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Leon Festinger — The Psychologist Behind Cognitive Dissonance

The man behind the famous theory.

Cover photo: @jerrysilfwer

Leon Festinger’s the­ory on cog­nit­ive dis­son­ance is import­ant in PR.

Festinger’s the­or­ies con­tin­ue to be a cent­ral part of psy­cho­logy cur­ricula world­wide, and his work is fre­quently cited in new research, demon­strat­ing the last­ing impact of his con­tri­bu­tions to the field.

His the­or­ies are espe­cially inter­est­ing for pub­lic rela­tions.
But who was he?

Here we go:

Leon Festinger

Leon Festinger.
Leon Festinger. (Photo: Unknown)

Leon Festinger (1919 – 1989)

Leon Festinger was a prom­in­ent American social psy­cho­lo­gist, most fam­ous for devel­op­ing the the­ory of cog­nit­ive dis­son­ance in the late 1950s. Born on May 8, 1919, and passing away on February 11, 1989, Festinger made sig­ni­fic­ant con­tri­bu­tions to the field of social psy­cho­logy, leav­ing a last­ing impact through his innov­at­ive the­or­ies and research.

Festinger’s most not­able con­tri­bu­tion, the the­ory of cog­nit­ive dis­son­ance, revo­lu­tion­ized the under­stand­ing of human beha­viour and motiv­a­tion. This the­ory pro­poses that people exper­i­ence psy­cho­lo­gic­al dis­com­fort, known as cog­nit­ive dis­son­ance when they hold con­tra­dict­ory beliefs, atti­tudes, or beha­vi­ors. To alle­vi­ate this dis­com­fort, indi­vidu­als are motiv­ated to change their beliefs, atti­tudes, or beha­viours to achieve consistency.

Cognitive Dissonance is a real phe­nomen­on that leads to irra­tion­al actions like con­firm­a­tion bias and caus­al self jus­ti­fic­a­tions, as indi­vidu­als seek to reduce the incon­sist­ency between their beliefs and actions.”
Source: Perspectives on Psychological Science 1Boek, D. (2011). Cognitive Dissonance. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6, 101 – 98. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​1​7​7​/​1​7​4​5​6​9​1​6​1​0​3​9​3​526

Beyond cog­nit­ive dis­son­ance, Festinger con­trib­uted sig­ni­fic­antly to social com­par­is­on the­ory and the study of social influ­ence and group dynam­ics. His social com­par­is­on the­ory sug­gests that people eval­u­ate their abil­it­ies and opin­ions by com­par­ing them­selves to oth­ers, espe­cially when object­ive bench­marks are unavailable.

Festinger’s work exten­ded to vari­ous oth­er areas, includ­ing research on the effects of group pres­sure on indi­vidu­al judg­ment, the determ­in­ants of beha­viour in social situ­ations, and the psy­cho­lo­gic­al under­pin­nings of pro­pa­ganda. His research meth­ods and the­or­et­ic­al frame­works con­tin­ue to influ­ence con­tem­por­ary psy­cho­logy, mak­ing him one of the key fig­ures in the his­tory of social psychology.

Learn more: Leon Festinger — The Psychologist Behind Cognitive Dissonance

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Who Was Leon Festinger?

Festinger ini­tially stud­ied psy­cho­logy at the City College of New York. Still, he trans­ferred to the University of Iowa, where he stud­ied under Kurt Lewin, a sig­ni­fic­ant fig­ure in social psy­cho­logy. This ment­or­ship pro­foundly influ­enced his future work. 2Over his career, Festinger held aca­dem­ic pos­i­tions at sev­er­al pres­ti­gi­ous insti­tu­tions, includ­ing Stanford University, the University of Michigan, and The New School for Social Research in New York. … Continue read­ing

Before fully devel­op­ing his the­ory of cog­nit­ive dis­son­ance, Festinger worked on sev­er­al oth­er pro­jects. He was involved in research on the visu­al per­cep­tion of motion, con­trib­ut­ing to the field of Gestalt psy­cho­logy. Festinger fre­quently col­lab­or­ated with oth­er not­able psy­cho­lo­gists, such as Stanley Schachter and Henry Riecken. This col­lab­or­at­ive work often led to sig­ni­fic­ant devel­op­ments in social psychology.

