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Kurt Lewin






Kurt Lewin, another of those who left Germany as the Nazis consolidated their power, adapted and applied the Gestalt perspective to personality theory and social dynamics and called it "Field Theory." He Translated gestalt ideas into social experience involving people and made them useful in this context.He was a social reformer as well as a psychological theoriest. Widely recognized as the founder of the subdiscipline of social psychology, he was especially interested in the applications of psychology to psychological problems and founded the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues, Divsion 9 of the American Psychological Association. He was also responsible for the founding of the National Training Laboratories in Bethel Maine, best known for "sensitivity training" for corporate leaders. His "action research" approach has been applied broadly, and there are some contemporary papers about that approach on the "links" page.

BIOGRAPHICAL. Click on the top few entries on the Kurt Lewin Links page, and review the beginning of the first article on Lewin in the class reader.


  • An interest in intergroup conflict, and in conflict between individual and group wishes.
  • We always exist in relation to a social context. Gestalt ideas can be applied to understanding our place in our social and environmental situation.
  • We are culturally taught how to see, look, and act. Changing these is in a real sense changing the perceived culture within which we life.
  • Change can be carried out in ways that respects and humanizes our opponents as well as ourselves. If carried out in violent, dehumanizing ways, it is self-defeating.


Lewin emphasized the explanation of human behavior in terms of the forces and tensions that move us to action. Unlike Wertheimer, Kohler, and Koffka, who started with perception and then moved to behavior, Lewin began with behavior and what produces it, and then moved on to the problems of how people perceived their own and others' behavior. When a perceptual set (described below) affected the way learned associations were expressed, Lewin saw it as conflict between competing determining tendencies. In both laboratory and world, he held, a person's behavior is always oriented toward some goal. The person is always trying to do something. That intention or determining tendency is what matters most.

Associations, held Lewin, are not sources of energy,but just links or connections "like the couplings between the cars of railroad train which do nothing except transmit the energy supplied by the locomotive." (Woodworth, 1964) Lewin declared, "Psychology cannot try to explain eerything with a single construct, such as association, instinct, or gestalt. A variety of constructs has to be used. They should be interrelated, however, in a logically precise manner. "

Intentions and intentional actions, he held, do not result from simply a stimulus here or a reinforcer there. They follow "field principles." We have to look for psychological forces and intensions that arise from motives, and at goals, and at how people perceive the situation,.

Lewin did not try to relate psychological forces to physical forces, except in the descriptive names like "vector." He did not address the question of how motives originate, whether in insinct or previous experience, but rather focused on how they operate.

Lewin viewed the person as system containing subsystems that are more or less separate and more or less able to interact and combine with each other. "One subsystem," writes Woodworth, "might be friendship for a certain person; another might be love for a certain sport. When a person is intent on reaching a goal, one of his subsystem is in a state of tension". If he is interrupted, this subsystem remains tense for some time and cause him to resume the activity once the interruption is gone. Or if it can't be resumed, an activity that's somehow similar can substitute for it and drain off the tension. A repetitive task will eventually drain off all the tension in its subsystem, leaving a state of satiation. With continued activity this spreads to related subsystems. ("Cosatiation.")

The structure of a person includes an outer region called the perceptual-motor region that is in contact with the psychological environment, and a central portion called the inner-personal region. Thhe inner-personal region is divided into cells that represent tension systems.

As a child develops, the personality system expands and differentiates. His view of the psychological environment is subject to cognitive restructuring--it becomes better understood and he does a better job of distinguishing between the real world and the "irreal" world of wishes and fears. The child finds new social roles and learns new social norms and codes.

FIELD THEORY. Its basic statements are that:

  1. Behavior must be derived from a totality of coexisting facts
  2. These coexisting facts make up a "dynamic field," which means that the state of any part of the field depends on every other part of it
  3. Behavior depends on the present field rather than on the past or the future. "This is in contrast both to the belief of teleology that the future is the cause of behavior, and that of asociationism that the past is the cause of behavior."

The field is the life space, which contains the person and his or her psychological (or behavioral) environment. The psychological environment is the environment as the person perceives and understands it, and as related to his needs and quasi-needs. Many objects that do not presently concern him exist only in the background of the psychological environment (the Gestalt "ground.)

