In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Leon Festinger

  • Introduction
  • City College of New York (1935–1939)
  • The University of Rochester (1943–1945)
  • The University of Michigan (1948–1951)

Psychology Leon Festinger
Elaine Hatfield, Megan Carpenter, Paul Thornton, Richard Rapson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 09 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 November 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0157


Leon Festinger was born in Brooklyn, New York, on 8 May 1919 to Russian-Jewish immigrants, Alex Festinger and Sara Solomon Festinger. Leon’s father, an embroidery manufacturer, had left Russia an atheist and a radical, and he remained faithful to these convictions throughout his life. In his youth, Leon attended Boys’ High School, in Brooklyn. A number of authors have penned comprehensive biographies of his early life. Among the best are those written by his colleagues Jack W. Brehm and George A. Milite (see Brehm 1998, Milite 2001, both cited under Legacy).

City College of New York (1935–1939)

In 1939, in the midst of the Great Depression, Festinger enrolled at the City College of New York (CCNY). He would be a scientist, he knew, but what kind? He already possessed the wide range of interests that were to mark his career. He toyed with majoring in physics and chemistry and, bored, finally switched to psychology. When he came upon the psychologist Kurt Lewin’s work—Lewin proposed and tested theoretical constructs with ingenious field research and experiments—he was hooked. He began conducting research on the ways in which people set goals for themselves (Hertzman and Festinger 1940). Festinger received a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1939, with an honors thesis on suggestibility (Festinger 1939). To escape Nazi persecution, a number of eminent European social psychologists had fled to the United States and other Allied countries. These luminaries included Lewin, Theodor W. Adorno, Fritz Heider, and Henri Tajfel. Dedicated to defeating the Nazis, they threw themselves into working with groups such as the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), a forerunner of the CIA, applying social psychological principles in order to aid the US war effort and undermine Axis morale. These immigrants insisted that scholars did not have to make a choice between pure science and applied science. Lewin’s oft-repeated maxims “There is nothing so practical as a good theory” and “No research without action, and no action without research” became watchwords for the émigré social psychologists. Festinger was taken by the passion and ingenuity of these European psychologists’ work. Thus, after graduation from CCNY, he decided to move on to the University of Iowa, where Lewin held court.

  • Festinger, L. 1939. Experiments in suggestibility. Honors thesis, City College of New York. Leon Festinger papers, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.

    One of Festinger’s inspirations at CCNY was Clark L. Hull’s Hypnosis and Suggestibility, which he discovered while browsing through scientific books in the CCNY library. In his honor’s thesis, Festinger conducted two Hullian-type experiments investigating the link between prestige and suggestibility, looking at subjects’ suggestibility as a function of their tendency toward stabilizing decision estimates.

  • Hertzman, M., and L. Festinger. 1940. Shifts in explicit goals in a level of aspiration experiment. Journal of Experimental Psychology 27:439–452.

    DOI: 10.1037/h0055195

    College men took a series of tests. Then, they were asked to indicate their aspirations. Not surprisingly, the majority hoped to improve their performance. Next, they were given bogus information as to the aspirations and performance of a fictitious group of fellow students whose goals were more modest than the subjects’ own. As a result, men reduced their aspirations to more modest levels. Conclusion: Our desires are shaped by social realities.

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