Festinger was known for his innov­at­ive research meth­ods. He used vari­ous exper­i­ment­al tech­niques, includ­ing what is now known as “par­ti­cipant obser­va­tion.” In one fam­ous study, he infilt­rated a dooms­day cult to observe and under­stand the effects of dis­con­firmed beliefs. 3When Prophecy Fails. (2023, October 28). In Wikipedia. https://​en​.wiki​pe​dia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​W​h​e​n​_​P​r​o​p​h​e​c​y​_​F​a​ils

In the later stages of his career, Festinger’s interests shif­ted towards the visu­al sys­tem and the per­cep­tion of col­our, which marked a sig­ni­fic­ant depar­ture from his earli­er focus on social psychology.


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PR Resource: Cognitive Dissonance

Spin Academy | Online PR Courses

Cognitive Dissonance

The the­ory of cog­nit­ive dis­son­ance, for­mu­lated by American social psy­cho­lo­gist Leon Festinger in the late 1950s, is a corner­stone concept in the field of psy­cho­logy, par­tic­u­larly in under­stand­ing human motiv­a­tion and behaviour. 

Cognitive dis­son­ance is a dis­tress­ing men­tal state in which people feel they are act­ing or hold­ing opin­ions that do not fit with their know­ledge or beliefs.”
Source: Handbook of Theories of Social Psychology 4Cooper, J. (2012). Cognitive dis­son­ance the­ory. Handbook of Theories of Social Psychology: Volume 1, 377 – 397. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​4​1​3​5​/​9​7​8​1​4​4​6​2​4​9​2​1​5​.​N19

The cog­nit­ive dis­son­ance the­ory pos­its that indi­vidu­als nat­ur­ally seek con­sist­ency among their cog­ni­tions (i.e., beliefs, opin­ions, and know­ledge). An incon­sist­ency between atti­tudes or beha­viours (dis­son­ance) cre­ates a state of psy­cho­lo­gic­al dis­com­fort, lead­ing the indi­vidu­al to attempt to reduce the dis­son­ance and achieve con­son­ance (con­sist­ency).

Emotions play a cru­cial role in main­tain­ing and chan­ging beliefs and atti­tudes, with cog­nit­ive dis­son­ance the­ory sug­gest­ing that neg­at­ive emo­tions can motiv­ate cog­nit­ive work to reduce cog­nit­ive incon­sist­en­cies.”
Source: Cambridge University Press 5Harmon-Jones, E. (2000). A cog­nit­ive dis­son­ance the­ory per­spect­ive on the role of emo­tion in the main­ten­ance and change of beliefs and atti­tudes. Cambridge University Press, 185 – 211. … Continue read­ing

Cognitive dis­son­ance can occur in vari­ous situ­ations, such as when a per­son’s beha­viour con­flicts with their self-image, new inform­a­tion con­tra­dicts deeply held beliefs, or when a decision con­flicts with altern­at­ive choices. 

Examples of irra­tion­al beha­viours when exper­i­en­cing dis­com­fort caused by dissonance:

  • Change the belief.
  • Justify the beha­viour by chan­ging the con­flict­ing cognition. 
  • Trivialize the inconsistency.
  • Seek new inform­a­tion that sup­ports the exist­ing belief or behaviour. 

The the­ory of cog­nit­ive dis­son­ance has been widely influ­en­tial in psy­cho­logy and fields like mar­ket­ing, pub­lic rela­tions, and decision-mak­ing stud­ies. It has helped explain vari­ous beha­viours, from small-scale per­son­al decisions to large-scale social and polit­ic­al attitudes.

Dissonance the­ory has regained pop­ular­ity in social psy­cho­logy, blend­ing cog­ni­tion and motiv­a­tion in a way that has­n’t been seen since the mid-1970s.”
Source: Psychological Inquiry 6Aronson, E. (1992). The Return of the Repressed: Dissonance Theory Makes a Comeback. Psychological Inquiry, 3, 303 – 311. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​2​0​7​/​S​1​5​3​2​7​9​6​5​P​L​I​0​3​0​4_1

Learn more: Cognitive Dissonance: Mental Harmony Above All Else

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PR Resource: Logical Fallacies and Biases

Logical Fallacies and Cognitive Biases - Doctor Spin
Logical fal­la­cies and cog­nit­ive biases.