THE LIFE-SPACE. What do you include in your field of perception and action? If you're lucky, to some degree your life space is determined by you. For others, it's largely determined by your environment and the people you're in association with.Life space includes:

  • The places where you physically go, the people and events that occur there, and your feelings about the place and people. One part of this is the places you inhabit every day, or at least regularly. Another part is places you've been to, but go only very occasionally or may never go back to again.
  • Your vicarious life-space (my term, not Lewin's), includes the world you travel into through reading, movies, TV, what other people say, etc.
  • Then there is also your own personal mental life space--the places you ihabit in your mind, your fantasy world, etc. This was of great concern to Jung, although he did not use this term for it, but of less interest to Lewin who was most interested in our social world.
  • hhWhen you're planning what to do tomorrow, your life-space is not the room you're in now but the place where you expect to be tomorrow. Your present locomotion in that expected environment involves deciding on one course of action rather than another, as a result of vectors that impel you in one or another direction.

The person and the psychological environment are divided into regions that undergo differentiation. Regions are connected when a person can perform a locomotion betweeen them. Locomotion includes any kind of approach or withdrawal--even looking at a pretty object or away from an ugly one, or listening to liked music and avoiding disliked or uninteresting music. They are said to be connected when communication can take place between them. The region that lies just jjoutside the life-space is the foreign hull. The person is a differentiated region in the lifespace, set apart from the psychological environment by a boundary. A barrier may block the locomotion called for by vectors. A barrier exerts no force until force is exerted on it. Then it may yield, or resist strongly. How rigid it is you can find out only by exploration. You may have a plan that another person doesn't like, but you don't know how strongly he'll resist your carrying it out until you try. An impassible barrier is likely to acquire a negative valence and may lead to cursing or attacking it.

An awakened need is a state of tension, a readiness for action but without specific direction. When a suitable object is found, it acquires positive valence, and a vector then directs locomotion toward the object. Excessive tension may blur the person's perception of the environment, so that he doesn't find a suitable object to reduce the tension.

(I sometimes do an activity in which people have big sheets of paper and draw their own physical life-spaces, complete with an indication of how they feel in each place. Then each person explains his or her drawing to half-a-dozen or so others. This tends to give group members an understanding of the others that they might never have had otherwise.)

Your perception of yourself and your relationship with yourself shifts as your life-space shifts.

How do you go about changing your life-space when you do so? If you're a member of a group, your life-space as a member of the group is a developmental process of some kind.

A limitation of Lewin's method of diagramming the life space was difficulty representing B's life space as a factor operating in A's life-space.



A need is Lewin's basic motivational concept. It may arise from a physiological condition like hunger or may be a desire or intention to do something. Needs release energy, increase tension, and determine the strength of vectors and valences.

  • A system (region) in the person is said to be in a state of tension whenever a need or intention exists. A positive or negative valence is the attraction or repulsion that a region in the psychological environment has for someone.
  • A positive valence exists when the person thinks the region will reduce tension by meeting present needs, while a negative valence exists when the person thinks the region will increase tension or threatens injury.
  • A vector is a force that arises from a need that acts on the person and determines the direction in which he or she moves through the psychological environment. For every region with a positive valence, a vector pushes the person in its direction. With a negative valence, a vector pushes the person away from it.
  • Often two or more vecdtors act on the person at the same time, and then the locomotion is some kind of a"resultant."

Tension, excitement, and closure. We build tension in order to motivate ourselves to learn and do. And with learning, accomplishment, or completion comes a release of tension. Thbis has to do with closure. You finish a piece of business. There's a sense of relief.So life is a constant interplay between completing old situations and opening up new ones. If we're alive and well, there's always excitement, tension, possibilities. You can get closure and reduce tension, but the tension is never eliminated because we keep our systems open to be able to explore new events, people, and possibilities.

The Zeigarnik Effect. Lewin often met with his students in a cafe across the street from the University of Berlin. The custom there was that orders were not written down; the waiter or waitress kept them in their head and added additional items to them as they were ordered until the customers left. Lewin noted something quite interesting: The servers had an almost perfect memory for items that had been ordered until the bill was paid, and then a couple of minutes later could hardly recall anything about what was ordered. His student Bluma Zeigarnik carried out an experimental study of this phenomenon, finding that it had widespread validity, and it became known as the Zeigarnik effect.

