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Leon Festinger: Cognitive Dissonance And Social Comparison Theory Essay

Lives in Social Psychology: Leon Festinger Leon Festinger was an extremely influential social psychologist, known for his studies about cognitive dissonance and social comparison theory. Festinger was born May 8th, 1919 in Brooklyn, New York, to parents Sara and Alex Festinger. His father was an embroidery manufacturer. Festinger attended Boys High School, a public school in Brooklyn. After graduating, he moved on to City College of New York for undergraduate.

At City College Festinger worked with Max Hertzman on a study called “Shifts in explicit goals in a level of aspiration experiment”, hat was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology in 1940 (Zajonc, 1990). During his time at the City College, Festinger was especially interested in Clark Hull’s Hypnosis and Suggestibility. He later used this as an inspiration for his honors thesis during his senior year. He was also very interested in work by Kurt Lewin (Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography, 2008). Festinger’s interest in Lewin lead him to his graduate studies at the University of lowa.

There, he extended his undergraduate research and studied conflicts between individual and group differences in aspiration. Festinger worked as a research assistant and left the University of lowa with a PhD. In 1943, he worked for the committee on Selection and Training of Aircraft Pilots as a statistician. Two years later, however, he returned to working with Lewin as an assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Zajonc, 1990). It is at MIT where Festinger began to dedicate himself to the field of social psychology.

His research began with a study he did with Back and Schachter on graduate student housing. It was through this research that Festinger began his study of social comparison nd uniformity. He later moved on to go undercover and study a small group of people in Oak Park, Illinois, where he would develop his famous theory of cognitive dissonance and write the book When Prophecy Fails. Festinger spent the next 10 years studying cognitive dissonance, until he moved again to the New School for Social Research, and then on to developing the Committee of Transnational Social Psychology.

Festinger passed away at age 69 from liver cancer, however his theories and research are still a major part of the science of psychology today Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography, 2008). One of Festinger’s most well known studies is “Cognitive Consequences of Forced Compliance”, a study on cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is a feeling of discomfort that occurs when a person’s behavior doesn’t match their beliefs or attitudes. Previous research had shown that in order to reduce cognitive dissonance, people would change their opinion.

To further test this theory, Festinger and Carlsmith used 71 male students from Stanford University. The students were required to spend a certain amount of time as subjects in experiments at he university, so they thought they were signing up for an experiment about measuring performance. The participants were told that after they complete the experiment, they would be interviewed about the experience. When they began the experiment, the students were asked to complete two tasks, each lasting 30 minutes. Both tasks involved tedious, boring, and repetitive actions such as turning pegs.

While each participant completed the tasks, the experimenter pretended to take notes, making them think that the tasks were the purpose of the experiment (Festinger& Carlsmith, 1959). Following the completion of the tasks, the subjects were casually asked if they would help the experimenter. The experimenter explained they had hired a student to go tell participants that the experiment was enjoyable and that they had a lot of fun, but the student couldn’t come and they need another person to fill in for him. The control group was asked to do his job, but was offered no reward.

The experimental groups were also asked to the job, but were offered $1 and $20 rewards. After the students did the job and told the other students that they enjoyed the tudy, they were interviewed. They were asked questions about the experiment and asked to rate their opinions on an 11-point scale. The most important results regard question #1: Were the tasks interesting and enjoyable? The results showed that the $20 reward group gave negative responses to the question. The $1 group, however, gave a significantly positive response.

The explanation for these results, according to Festinger, is cognitive dissonance. The group that received $20 for lying to the student experienced less cognitive dissonance because the reward was reater. They were able to justify their actions because the reward was high, decreasing the dissonance that they experienced. The $1 group, in contrast, experienced a higher level of dissonance because they received less reward. In order to reduce the dissonance that they felt, they changed their attitude on the task (Festinger & Carlsmith, 1959).

These results confirm the theory that in order to reduce feelings of cognitive dissonance, a person may change their attitude to justify their behavior. Festinger’s second major field of research involved social comparisons. In his paper “A Theory of Social Comparison Processes”, Festinger discussed nine different hypotheses regarding social comparison. The general theme of these hypotheses is that humans seek a way to evaluate their opinions and abilities, and they often do this through social comparison. To explain this, Festinger used the example of Sherif’s study of the autokinetic effect.

In that study, participants changed their answers based on what the other participants said, because they were unsure about their own answers and had no way of confirming them. Next, Festinger examined the dea that people are more likely to compare themselves to those similar to them. He used the example of a person learning to play chess, explaining that they wouldn’t compare their chess abilities to a master of chess, but instead another beginner. Festinger argued that in a situation where there is a range of possible people to compare yourself to, you tend to choose the person most similar to you (Festinger, 1954).

Festinger also explained that people often attempt to reduce differences in the attitudes of a group, either by changing their own attitude or persuading others to change theirs. People tend o reject and stop communicating with those whose opinions are different from their own. Festinger presents research that he had done previously to support the idea that the more important the group is to a person, the more likely they are to become uniform with that group. In his previous study, one group of people was told that they were going to take an intelligence test that was not important. The other group was told it was a very important test.

After taking the test, the important test group reported significantly higher levels of competition with a high-scoring person in their group, while the nimportant test group did not report this competition. Festinger’s last key point in “A Theory of Social Comparison Processes” was that within a group, the people who are closer to the norm will make stronger attempts to persuade others to share their opinion, while the people who are deviants from the norm will be less likely to try to change the positions of others (Festinger, 1954). Festinger based a lot of his early research off of Kurt Lewin, who he worked with for 8 years.

Festinger also had an interest in applying theories to the real world. The work f Lewin, in combination with this interest, is what brought Festinger to social psychology. He was known for moving around and switching topics of study often. Festinger studied in a variety of areas, with all different people, and in both laboratory and field settings (Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography, 2008). The variety in which he performed research could be the reason why his findings have been so profound, and the key to his success as a social psychologist.

In the words of his obituary, “For one must view Festinger’s unique laboratory ethods of studying social situations as nothing short of a high form of art, and his research as products of rare beauty”(Zajonc, 1990). Festinger was one of the first people to combine social situations with experimental research, a tactic still used regularly in the field of social psychology today. It was very interesting to me to learn that Festinger published research in his undergraduate years. I was also intrigued by the fact that he had a degree in child psychology, and said “I had never had a course in social psychology.

My graduate education did nothing to cure that. I never had a course at lowa in social psychology either. ” (Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography, 2008). I would have liked to learn more about Festinger’s personal life, his personality, and general life outside of work. Most of the information on him involves his research, but I wish I could have found more about his personal life to relate back to his work and success. It was very interesting for me to read about his theories on social comparison as well as cognitive dissonance because they are so clearly relatable and prominent in my own daily life.

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