Kurt Lewin (1890-1947)

Kurt Lewin

Kurt Lewin was an early 20th century psychologist who is credited with popularizing the field of social psychology and pioneering work in group dynamics and organizational psychology

Professional Life

Kurt Lewin was born on September 9th, 1890 in Poland. He began studying medicine in 1909 at the University of Freiburg, and the following year, he switched to natural sciences and enrolled at the University of Berlin. He completed his PhD in 1916.

Lewin served in the German army during the first World War. Beginning in 1921, he worked under Karl Stumpf at the Psychological Institute at the University of Berlin. Lewin also worked with Wolfgang Kohler, Max Wertheimer, and other psychologists from the school of Gestalt psychology.

In 1932, Lewin was a visiting professor at Stanford when Hitler rose to power. Lewin had the foresight to move his family to the United States, and he settled at Cornell University for two years. Next, he worked at the University of Iowa in their Iowa Child Welfare Research Station until 1944. Lewin worked at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where he established the Research Center for Group Dynamics. While at MIT, Lewin was asked to assist in developing a strategy to effectively manage racial and religious prejudices for the Connecticut State Interracial Commission. Lewin created the ‘change’ experiment, which led to modern sensitivity training, a procedure that Carl Rogers called “the most significant social invention of this century.” The method is the basis for the National Training Laboratories, an organization that was established in 1947 as a direct result of the ‘change’ experiment.

Lewin was also known as a political activist, and he became heavily involved in the socialist and women's rights movements. He died in 1947.    

Contribution to Psychology

Lewin examined the intention of the individual and developed the notion that forces in the psychological field determine behavior. In this framework, positive forces help a person or group to move forward, while negative forces hinder or inhibit progress. Lewin applied these concepts to group behavior as well, coining the term group dynamics to explain the ever-shifting reactions and behaviors people display in groups. This term continues to be used in contemporary social psychology.

While at MIT, Lewin explored ‘action research’ and its effects on planning, researching, and executing specific actions. Lewin is most well-known for his contributions to leadership and management climates. He identified three specific climates of leadership: 

  1. Authoritarian leadership creates a division of labor while remaining uninvolved in the labor action. The role of the leader is to evaluate the actions of subordinates and oversee the outcome.
  2. Democratic leadership works in collaboration with staff to arrive at decisions. Input is gathered from all involved, with the leader offering expert advice and experience. Any evaluations and assessments are objective and based in fact and contribute to a climate of respect.
  3. Laissez-faire leadership assumes no clear leadership role, offering advice and input only when asked. This type of climate lacks structure and provides very little assessment or feedback from the leader. 

Lewin also developed a theory of change and the Lewin Equation. This equation can be represented as B= f(P,E), but is not an actual mathematical equation. Instead, it represents what he termed social ecology, or the fact that a person's behavior is a function of his or her personality and environment.

References:

  1. Brendtro, L. K., & Mitchell, M. L. (2010). The profound POWER of groups. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 19(3), 5-10. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/852757461?accountid=1229
  2. Kurt Lewin. (1974). Dictionary of American Biography. Biography In Context. Retrieved from http://www.gale.cengage.com/InContext/bio.htm

Last Update: 07-23-2015

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