Leon Festinger: biography of this social psychologist

Considered one of the main psychologists of the twentieth century, the life of Léon Festinger is quite interesting, but also anecdotal.

Although at first he did not take much interest in social psychology over time, he eventually became a social psychologist and furthermore was the father of two of the great theories in this field.

We discover the life of this researcher, his professional career and his two main theories, through a biography of Leon Festinger.

Brief biography of Leon Festinger

Leon Festinger is one of the greatest social psychologists of the 20th century, although he didn’t feel like it at first.

In fact, for him, this branch of behavioral science was too unreliable, which did not interest him much. However, although at a young age he felt more interested in statistics applied to psychological science, he ended up making a significant contribution to social psychology. No wonder he is the fifth most cited psychologist of the twentieth century, surpassed only by BF Skinner, Jean Piaget, Sigmund Freud and Albert Bandura.

first years

Leon Festinger was born in New York, United States on May 8, 1919, In a Jewish family of Russian origin. We have known from his childhood that he attended Boys’ High School in Brooklyn.

At the age of 20, in 1939, he received his graduate degree in psychology from City College in New York. He then moved to the University of Iowa, where he studied with Kurt Lewin and received his doctorate in child psychology in 1942.

As a young man, Festinger had no interest in social psychology at all. and, in fact, he had no training in his life to become a social psychologist. En route to Iowa, he was only interested in Lewin’s work on living systems. However, it turns out that when Festinger moved into the institution, Lewin took a more psychologically oriented view.

Despite this surprise, Festinger continued to study under Lewin’s tutelage, although did not abandon his interest in statistics and aspiration level as a psychological construct, developing a quantitative model of decision making. The young Léon Festinger considered social psychology as a psychological branch with a too vague research method and that he wanted to work in more “rigorous” and “concrete” branches.

Festinger would work as an associate researcher in Iowa from 1941 to 1943, then as a statesman on the aircraft pilot selection and training committee at the University of Rochester, particularly between 1943 and 1945. These were the difficult years of WWII when psychological research was in high demand, Not only to know the aptitude of the combatants, but also to discover ways of psychologically destabilizing the enemy.

Adulthood and professional career

In 1943, Leon Festinger married Mary Oliver Ballou, a pianist with whom he had three children: Catherine, Richard and Kurt. Although the marriage gave birth to three children, it eventually dissolved and Festinger would remarry later, in 1968, this time to Trudy Bradley, professor of social work at New York University.

In 1945 Festinger joined Kurt Lewin’s recently established Group Dynamics Research Center as an assistant professor., At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). It is in this institution that Festinger will become, unwittingly, a social psychologist of the tom and loin. It was also at MIT that he began his research on social communication and group pressure, which marked a major shift in his interests in psychology.

After Lewin’s death in 1947, Festinger went to work at the University of Michigan in 1948. He then moved to the University of Minnesota in 1951, then went to Stanford University in 1955. It was during these years that Leon Festinger wrote his most influential article on the theory of social comparison and also on the theory of cognitive dissonance.. These two theories are one of the most important contributions in the field of social psychology of the twentieth century.

Thanks to this, he gained much reputation and recognition, receiving the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from the American Association of Psychology. Its repercussion was also great outside the field of psychology, considered one of the ten most relevant scientists in the United States by the journal Fortune, Shortly after he published his theory on social comparison.

Although his fame was on the rise, Leon Festinger decided to change his study center in 1964, preferring to study the visual system, especially eye movement and color perception. In 1968 he returned to his native New York City, continuing to study perception at the New School for Social Research. However, he ended up closing his lab in 1979.

last years

In 1983, four years after his lab closed, Festinger expressed dissatisfaction with what he and his field had accomplished. He felt that after spending forty years working in the field of social psychology, little had actually been accomplished.. In addition, he believes that many social issues that need to be dealt with psychologically have been left out and that in turn attention has been paid to rather trivial aspects.

Motivated by this disagreement, he decided to study the fossil record and contact Stephen Jay Gould, an evolutionary geologist and biologist, to discuss ideas on the evolution of human behavior and visit archaeological sites. His intention was to learn more about the social behavior of early humans from the remains of their tools. His efforts culminated in the publication of his book “The Human Legacy” (1983) in which he describes how humans have evolved and developed in more complex societies.

