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Summary Article: Festinger, Leon (1919-1989) from Encyclopedia of Group Processes and Intergroup Relations

Leon Festinger is known for his contributions to the study of group behavior, self-evaluation, and attitude change. Many scholars consider Festinger to be the person most responsible for moving the experimental study of social processes to the center stage of social psychology.


Festinger graduated as a psychology major from the City College of New York in 1939 with a senior honors thesis on factors affecting how people set goals. Despite a passion for all kinds of games (initially chess, later Go, pinball, and crib-bage), he was persuaded to study at the University of Iowa with Kurt Lewin, who was known for his studies of motivation. However, Lewin was increasingly interested in group behavior. Conducting research on complex social processes in the laboratory to test theories and solve applied problems was Lewin's mission. Festinger remained interested in people's level of aspiration and decision making, but he was drawn to Lewin's striving for conceptual understanding and intellectual enthusiasm. Lewin conducted research meetings very informally so that everyone had a voice, and debate was encouraged. In these meetings, Festinger was known for his aversion to sloppy thinking and a fondness for counterintuitive findings, attitudes he held throughout his career.

Festinger's early research concerned the effects of motivation and group standards on goal setting, decision making, taste preferences in the rat, and statistics. He obtained his PhD from the University of Iowa in 1942, remained at Iowa as a research associate for 2 years, and then moved to the University of Rochester to work for the Committee on the Selection and Training of Aircraft Pilots.

Social Pressures in Informal Groups

In 1945, Lewin moved to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to found the Research Center for Group Dynamics, and Festinger joined him as an assistant professor of social psychology (although neither he nor Lewin had ever taken a course in social psychology). The center was committed to the application of psychological concepts and methods to solve social problems, and it attracted many talented students. At the time, Festinger's credentials as a social psychologist might have seemed questionable; he later said that he became a social psychologist by fiat.

His first project was based on attitude surveys of residents in married student housing. This study yielded a textbook phenomenon—friendships were more likely the closer the people were physically in proximity (even by just a few yards). Similarity in attitudes was also critical—attitudes of residents tended to converge, but residents who held deviant attitudes were social isolates.

Festinger thought group members acquired similar beliefs and opinions because of social pressures toward uniformity, but this idea remained to be tested experimentally. In his informal communication theory, he proposed that people are susceptible to social pressure when they are attracted to a group. This attraction occurs because some goals can be pursued successfully only with the cooperation of others or because groups provide validation about social reality, which is necessary since some opinions and beliefs cannot be tested directly or objectively (e.g., “Should abortion be legal?”; “Who is the greatest baseball player of all time?”).

Assuming people are attracted to a group, they could strive for group uniformity or agreement by trying to change other people's opinions (communication), modifying their views to match those of the other group members (opinion change), or rejecting divergent others as appropriate references (rejection). Such pressures should increase in attractive groups, or as an issue becomes more relevant to a group's goals.

To test the theory, Festinger and his students conducted a series of laboratory experiments. Groups (or clubs) were formed of previously unacquainted individuals who were asked to discuss various issues. Factors such as types of goals, need for social reality, attractiveness, issue relevance, and so on were manipulated. In some experiments, accomplices posed as subjects and played scripted roles as group members with deviating or consensual opinions. The precedents for this ambitious research program were Muzafer Sherif's and Lewin's earlier work, but Festinger magnified the experimenter's role as playwright and stage director.

For brevity's sake, only one study will be described here. For his dissertation, Stanley Schachter, under Festinger's direction, placed accomplices in groups. One group adopted the majority view (i.e., the “mode”) from the beginning, another initially voiced a deviant view but over the course of the discussion adopted the consensual position (i.e., the “slider”), and a third (the “deviate”) maintained the opposing view. Observers coded group discussion behaviors. The actual subjects tried to persuade the other discussion partners. The mode was readily accepted, as was the slider after adopting the majority view. Initially much communication was directed at the deviate, but when the deviate proved impossible to convince, communication declined, and the deviate was nominated for the most undesirable club assignments. Consistent with the theory, group goals or social reality were achieved by striving for group consensus, the pressures to obtain uniformity were manifest via different behavioral routes, and deviates were rejected.