  • When you learn, you are expanding your field.That opens the way for something new to happen. So there's always a little risk attached to opening up the field or system.When I let myself explore a wider sense of myself, I don't know what these changes will do to me, for me, with me.
  • Compare this to Freud's view. Freud said most of our dissonance and disorders are based on frustration. When frustrated we are less competent as people. Lewin and Zeigarnik were saying something quite different as they drew attention to a different dimension of the phenomenon. : You are most likely to learn something, they held, when there is some tension around it.
  • A resolution to this apparent contradiction, using an attention model, is that I suspect Lewin was corredt when the tension or frustration are not too extreme. In this case, the tension causes more attention to be devoted to the phenomenon in question. By contrast, when the frustration is extreme, Freud was probably right. In that case the frustration itself and its associated emotional response often take so much attention that there is left available to think and act effectively. Soome tension is good for learning. Beyond that, it gets in our way.

Perls and Gestalt Therapy. Fritz Perls' took Lewin's work on tension systems and made it one of the central concepts of Gestalt Therapy. He called tension systems "unfinished business." A healthy persom will complete most of their life situations while they're involved with them. A less healthy person is likely to move through life dragging this ball and chain of a whole mass of unfinished business. This may relate to unfinished situations from childhood, with a previous partner, etc.--anything the person has left incomplete that at some conscious or unconscious level continues to influence and trouble him or her.


TYPES OF CONFLICTS. If you read anything about Lewin in your introductory psychology text, it was probably his typology of conflicts. He identified the conflicts most of us commonly face as:

approach-approach. We want two different things that we like both of (that have "positive valences," in Lewin's terms.

avoidance-avoidance. We have to pick one or the other alternative, but dislike both. (both have "negative valences."

approach-avoidance. We can either have, or subject ourselves to, one thing that has both positive and negative qualities.

double approach-avoidance. We must choose between two things that each have both positive and negative qualities.

Lewin represented these topologically, drawing a sort of egg with P (for person) in the middle, and either a compartment at either end that was labelled + or - or +/-, or ++/--. Neal Miller & John Dollard used Lewin's approach-avoidance conflict as the basis for an experiment in which hungry rat was in a runway with both food and a shock grid at the end. To get the food it had to endure shock. They found that there was a vacillation point--when it was farther away, it tended to move toward the goal box. When it got closer to it, it tended to withdraw back to that vacilation point. The drew two lines on a graph to represent that tendency that they called an "approach gradient" and an "avoidance gradient."


"EINSTELLUNG" (sounds like something that should be attached to a VW.)

This concept is close to "perceptual set" but implies a larger, more inclusive perceptual disposition. (Here we see the influence of early Gestalt psychology.) Each of us learned from the people who were important in our lives as we grew up how to perceive events. Our mind-set tells us how to look, how to observe. It makes the world intelligible to us within a particular frame of reference.

Problems arise in terms of how a perceptual set can limit us, lock us down. "What am I looking for in this interaction? What do I want?" This may blind me to discovering and enjoying what I didn't think or know I wanted. A dramatic demonstration of Lewin's idea of mind-set was Harold H. Kelley's classic study on "The Warm-Cold Variable in First Impressions of Persons." A class received a written introduction to a guest lecturer they were about to hear. The instructions differed in just one word: Half were told that the lecturer was "a rather warm person who..." and the other half, "a rather cold person who...." They then heard the same lecture. Afterward, the latter group rated the lecturer signiicantly more negatively.

Lewin's conception, and Kelley's study, launched the whole "person perception" area of study.


LEVEL OF ASPIRATION. Another of Lewin's related concepts, which later attracted widespread attention as a result of David McClelland's work on achievement motivation. A basic idea: Using your skills at the level at which they are, you can succeed. In Lewin's view, level of aspiration is determined by two factors:
  • The person's relation to certain values
  • The person's sense of realism in regard to the probability of reaching the goal.

