Festinger, Leon


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Leon Festinger was born May 8, 1919, in New York City, to Alex Festinger and Sara Solomon, immigrants from Russia. As an academic, Festinger was a true polymath, investigating topics as diverse as decision making, deindividuation in groups, eye movement, archaeology and early religions.
Festinger went to college at the City College of New where he received a Bachelor of Science degree in 1939. After his PhD from the University of Iowa was completed in 1942, Festinger worked as a statistician for the selection of pilots between 1943 and 1945. At the end of the Second World War, Festinger joined Kurt Lewin's Research Centre for Group dynamics at MIT. After Lewin died in 1947, Festinger moved on to become an assistant professor and program director at the University of Michigan. He then moved to the University of Minnesota as a professor of psychology and in 1955 went to Stanford University as the Else and Hans Staudinger Professor of Psychology, where he remained until his death in 1989.
Festinger developed a number of influential theories, including cognitive dissonance, communication in small groups, de-individuation and social comparison processes. Cognitive dissonance famously postulated that dissonant cognitions lead to a unpleasant state that people are motivated to reduce. Festinger's work on social comparisons suggested that people make sense of themselves through their comparisons with others, particularly when no objective standard is available. Although cognitive dissonance has become less popular a topic of research in social psychology, Festinger's work on social comparison has become the focus of a large amount of research during the late 20th and early 21st Century.
During the 1960s Festinger's laboratory studies became increasingly narrowly focussed, primarily on eye movements and visual perception. During this time he became somewhat disillusioned with the narrowness of his lab work. In 1969 Festinger effectively left social psychology as discipline, and began initially working with archaeological digs to try and understand the organisation of social groups through artefacts. Festinger's later work focused on early medieval history, particularly religion. He died in 1989 in New York.