This experiment reflects several features of the “Festinger research style.” Festinger realized that progress in any science required methods appropriate to that field. Social psychology needed its own experimental approach, following Lewin's lead—a kind of experimental theater, with covers stories, accomplices, and deception to control for confounding factors and to create a situation that was perceived as psychologically meaningful to the subject.

Social Comparison

After Lewin's death in 1947, the Research Center for Group Dynamics, with most of its remaining faculty, moved to the University of Michigan where it remains today. Faculty salaries at the center relied on grant support, however, so in 1951 Festinger moved to a tenure-track position at the University of Minnesota where Schachter was already on the faculty.

At the University of Minnesota, Festinger developed his second major theory, social comparison theory. Informal social communication theory was about the power of the group over the person, but in “A Theory of Social Comparison Processes” Festinger emphasized how individuals use groups to fulfill the informational need to evaluate opinions and abilities. The new theory focused only on the need for social reality, and abilities were considered as well as opinions. As with beliefs and opinions, there often is no objective standard available to assess abilities. People must rely on social consensus.

Social comparison theory posited that people evaluate their abilities and opinions by comparing them with those of others when it is not feasible to test them directly in the environment. Comparison leads to pressures toward uniformity (i.e., similarity), but the tendency to compare will cease if others are too different in dimensions that are related to the ability or opinion at issue. For opinions, agreement with others who presumably also are motivated to hold correct views should make us feel more confident. For abilities, observing those with similar abilities should allow us to learn our possibilities for action in the environment, which should be identical or very similar to theirs.

Social comparison theory also recognizes a distinctive feature of abilities. People want to be slightly better than everyone else because the desire to be better or to improve is emphasized in Western cultures. This means that complete opinion agreement may be satisfactory to everyone, but completely equal abilities will not—implying that “a state of social quiescence is never reached,” as Festinger put it.

Cognitive Dissonance

While at the University of Minnesota, Festinger read about a UFO cult that believed the end of the world was at hand. A housewife, “Mrs. Keech,” reported receiving messages from extraterrestrial aliens that the world would end in a great flood on a specific date. She attracted a group of followers who left jobs, college, and spouses, and gave away money and possessions to prepare to depart on a flying saucer that, according to Mrs. Keech, would rescue the true believers. Given the believers' serious commitment, Festinger wondered how they would react when the prophecy failed. He and his colleagues, posing as believers, infiltrated Mrs. Keech's group and kept notes on the proceedings surreptitiously.

The believers shunned publicity while they awaited the flying saucer and the flood. But when the prophecy was disconfirmed, almost immediately the previously most-committed group members made calls to newspapers, sought out interviews, and started actively proselytizing.

Festinger was unsurprised by the sudden proselytizing after the prophecy's disconfirmation; he saw the cult members as enlisting social support for their belief to lessen the pain of disconfirmation. Their behavior confirmed predictions from a theory of his whose premise was that people need to maintain consistency between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

The theory proposed that inconsistency among beliefs or behaviors causes an uncomfortable psychological tension (i.e., cognitive dissonance), leading people to change one of the inconsistent elements to reduce the dissonance, or to add consonant elements to restore consonance. Mrs. Keech's followers actively enlisted new believers to obtain social support (and thereby add consonant elements) to reduce the dissonance created by the disconfirmation.