A characteristically successful person, said Lewin, will chose goals that are within his or her capacity to reach, and will raise those goals once having achieved them. In a ring toss game, McClelland found that people who tended to be most effective in their lives placed the pole onto which the tried to toss the rings right at the limit of their ability to toss the rings onto it. Less effective people tended to place it so far away that they seldom succeeded or so near that they always succeeded.



The general idea: Each group, as it starts, has some beginning rules. But each group is an organism. Never the same, like snowflakes.

Group self-esteem needs. The group has self-esteem needs just as the individuals do. For example, in government, who gets hut with budget problems? The agencies that carry out services. And the agencies' self-esteem gets diminished, as they find themselves unable to meet the needs thaty they're supposed to serve.

Groups provide the context for individual thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and actions. The person customarily depends on his or her group for "reality." Although Lewin did not, so far as I know, use the sociological term "reference groups," the concept played a major role in his thinking. The person is always, to some degree, thinking and acting as a member of a group, be it a family, community, or culture.

Lewin's student Leon Festinger, one of the leading social psychologists of the last half of the 20th Century, developed this line of thinking farther in his Theory of Social Comparison Processes, in which he looked at the variables involved in our comparison of ourselves and our situation with others around us. A still later development along the same line is the idea of relative deprivation. This plays a part in the thinking of Heather Smith in our own department and her research on factors that lead to a perception of social justice or injustice.


DEMOCRATIC, AUTHORITARIAN, AND LAISSEZ-FAIRE GROUPS: THE LEWIN, LIPPITT, & WHITE STUDY. This is probably Lewin's best-known study. Groups of schoolchildren were assigned to democratic, authoritarian, and laissez-fair leadership. As predictd,.In social interaction, change occurred in ways that were less troublesome, and more efficient, when done in a democratic way, and in varied ways the democratic groups were superior. When the field is open, and we can all participate and make our behaviors identifiable as part of the group, we are likely to be able to make the transition more effectively, with less pain and discomfort. The more rigid and authoritarian the structure of a group, the less creative, original, and dysfunctional the decisionmaking is likely to be. Sometimes we see this in the relationship between parent and child. Also the Laissez-Faire style of leadership was not so good in several ways. Clear guidelines to ensure and permit input and participation for all (democratic leadership) were clearly superior to little or no guidance.

Change in autocratic and democratic groups

  • In autocratic groups, there are always at least two clearly defined levels of social status: high and low. A strong barrier kept up by the former keeps the latter from acquiring leadership.
  • In democratic groups the difference in status is slight and there is no barrier against lower status persons acquiring leadership.
  • In Lewin's experiements, change from autocracy to democracy seemed to take longer than change from democracy to autocracy. Autocracy is imposed on a person, but democracy has to be learned.

Groups are sociological wholes and the units of these whole can be defined operationally just as can a unity of any other dynamic whole, through a specification of how its parts are interdependent.



The processes governing acquisition of normal and abnormal behavior are basically similar. Also, individuals customarily depend on their group for "reality."

A re-education process is basically equivalent to a change in culture. Such a process:

  1. Affects the person's cognitive structure
  2. modifies the person's valences and values
  3. affects the person's overt behavior.

A correct sequence of steps, correct timing and correct integration of influence on the person and the group are usually essential. Taking them in turn,

Changing the cognitive structure.

  1. Even extensive first-hand experience doesn't automatically lead to accurate ideas about reality.
  2. Social action no less than physical action is steered by perception.
  3. As a rule, having correct knowledge does not suffice to modify false perception.
  4. Only when a psychological linkage is made between the image of specific people and the stereotype of a certain group, and only when individuals are seen as "typical representatives," is experience with individuals likely to affect a stereotype.
  5. Incorredct stereotypes (prejudices) are functionalloy equivalent to wrong concepts. Social expedriences that can change mistaken stereotypes have to be equivalent to the physical experiences that change our ideas about the physical world. Such experiences are rare.
  6. A real acceptance of a changed set of facts and values, and in the perceived social world, truly exist only when there are changes in action based on these new conceptions.

Change and groups.

