Thursday, April 7, 2016

F is for Festinger

Leon Festinger was an American social psychologist, who, despite completing graduate studies with Kurt Lewin (one of the most important social psychologists, and topic of a future blog post), hesitated to study social psychological topics, because he considered the subfield to be "loose," "vague," and "unappealing." It's perhaps because of his criticism of the field's methods and conclusions that when he finally did enter the subfield, he contributed ideas and theories that were revolutionary and highly influential.

One of his most important contributions - and in fact, one that is viewed by some as the most important social psychological theory - is the concept of cognitive dissonance. Like many social psychologists, he was responding to the stronghold of behaviorism, which focused on observable behaviors, and the forces (rewards and punishments) shaping behavior. Behaviorism downplayed factors like cognition and emotion, because they could not be easily observed. However, social psychologists recognized that people were not mindless automatons responding to rewards and punishments; they are thinking, feeling individuals, who seek to bring order to their world by understanding the reasons behind their thoughts and actions.

In fact, we are so motivated to have a coherent, consistent sense of self, that we will explain away behaviors that are contrary to our beliefs, and may even change our beliefs so that they are consistent with our behavior.

Cognitive dissonance occurs when we behave in a way that does not align with our beliefs. We respond by changing our behavior, changing our beliefs, or acquiring new information or opinions that allow our current behavior and beliefs to match. Festinger's classic experiment on cognitive dissonance involved having participants complete a boring, repetitive task of turning pegs, and filling and emptying a tray of spools. Participants were then asked, as a favor to the experimenter, to tell the next participant (actually a confederate - that is, someone who works for the experimenter and is only pretending to be a participant) that the study tasks were enjoyable. Half were offered $1, and the other half were offered $20. Later, they were asked to rate how enjoyable they found the tasks. Those who were paid $1 rated the task as significantly more enjoyable than those paid $20. Why?

The study tasks were selected specifically to be boring. In fact, they did pilot testing to find the most boring tasks they possibly could. So now participants were being asked to state something that was objectively boring was enjoyable. Participants who were paid $20 to lie probably rationalized that they just did it for the money. But the people paid $1 had not received enough money to rationalize their behavior away; they faced some serious cognitive dissonance. So they changed their opinion, deciding the task actually was enjoyable.

This concept definitely has important real-world applications.

In fact, Festinger began developing the concept of cognitive dissonance after observing an apocalyptic cult that believed the world would be destroyed by a flood on December 21, 1954. The leader of the group, Marian Keech (a pseudonym - her real name was Dorothy Martin) claimed this message came from a group of aliens known as "the Guardians." Festinger and two colleagues, Henry Riecken and Stanley Schacter, observed the group from the inside both before and after the apocalypse was supposed to take place.

When the world wasn't destroyed by flood, Keech claimed that God has spared us because of the good work of the members. Members of the cult became even more devoted to the cause and mission of the group. Festinger hypothesized that, because many members of the group had quit their jobs and gotten rid of possessions to devote their time to the group, they were motivated to accept Keech's explanation and to reaffirm their commitment to the group, to reduce cognitive dissonance.

In fact, they even wrote a book of this observations, which is still available in reprint.

The other major theory Festinger contributed is social comparison theory, a topic I've blogged about recently. Of course, Festinger's theory takes social comparison further than I did in this previous post. Not only do we compare ourselves to others to evaluate whether we're on the right track, we 1) tend to group ourselves with others to whom we are similar in skills and abilities, and 2) may change our attitudes or behaviors to make ourselves more similar to others (or make the others appear more similar to us), a concept that sounds suspiciously like cognitive dissonance.


  1. I have heard of him but I did not know much about Festinger.
    Thank you.

    Visiting from the A to Z Blog Challenge.

    Patricia @ EverythingMustChange

  2. Cognitive dissonance is both frustrating to hear about and understandable. People want their worldview to remain logical. Great post!