Kurt Lewin - Social Psychology - The Canon

Psychology: Essential Thinkers, Classic Theories, and How They Inform Your World - Andrea Bonior 2016

Kurt Lewin
Social Psychology
The Canon


BORN 1890, Mogilno, Prussia, German Empire


DIED 1947, Newtonville, Massachusetts


Educated at the University of Berlin



Kurt Lewin is often credited with being the original social psychologist. A keen observer of people and culture, he suggested that it is neither nature nor nurture alone, but instead the interaction between the two, that accounts for who we are. Some people have a vested interest in believing that our genes are our destiny, or that early life experiences all but cement exactly who we will become. But think about it—nature cannot exist without nurture. Genetic destiny cannot become manifest without the environment to support it. If you have the genes for brown eyes, but your biological mother developed an infection while she was pregnant with you and that infection kept your eyes from developing at all, then your eye-color genes turned out not to matter after all.

The gap between genetic and environmental factors is not the only one that Lewin helped bridge. He also wanted to bring scientific scrutiny to everyday behavior. The seeming trivialities of day-to-day life had been ignored by many theorists of his time, but in daily reality Lewin saw profound clues to the essence of what it means to be human, and he deemed those clues worthy of research. Naturally, it is this idea—that everyday behavior can be assessed, studied, and eventually understood—that forms the crux of social psychology. The notion that science can explore everyday behavior was a breath of fresh air in a field that had often sought to devote itself only to more sophisticated questions.

According to Lewin’s field theory, people are constantly reacting within the framework of themselves and their environment. Lewin explained it this way: Every psychological event depends both on the state of the individual involved and on the environment, although the relative importance of each factor is different in different cases. Though that can seem inexact, this philosophy lays out a beautiful conceptualization of how the principles of personality psychology and social psychology work in tandem. Certain social forces and situations are so strong as to overrule personality factors (a win for the social psychologists), whereas others do not exert enough influence to overcome the individual differences among us (a triumph for personality psychologists).

Lewin’s equation is a more specific statement that behavior is a function of the characteristics a person carries around and of how those characteristics react to the environment. Lewin also used the term life space to describe the sum of the influences that act on a person at any given point in time. Individual influences themselves—memories, desires, sensations, and the like—are called psychological facts. Lewin posited that the older we get, the bigger our life space gets as we add not just new experiences but also our memories of those experiences. These experiences can come back to influence us in quite meaningful ways later on.

Lewin also developed a theory of conflict that involves three specific subtypes:

”In an approach-approach conflict, we are trying to decide between two desirable goals.

”An approach-avoidance conflict involves only one goal, but it is one that simultaneously attracts and repels us.

”In an avoidance-avoidance conflict, we must choose between two options that are both repellent.

What Lewin theorized is that the closer we get to an individual choice or goal, the more extremely we feel its positive or negative qualities, and the more we are attracted or repelled. The approach-approach conflict is inherently unstable, making us act more quickly, as the closer we move to one of the goals, the more attracted we become, and since it is desirable, we go with it. The other two conflicts are inherently more stable, allowing us to be indecisive for longer as we move back and forth between being repelled and being attracted (approach-avoidance) or between two different ways of being repelled (avoidance-avoidance.)

Lewin looked beyond conflict within the individual to study conflict and cohesion within groups. The term organizational development sounds like a buzzword of the late 20th century—it practically reeks of whiteboards, memos, and squeaky chairs in conference rooms—but in the early decades of the 20th century Lewin was already developing theories within this field. He identified three different styles of workplace environment, or leadership culture:

”In a democratic leadership culture, all members of the organization feel like active participants, and there are no significant differences in status between leaders and nonleaders; this culture is associated with greater creativity and functionality than are found in the other two leadership cultures.

”An autocratic leadership culture has rigid leaders; followers feel less involved in organizational processes and are more likely to revolt than in the other two leadership cultures.

”In a laissez-faire leadership culture, the boundaries of leadership are less clear than in the other two leadership cultures; workers are less unified, and their work is less coherent.

Interestingly enough, Lewin originally derived these three leadership cultures from research conducted on 10-year-old boys—Lord of the Flies, anyone?


By establishing a framework for how social forces affect behavior, Lewin set the stage for a new field entirely. His work in social psychology directly influenced other early pioneers, including Leon Festinger, whom Lewin mentored, and who went on to develop social comparison theory and the concept of cognitive dissonance. And it was one of Lewin’s supervisees, Bluma Zeigarnik, who first discovered that we tend to remember our unfinished tasks more clearly and for longer than we remember our finished tasks (this phenomenon is known as the Zeigarnik effect).


As you get older, you may have the rather unsettling feeling that your birthday comes around more quickly with each passing year. Lewin’s concept of the life space provides a framework for understanding this feeling. As you age, your life space grows; you continue to add experiences, memories, and still more experiences and more memories, expanding your emotional and mental reality. All the while, however, a year remains constant—it still has 365 days (366 in a leap year)—and so the percentage of your life that is accounted for by the year that has passed since your last birthday becomes smaller and smaller as time goes on. When you’re 5 years old, the year that just passed accounts for 20 percent of your lifetime. By the time you’re 25, the year that just passed accounts for only 4 percent of your lifetime, and by the time you’re 90, the year that just passed accounts for only a little more than 1 percent of your lifetime. That’s why time seems to move faster and faster from one birthday to the next.

Lewin’s ideas around internal conflict, originally formulated in the early decades of the 20th century, still resonate decades later. Which Caribbean resort will you choose—the one with a swim-up bar, fine dining, hammocks galore, and fancy skewers of tropical fruit in each drink, or the other one that has all the same amenities? (That’s an approach-approach conflict.) Should you leave an emotionally abusive relationship and opt for freedom and psychological health, or should you stay so you won’t have to deal with your partner’s reaction, sort out the logistics of a move, disentangle your finances from your partner’s, and suffer an almost certain period of loneliness? (This is an approach-avoidance conflict.) When your boss gives you the choice between taking a pay cut or putting in 10 more hours per week, which option will you choose? (This is an avoidance-avoidance conflict.)