In 1955, Festinger left the University of Minnesota for Stanford, where he and his students launched a series of laboratory experiments testing cognitive dissonance theory and extending it to a wide range of phenomena. Like the experiments in group dynamics, the studies were carefully crafted and involved cover stories, complex manipulations, and deception. One of the best known was the forced compliance paradigm, in which the subject performed a series of repetitive and boring menial tasks and then was asked to lie to the “next subject” (actually an experimental accomplice) and say that the tasks were interesting and enjoyable. Some subjects were paid $1 for lying, while others were paid $20. Based on dissonance theory, Festinger predicted and found that the subjects who were paid $1 for lying later evaluated the tasks as more enjoyable than those who were paid $20. The subjects that paid a large amount should not have experienced dissonance because, after all, they were well rewarded and had ample justification. The subjects that paid $1 had little justification for lying to a stranger and should have experienced cognitive dissonance. To reduce the dissonance, they reevaluated the boring task as interesting and enjoyable. The forced compliance paradigm generated much interest because more attitude change was associated with a small rather than a large incentive—contrary to reinforcement theory. This experiment also illustrates the appeal of cognitive dissonance theory—it combined cognition and motivation and showed how that combination led to nonobvious predictions.

Festinger conducted much research on cognitive dissonance processes and even extended the theory to animal learning, showing that a limited version of dissonance could explain why a rat who worked harder during acquisition resisted extinction longer than a consistently rewarded rat. The former animal reduced its dissonance by finding extra attractions in the situation. Festinger is best known in psychology for his research in cognitive dissonance, and the term cognitive dissonance has become a part of popular speech.

He received the Distinguished Scientific Award of the American Psychological Association in 1959 and the Distinguished Senior Scientist Award of the Society of Experimental Social Psychology in 1980. He was inducted into the National Academy of Sciences in 1972 and the Society of Experimental Psychology in 1973.

In 1964, Festinger moved from social psychology to research on visual perception. Although this seemed like a radical departure, it was a continuation of a theme. Festinger's work on visual perception concerned how people reconcile inconsistencies between visual perception and eye movements to see coherent images. His social psychological research concerned how people resolve conflict (group dynamics), ambiguity (social comparison), and inconsistency (cognitive dissonance) all manifestations of pressures for uniformity.


In the late 1970s, Festinger turned to questions about human nature based on archeological data. He read the relevant literature, talked to specialists, and visited archeological digs, work that resulted in a monograph, The Human Legacy. His ex-student Schachter referred to it as “psychosocial-archeology.”

A general theme of this work was that humans often bring about problems unwittingly as a function of their intellectual and creative talents to create new technologies without being fully able to foresee their longterm consequences. Initially, Festinger's “archeology” was perceived to be at the margins of social psychology, but now it can be seen as prescient of current developments in evolutionary and cultural psychology.


Festinger was described by an ex-student as “a tough character who did not suffer fools gladly.” Others testified to his voracious curiosity, extraordinary memory, incisive intellect, and powers of concentration—more than a little intimidating. However, he mentored dozens of students, his office door was always open, and he was on a firstname basis with his students, something quite rare in the 1950s. Meetings at his home where ideas were discussed over beer and pretzels and dinners with students and other faculty members were common, and everyone played games in his lab. Something of Kurt Lewin's benign nature and charisma rubbed off on Festinger. Both charisma and intellect contributed to the “Festinger legacy” in experimental social psychology.

See also

Cognitive Consistency, Conformity, Lewin, Kurt, Minority Influence, Opinion Deviance, Social Comparison Theory

Further Readings
  • Festinger, L. Informal social communication. Psychological Review, 57 : 271-282., 1950.
  • Festinger, L. A theory of social comparison processes. Human Relations, 7 : 117-140., 1954.
  • Festinger, L. (1983). The human legacy. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Festinger, L.; Carlsmith, J. M. Cognitive consequences of forced compliance. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 58 : 203-211., 1959.
  • Festinger, L., Riecken, H., & Schachter, S. (1956). When prophecy fails. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Festinger, L., Schachter, S., & Back, K. (1950). Social pressures in informal groups: A study of human factors in housing. New York: Harper.
  • Suls, Jerry
    Copyright © 2010 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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