List of Logical Fallacies and Biases

As humans, we often fall for the tricks our own psy­cho­logy plays on us. These “think­ing errors” exist because they’ve often aided our sur­viv­al. However, know­ing and under­stand­ing vari­ous types of com­mon fal­la­cies and biases is help­ful in every­day life.

Here are a few examples of logic­al fal­la­cies and biases that I’ve come across while study­ing pub­lic rela­tions and linguistics:

  • Fallacy of Composition
  • Fallacy of Division
  • The Gambler’s Fallacy
  • Tu Quoque (Who Are You To Talk?)
  • Strawman
  • Ad Hominem
  • Genetic Fallacy (Fallacy of Origin or Fallacy of Virtue)
  • Fallacious Appeal to Authority
  • Red Herring
  • Appeal to Emotion
  • Appeal to Popularity (The Bandwagon Effect)
  • Appeal to Tradition
  • Appeal to Nature
  • Appeal to Ignorance
  • Begging the Question
  • Equivocation
  • False Dichotomy (Black or White)
  • Middle Ground Fallacy
  • Decision Point Fallacy (Sorites Paradox)
  • Slippery Slope Fallacy
  • Hasty Generalisations (Anecdotal Evidence)
  • Faulty Analogy
  • Burden of Proof
  • Affirming the Consequent
  • Denying the Antecedent (Fallacy of the Inverse)
  • Moving the Goalposts
  • No True Scotsman
  • Personal Incredulity
  • False Causality
  • Texas Sharpshooter
  • Loaded Question
  • Chesterton’s Fence
  • Survivorship Bias
  • Dunning-Kruger Effect
  • Confirmation Bias
  • Heuristic Anchoring
  • Curse of Knowledge
  • Optimism/​Pessimism Bias
  • Sunk Cost Fallacy
  • Negativity Bias
  • Declinism
  • Backfire Effect (Conversion Theory)
  • Fundamental Attribution Error
  • In-Group Bias
  • Forer Effect (Barnum Effect)
  • Cognitive Dissonance
  • Hostile Media Effect
  • Cherry-Picking (The Fallacy of Incomplete Evidence)
  • Spiral of Silence
  • Yes Ladder
  • Bystander Effect
  • Reciprocation Effect
  • Commitment and Consistency
  • Fallacy of Social Proof
  • Liking and Likeness
  • Appeal to Authority
  • Principle of Scarcity (FOMO)
  • Loss Aversion

Learn more: 58 Logical Fallacies and Biases

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ANNOTATIONS
ANNOTATIONS
1 Boek, D. (2011). Cognitive Dissonance. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6, 101 – 98. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​1​7​7​/​1​7​4​5​6​9​1​6​1​0​3​9​3​526
2 Over his career, Festinger held aca­dem­ic pos­i­tions at sev­er­al pres­ti­gi­ous insti­tu­tions, includ­ing Stanford University, the University of Michigan, and The New School for Social Research in New York. Festinger received numer­ous awards for his con­tri­bu­tions to psy­cho­logy, includ­ing the American Psychological Association’s Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award in 1959.
3 When Prophecy Fails. (2023, October 28). In Wikipedia. https://​en​.wiki​pe​dia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​W​h​e​n​_​P​r​o​p​h​e​c​y​_​F​a​ils
4 Cooper, J. (2012). Cognitive dis­son­ance the­ory. Handbook of Theories of Social Psychology: Volume 1, 377 – 397. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​4​1​3​5​/​9​7​8​1​4​4​6​2​4​9​2​1​5​.​N19
5 Harmon-Jones, E. (2000). A cog­nit­ive dis­son­ance the­ory per­spect­ive on the role of emo­tion in the main­ten­ance and change of beliefs and atti­tudes. Cambridge University Press, 185 – 211. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​0​1​7​/​C​B​O​9​7​8​0​5​1​1​6​5​9​9​0​4​.​008
6 Aronson, E. (1992). The Return of the Repressed: Dissonance Theory Makes a Comeback. Psychological Inquiry, 3, 303 – 311. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​2​0​7​/​S​1​5​3​2​7​9​6​5​P​L​I​0​3​0​4_1
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwerhttps://doctorspin.net/
Jerry Silfwer, alias Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at Spin Factory and KIX Communication Index. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.

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