Among his latest works trying to understand what motivated a culture to reject or accept a new idea. He tried to relate this to the development and evolution of various societies throughout history, comparing how the acceptance or rejection of the same idea in two different cultures led to changes in the mentality of its members. . He was working on a book about it but unfortunately cancer surprised him before he could publish anything. He decided not to undergo treatment and died on February 11, 1989.

Theories of Léon Festinger

As we have seen, there are two fundamental theories with which Festinger has contributed significantly in the field of social psychology: cognitive dissonance theory and social comparison theory.

Cognitive dissonance theory

People have all kinds of beliefs, there’s no question about it. However, What happens when two or more of these well-established beliefs conflict? We feel uncomfortable because our value system is no longer in harmony and is now in tension. For example, if we consider ourselves anti-racist but find out that our favorite singer is openly racist, it is clear that he will not leave us indifferent.

We call this conflict between two or more conflicting beliefs cognitive dissonance. According to this theory, there is a tendency in every person to maintain consistency and harmony between their behaviors and beliefs. When this coherence is broken, dissonance occurs, which causes discomfort for the person.

To stop feeling uncomfortable, the person will need to change some of the factors that cause this dissonance. There are generally three ways to reduce cognitive dissonance.

1. Changing attitudes to create greater coherence

One way to reduce cognitive dissonance is to change or suppress any of the beliefs, behaviors or attitudes, especially the one that triggered the discomfort. This route is really hard to apply, because it involves change, a process that is costing us dearly.

For example, if we just found out that our favorite singer is racist and that we are anti-racist, what we would do would be to stop idolizing that singer and not continue to listen to his music or even throw away all the discography that we have of. him in the trash.

2. Acquire new information that reduces dissonance

This option involves the incorporation of a new belief or attitude that reduces the tension between the previous beliefs. It consists of reducing the discomfort by looking for something new to justify our attitudes.

In the case of the example, this would be to seek information to understand why he calls himself racist, in what type of environment he grew up and assess whether we are really acting appropriately by canceling it or rejecting it for its ideas instead of its music.

3. Reduce the importance of beliefs

This third option is to reduce the value of the beliefs or ideas that we have, justify behaviors which, although they may be harmful, make us happy. In other words, it consists in relativizing beliefs to reduce the tensions between them.

In the case of the racist singer, that would be to think that the fact that this singer is racist is therefore not, considering that, after all, everyone is more or less racist and the fact that he recognized him is not is no reason to reject it. .

Social comparison theory

Leon Festinger’s other major contribution to social psychology is his 1954 Social Comparison Theory. This theory is based on factors such as personal self-evaluation and self-concept. Festinger argued that we constantly compare ourselves to others, Establish a good or a bad conception of ourselves based on what we see or perceive from others. Our perception of our abilities is, in fact, a mixture of what we really master and what we believe we have.

Our self-image is directly linked to what we perceive of others, Which we use as a sort of standard of what is right and what is wrong. Of course, this self-concept will change depending on the context in which we find ourselves. Depending on the characteristics of others and how they are viewed as positive or negative traits, our view of ourselves will therefore be more favorable or unfavorable.

This can be clearly seen with the canon of beauty, both male and female. While it is true that in recent years a more open image has been accepted than what beautiful men and women understand, the truth is that the traditional canon continues to weigh a lot: the man should be muscular and the woman slim, so the socially acceptable thing is for men to go to the gym to gain muscle mass and for women to do it to reduce their fat percentage.

This is clearly visible in the media, especially in films and hygiene advertisements. This makes non-fibrous boys and slightly overweight women less desirable, undervalued, and may even develop eating disorders or at least body dysmorphia.

But one should not fall into the error of thinking that the theory of social comparison is limited to body image. More intellectual, economic and social aspects are also taken into account. For example, a child who goes to school and it turns out that his classmates are children of parents with more money than theirs, since they have backpacks, cases and clothes better quality, will not be able to avoid feeling bad for it.

Bibliographical references:

  • Festinger, L. (1983). Human heritage. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Festinger, L. (ed.). (1980). Retrospectives on social psychology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.
  • Festinger, L. (1954). A theory of social comparison processes. Human Relations, 7, 117-140.

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