Leon Festinger, a social psychologist, was born in New York City on May 8, 1919 and is best known for his Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. He received his bachelor's degree in psychology from the City College of New York in 1939. He then moved to Iowa to attend the University of Iowa to do graduate work under the well-known German psychologist Kurt Lewin. He would go on to receive his doctorate degree from the university in 1942.
After receiving his doctorate, Festinger went with Lewin to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and their Research Center for Group Dynamics. Lewin, who was working on a new "field theory" of social psychology at the time, would become an influence on Festinger’s works. Also at this time, Festinger married Mary Ballou, a pianist with whom he had three children (they would eventually divorce).
When Lewin died in 1947, Festinger moved on to become a program director at the University of Michigan. Then he moved to the University of Minnesota as a professor and in 1955 went to Stanford University. Finally, in 1968 he returned to New York City as Staudinger Professor of Psychology. He stayed there in New York until his death on February 11, 1989. He is survived by his second wife, Trudy Bradley, whom he had married in 1969.
Festinger became a major leader in the the push to turn social psychology into a rigorous experimental discipline. One of his works written with Daniel Katz in 1953 was titled Research Methods in Behavioral Sciences. In it he stressed the "need for control in experimental variables by creating these variables in the laboratory during experiments, often misleading and misinforming the participants".
His most widely known work, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance was written in 1957. In it he postulated that the "‘psychological’ opposition of irreconcilable ideas (cognitions), held simultaneously by one individual, created a motivating force that would lead, under proper conditions, to the adjustment of one’s beliefs to fit one’s prior behavior instead of changing one’s behavior to express one’s beliefs (the sequence conventionally assumed)". See cognitive dissonance for more
The idea of cognitive dissonance was almost the sole area of research for social psychology for the years following the publishing of Festinger's book. At the same time the idea spread to other sciences especially political science. Additionally, the idea gained acceptance into the American household.
In 1959, Festinger was admitted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and shortly thereafter received the American Psychological Association’s Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award. In 1964, Festinger quit his research in social psychology - mostly due to the pressure put on him to keep coming up with new ideas.
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