  • The group or groups to which one belongs is a central aspect of a person's life-space
  • A person accepts a new system of beliefs and values by accepting belongness to a group.
  • Once belonging is established, previously rejected facts will become accepted as they become "facts" of "his group."
  • Reeducation influences conduct only when the new system of values and bleieffs dominates a person's perceptions. There is a close linkage between acceptance of new facts and values and acceptance of new roles or group memberships. Often the latter item is prerequisit to the forme
ATTITUDE CHANGE. "I can change an attitude with you relatively easily if you're actively exploring those attitudes, those needs," remarks my colleague Laurence J. Horowitz. "In the U.S., we have a real issue between individualism and cooperative behavior. How much is my individualism intrusive on yours? How much does it get in the way of cooperative behavior?"

Change in a business organization. In the Harwood Manufacturing Company, every time they made changes in the production schedule, it took endless time for workers to get back to the normal production level. Lewin took a number of people and said, let's try different ways of dealing with this transition issue.

  • One group: "You figure out what you need to do to make this new product in this new way."
  • 2nd group: "You elect some representatives to talk with management and then they'll go back and talk to you.:
  • 3rd group: "Everyone will get together. Workers, management, etc., and we'll all brainstorm it."

Number 3 worked best. Everyone being there together. Even people who said nothing preferred it -- just being tere had value.

Again we see the interrelation between personal responses and group behavior, which was a central theme of Lewin's work.


ACTION RESEARCH Lewin was especially interested in investigation of how to get people to act in ways that were of benefit both to them and the larger social body. He was less interested in "pure research" that had no implications for practical application.

The wartime studies, and the "public commitment" variable. During World War II the government wanted to get people to act in a variety of ways that would help the country as a whole and also the war effort. An example was getting people to change from eating white bread to eating brown bread. In such studies, Lewin found that the variable of public commitment had a strong effect on people's behavior. People who heard a lecture on the virtues of eating brown bread changed little. People who also made a public commitment, such as raising their hands or standing up to indicate that they would serve brown bread, were much more likely to actually do so. This group of studies by Lewin spurred many later studies on social influence.

Field studies in the community. Lewin carried out studies on the effects of integrated housing on prejudice, on equalizing employment opportunities, and on the development and prevention of prejudice in children.Such investigation led to his founding of the Society For the Study of Social Issues, which still carries out such word and publishes the journal Social Issues.

Interplay between field studies and laboratory studies. Often Lewin would investigate a phenomenon as it naturally occured in the field, and then use those results as the basis for devising a more carefully controlled laboratory study. In term, he would take the results from his laboratory research and see if they worked in the fie


THE MARRIAGE GROUP. The problems of a partner in marriage, held Lewin, arise from the relation between an individual and his group. We can think of two kinds of groups here. One is the marriage group itself, consisting of the person and his or her partner and perhaps their children. The other is other group(s) to which each belongs, such as the family of orgin or other reference groups.

What a group means to a person.

  1. It is the ground on which he or she stands. If someone isn't clear about his or her belongingness, or not well established within his or her group, the life space will feel like an unstable ground.
  2. The groupias a means to attain certain ends.
  3. The person as part of a group. Change in the circumstances of an individual may be directly to to a change in the situation of the group of which that person is part.
  4. The group or groups to which we belong are fundamental parts of our life-space.

The adaptation of the person to the group

  • Group needs and individual freedom. The person needs enough space of free movement within the group to pursue personal goals and satisfy personal wants.
  • Adapting individual and group needs. How the person's adjustment to the group is made dependes on the character of the group, the position of the person within the group, and the character of the individual person.

Special properties of the marriage group.

  • Smallness of the group. This makes it highly interdependent.
  • The group touches central regions of the person. Marriage affefcts the person's entire physical and social existence.
  • Intimate relation between members.

Combined, these three elements usually create a closely integrated social unit. On one hand this means increased identification with the group and a readiness to stand together; on the other hand, it may mean greater sensitivity to the shortcomings of the other or of oneself in the relationship.



Causes for tension.

  1. An unsatisfied need means there is a particular region within the person where there is tension, and also that the person as a whole is on a higher tension level. This is especially true of basic needs like security or sex.
  2. Inadequate space of free movement. Too small a space usually produces tension.
  3. An outer barrier. Tension or conflict often leads to a tendency to leave the unpleasant situation. If this cannot be done, increased tension and conflict will likely develop.
  4. Within the group life, conflict depends substantially on the degree to which members' emotions contradict each other, and upon readiness to consider the other person's viewpoint.

