Leon Festinger

An American psychologist who developed the concept of cognitive dissonance.

Virtually everyone with access to media knows that tobacco use causes cancer and other diseases, but nonetheless people continue to use it. This is an example of what Leon Festinger called cognitive dissonance: the idea that when conflict arises in one's belief system, the resulting tension must be eliminated.

People experiencing cognitive dissonance will often go to great lengths to put forth a rationale for whatever is causing the conflict, or they may choose to ignore the event in question altogether. Festinger believed that people want homeostasis (balance) in their lives and that managing cognitive dissonance is a way to restore a lost sense of balance.

Festinger, born in New York City on May 8, 1919, had a lifelong interest in science that led him to pursue a career in psychology. He received his bachelor's degree from the City College of New York and went on to Iowa State University for his master's degree and his Ph.D. (received in 1942). He spent the next several years teaching at different universities and then settled at Stanford University in 1955.

Theory of cognitive dissonance

Festinger's research produced several findings. One was that the level of cognitive dissonance decreases as the incentive to comply with the conflict situation increases. The reason is simple: Where an incentive is involved, people feel less conflict. Festinger and his associates conducted a simple experiment to prove this point. College students were asked to perform a series of repetitive menial tasks for a specified period of time. As they finished, they were instructed to inform the next group of students that the tasks had been enjoyable and interesting. Later, the subjects were asked to describe their true feelings about the task. Half the group was offered $1; the rest were offered $20. Subjects were asked afterward whether they really did find the tasks enjoyable. The students who had been paid one dollar stated that they actually did find the tasks enjoyable. There was little or no dissonance reported among the students who had been paid the $20, as they felt appropriately compensated for their participation. The other students, however, had to justify time spent doing useless tasks with only $1 as a reward. They experienced a significant degree of cognitive dissonance. By convincing themselves that the tasks they performed were tolerable, they could rationalize their experience.

Cognitive dissonance soon became an important and much-discussed theoretical concept. It continued to generate considerable research, in part because it is one of a number of theories based on the idea that consistency of thought is a strong motivating factor in people.

Festinger continued his work at Stanford until 1968, when he returned to New York City to assume the Else and Hans Staudinger endowed chair at the New School for Social Research. He continued his research on cognitive dissonance, as well as other behavioral issues, until the end of his life. He was also active in professional organizations, including the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He continued to work until his death from liver cancer on February 11, 1989. He was survived by his wife Trudy and four children.

See also Advertising psychology ; Applied psychology ; Cognitive dissonance ; Experimental psychology .



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Wicklund, Robert A., and Jack Williams Brehm. Perspectives on Cognitive Dissonance. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1976.


Metin, Irem, and Selin Metin Camgoz. “The Advances in the History of Cognitive Dissonance Theory.” Interna-tional Journal of Humanities and Social Science 1, no. 6 (June 2011): 131–36.


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