Learn more about Leon Festinger
Leon Festinger (May 8, 1919 – February 11, 1989) was a social psychologist from New York City who became famous for his Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Festinger earned his Bachelor of Science degree from the City College of New York in 1939. After completing his undergraduate studies, he attended the University of Iowa where he received his Ph.D. in 1942. Kurt Lewin, the so-called father of social psychology, mentored Leon. Festinger also proposed social comparison theory, according to which people evaluate their own opinions and desires by comparing themselves with others.
 Cognitive dissonance from disconfirmed expectancies
Cognitive dissonance generally describes situations arising from disconfirmed expectations, equivocal and unequivocal, the latter being paradigmatic. Prior to the publication of cognitive dissonance theory in 1956, Festinger, et al. read an interesting item in their local newspaper headlined "Prophecy from planet clarion call to city: flee that flood." A Chicago housewife, Mrs. Marion Keech, had mysteriously been given messages in her house in the form of "automatic writing" from alien beings on the planet Clarion, who revealed that the world would end in a great flood before dawn on December 21. The group of believers, headed by Mrs. Keech, had taken strong behavioral steps to indicate their degree of commitment to the belief. Some had left jobs, college, and spouse to prepare to leave on the flying saucer which was to rescue the group of true believers.
Festinger et al. saw this as a case that would lead to the arousal of dissonance when the prophecy failed, inducing a painful dissonance in the group. Altering the belief would be difficult. Mrs. Keech and the group were committed to it at considerable expense to maintain it. Another option would be to enlist social support for their original belief. As Festinger et al. wrote, "If more and more people can be persuaded that the system of belief is correct, then clearly it must after all be correct." In this case, if Mrs. Keech could add consonant elements by converting others to the basic premise, then the magnitude of her dissonance following disconfirmation would be reduced. Festinger et al. predicted that the inevitable disconfirmation would be followed by an enthusiastic effort at proselytizing to seek social support and lessen the pain of disconfirmation.
Festinger and his colleagues infiltrated Mrs. Keech's group and reported the following sequence of events:
- Prior to December 20. The group shuns publicity. Interviews are given only grudgingly. Access to Mrs. Keech's house is only provided to those who can convince the group that they are true believers. The group evolves a belief system—provided by the automatic writing from the planet Clarion—to explain the details of the cataclysm, the reason for its occurrence, and the manner in which the group would be saved from the disaster.
- December 20. The group expects a visitor from outer space to call upon them at midnight and to escort them to a waiting spacecraft. As instructed, the group goes to great lengths to remove all metallic items from their persons. As midnight approaches, zippers, bra straps, and other objects are discarded. The group waits.
- 12:05 A.M., December 21. No visitor. Someone in the group notices that another clock in the room shows 11:55. The group agrees that it is not yet midnight.
- 12:10 A.M. The second clock strikes midnight. Still no visitor. The group sits in stunned silence. The cataclysm itself is no more than seven hours away.
- 4:00 A.M. The group has been sitting in stunned silence. A few attempts at finding explanations have failed. Mrs. Keech begins to cry.
- 4:45 A.M. Another message by automatic writing is sent to Mrs. Keech. It states, in effect, that the God of Earth has decided to spare the planet from destruction. The cataclysm has been called off: "The little group, sitting all night long, had spread so much light that God had saved the world from destruction."
- Afternoon, December 21. Newspapers are called; interviews are sought. In a reversal of its previous distaste for publicity, the group begins an urgent campaign to spread its message to as broad an audience as possible.
 See also
- Unfulfilled historical predictions by Christians.
- Biography of Leon Festinger
- Cognitive dissonance
- “A theory of social comparison processes,” Human Relations p.114-140
- The Great Disappointmentde:Leon Festinger