’s tendencies toward stabilizing decision making for his honors thesis. The other piece of work that was significant and influential to Festinger was a framework created by Lewin called, “conceptual framework of goal valences, restraining forces and goal potencies.” Festinger conducted a study examining levels of aspirations under the supervision of Max Hertzman. Upon arriving in Iowa, Festinger still pursued these studies and theories, but his focus shifted to social psychology and groups. For his master’s thesis, he conducted more research on aspiration and he also went to the extent of developing a model in mathematics.

His research thesis was called “Wish, Expectation, and Group Performance as Factors Influencing Level of Aspiration” and it extended his undergraduate research over the subject matter of tensions between the comparison of groups and individuals in a certain level of aspiration under various conditions of expectation, wishes, goals, ideas and intentions. His thesis further demonstrated the influence of Lewin’s work over need, valence, force, tension, and energy. Lewin’s work had also taken a turn at that moment toward groups and leadership, such as democratic and autocratic. his shift was believed to be caused by his personal experiences with antisemitism in Germany by many experts. Festinger also formulated an informal communication theory in which he states that people who are attracted to a certain group are more susceptible to social pressure. This happens because some goals require group cooperation, also groups can provide validation and reassurance which is very important to some people. This can also stem from people’s desires to fit in which can happen in three different ways, the first is trying to change the groups views and opinions to all match theirs which is referred to as communication, changing their own views to match the groups which is referred to as communication, or rejecting other people views outside the group that don’t line up with their own which is called rejection.

Fasting and Schachter conducted numerous laboratory experiments to assess this theory using groups of strangers and inserting people who are assisting in the experiment to test how people would react and if they would follow the model Festinger had put forth. Festinger’s method of switching between real life studies and studies in the laboratory became a defining signature of his early and most well-known social psychology research. Festinger felt that laboratory research could limit theory and research, he felt that switching between real life application and laboratory studies helped, “clarify theory and get hunches and that kind of thing”. In 1951 when Festinger was a professor at the University of Minnesota, whereby he began the Oak Park Study. There was a group of grad students who infiltrated a cult called the seekers and observed them before during and after the prophesized apocalypse and monitored their behavior and reaction to it not coming to fruition. The group of grad students included Festinger, Schachter, and Henry Riecken.

The prophetess of the seekers whose name was Dorothy Martin, but had an alias of Mrs. Keech, foretold that the world would end on 21st December 1954. The purpose of the study was to observe was to observe the response of the cult to their beliefs being challenged and their failed prophecy of an apocalypse. Many members quit their jobs, and disposed of worldly possessions in preparation for the apocalypse. When the end of the world did not come to pass rather than question their beliefs or lose their conviction they used this as a way to increase their faith and fall back on their beliefs. The cult members said that they felt the world was spared because of their belief and used that to fuel their faith. In 1955 Festinger departed from the University of Minnesota and began new work at Stanford University. While working at Stanford he and many of his grad students launched numerous laboratory experiments which tested cognitive dissonance theory and extended it to a wider range of phenomena.

One experiment Festinger conducted to further test his cognitive dissonance theory was called the forced-compliance paradigm. In this study a test subject was assigned to complete boring and routine tasks, and upon completing this task were asked to lie to the next test subject and tell them that the tasks were fun and enjoyable. Some subjects were paid twenty dollars for lying to the other subjects and some were paid one dollar. The subjects who were paid twenty dollars experienced no social dissonance because they received a sizable reward for lying, while the subjects who were rewarded one dollar experienced dissonance and convinced themselves that the tasks were actually fun and not that bad because the reward they received was a lot less and thus they felt they had less justification for the deception of the subjects.

In the late 1960’s Festinger was selected to be the Else and Hans Staudinger professor of psychology in New in New York at one of the institution namely the New School for Social Research. In 1970 Festinger shifted his focus to do more research about the human nature which were raised by the nature of archeology. These research questions have led to his monograph titled The Human Legacy which was later published in the early 1980’s (GoodTherapy, n.d). In conclusion, a general point made is that when work is done unintentionally, it brings about problems for the people involved as a result of creative talents and their intellectual one example is typically inventing new technologies without fully being able to predict the long term effects they could have.

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Theory of Cognitive Dissonance by Leon Festinger. (2021, Apr 23). Retrieved from

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