Leon Festinger was one of the most important figures in modern psychology and contributed several theories that are still important today for our understanding of the communication process, particularly the individual’s exposure to communication and processes of opinion formation and judgment. Born in 1919 in Brooklyn, New York, as the son of Russian immigrants, Festinger received his first training in psychology at the University of Iowa under the famous German-born social psychologist Kurt Lewin. After World War II he followed Lewin as an assistant professor to the Research Center for Group Dynamics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There, in a group of other avant-garde psychologists, Lewin and Festinger developed the standards for modern experiment-based research on perception and group dynamics. It was during his time at MIT that Festinger authored his theory of informal social communication (1950), in which he described the influence of group pressure on the individual’s attitudes and behaviors.
One year after Lewin’s death in 1947 Festinger moved to the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research and another three years later to the University of Minnesota. There he developed his theory of social comparison processes (1954) in which he suggested not only that the social group affects the individual’s opinions but that there exists a drive within the individual to evaluate his or her opinions and abilities by comparison with those of others. Besides its relevance for processes of personal communication, the theory also applies to mediated communication. First, the mass media are one major source for the individual’s assessment of what others think in a society. Second, journalists’ decisions on media content, particularly in the area of news on politics and current affairs, usually lack objective criteria for news value and are often the result of similar social comparison processes, in which journalists compare their judgments with those of their peers (Donsbach 2004).
In 1955 Festinger became professor at Stanford University. It was during this period that he published his most famous contribution to social psychology, the theory of cognitive dissonance (1957). Building on the general paradigm of consistency existing at the time, Festinger endeavored to establish the individual’s drive for consistency among the cognitions as a general biological law explaining most other phenomena, such as persuasion, decision-making, and exposure to information. The theory became one of the most acknowledged and at the same time one of the most controversial in the history of social psychology. Hundreds of empirical studies have been carried out since 1957 and it is now fair to say that Festinger’s ambition to establish this theory as a general law has failed, but at the same time the motivation to avoid or reduce dissonance is now recognized as an important driving force behind the individual’s behavior.
In 1968 Festinger left Stanford to become a professor at the New School of Social Research in New York City, thus returning to his hometown. This move was accompanied by a sharp shift in his research interest. Partly because he was disappointed by the reception of his cognitive dissonance theory in the scientific community (“I never really understood the emotionality of the controversy,” Festinger 1999), he now turned his interest to physiological processes of visual perception. His research on the interaction between the eye and the brain in representing reality was primarily of a neurological nature, although he still focused on the structure and dynamics of the cognitive system.
In 1979 Festinger left the field of psychology and the laboratory and turned to such different fields as the impact of archaeology on mankind and societies, and the history of the Roman church. On the one hand this again showed his frustration with some of his research agenda: “It is natural for me to talk as if the laboratory was at fault, but a laboratory is only a collection of rooms and equipment. It was I who conceived of and worked on narrower and narrower technical problems. That is not a proper occupation for an aging man who resents that adjective” (Festinger 1983 in Schachter 1994, 105). On the other hand this change shows the universal intellect and broad research interest of one of the greatest social researchers. Among many other awards, he received in 1959 the distinguished scientist award of the American Psychological Association, in 1978 an honorary doctorate from the University of Mannheim, Germany, and in 1980 the distinguished senior scientist award of the Society of Experimental Social Psychology. As Schachter (1994, 107) wrote: “The psychological world is a different place because he lived.”
Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance had a great impact on the development of communication research and particularly media effects research. For normative reasons it was welcomed as a tailor-made explanation for selective exposure and perception and hence as an argument against strong media effects. Although the author was not uniquely interested in media-related phenomena he thus had a considerable influence within the discipline.
- Donsbach, W. (2004). Psychology of news decisions: Factors behind journalists’ professional Journalism, 5, 131–157.
- Festinger, L. (1950). Informal social communication. Psychological Review, 57, 271–282.
- Festinger, L. (1954). A theory of social comparison processes. Human Relations, 7, 117–140.
- Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
- Festinger, L. (1983). The human legacy. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Festinger, L. (1999). Reflections on cognitive dissonance: 30 years later. In E. Harmon-Jones & J. Mills (eds.), Cognitive dissonance: Progress on a pivotal theory in social psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, pp. 381–385.
- Schachter, S. (1994). Leon Festinger, May 8, 1919–February 11, 1989. Biographical Memoirs, 64, 98 –110.