Further considerations about marital conflict. A central question: How can a person find enough space of free movement to satisfy his or her own personal needs within the group without interfering with the group's interests? Securing an adequate private sphere within the marriage group can be especially difficult, since the very essence of marriage involves sharing their private spheres with the other(s) in the couple or family. The central layers of the person and his or her basic mode of social existence are involved.

  • Each member is especially sensitive to those things that are not in accord with his or her needs. In a relatively nonintimate group it's easier for a member to find freedom to satisfy private needs without giving up the relatively superficial relations to other members. In an intimate group like marriage that's harder, and if members' needs conflict, because of their intimate involvement, conflicts may become especially deep and emotional.
  • Different functions that a marriage partner is called on to perform may demand opposite kinds of actions and personality traits that are not easily reconciled with each other. Nonetheless, failure to carry out one of these kinds of actions may leave important needs unsatisfied and lead to a high permanent tension level as long as that condition persists.

Oversatiation can also create tensions. If the amount of consummatory action necessary for reaching a state of satisfaction differs for the partners, satisfying the wants of the "hungrier" member is not always a satisfactory solution.

Conflicts are likely to be most serious when central needs are threatened. There seems to be a tendency for any need to become more central when in a state of hunger or oversatiation, and more peripheral when satisfied. Unsatisfied needs tend to dominate the situation, increasing the chances for conflict.

Security. People tend to be very sensitive to even slight increases in the instability of theirsocial ground. A good marriage is a "social home" where the other person feels accepted, sheltered, and reassured of his or her worth. Amont the most frequent causes of unhappiness in marriage:

  • Women list lack of truthfulness very high. Distrust makes one uncertain of where he stands and what the effects of a prospective action will be.
  • Traditionally women also listed lack economic success by husband as at frequent causes of unhappiness. In today's changed society it would probably the couple's overall finances and physical security.

Sexuality. Another problem area. (Often it involves poor communication, both in saying what you need and in active interest in the other person's needs and experiences.)

Love and the space of free movement.

  • Love has a natural tendency to be all-inclusive, to embrace the other person's wholoe life, past, present, and future, and to be related to all activities. This can directly endanger a basic condition of person to group, namely privacy. Even if a spouse enters all regions of the other's activities with a sympathetic attitude, it can deprive the partner of some of his or her freedom.
  • Marriage includes the necessity of saying "yes" to both agreeable and disagreeable qualities of partner, and willingness to life permanently in close contact.
  • Harmony and discrepancy in the meanings of marriage. How much privacy is needed depends on the individuals concerned, and on the meaning marriage has in the life-spaces of both. A discrepancy of interests causes problems only if different meanings the spouses' attach to the marriage can't be realized simutaneously.

Overlapping groups.

Marriage and the larger family

Jealousy. This can be quite vivid even when contrary to all reason. May be based partly on a feeling that one's "property" is being taken away. Such a feeling may be easily arounded if relation between two people is very close. The intimate relation of one partner to a third can make it seem as if some of one's own intimate life is thrown open to a third person. The perceptions that the two partners have of one of them's relationship to a third may be very different.

Solving marital conflicts

  1. One may sacrifice freedom for the sake of the marriage and resign oneself to frustration; or
  2. Make the marriage swo much a part of one's life that the goals of the partner become to a high extent one's one goals. In the latter case, the mening of "limitation of freedom" becomes quite different. It is no longer strictly correct to speak of sacrifice.
  3. A thoroughgoing "we feeling" leads to less tension and conflict. A readiness to consider the other person's viedws and goals and to discuss personal problems rationally leads to a quicker solution of conflicts.

CULTURAL RECONSTRUCTION. We can't expect a people without such traditions as a process of group decisionmaking and democratic leadership to understand a term like "democracy" in thos terms. They understand it within the conceptual dimensions in which they are used to thinking.

  • In cultural change, a pattern like democracy can't be limited to political processes, but must be interwoven with every aspect of the culture.
  • A paradox: A person trying to bring about democratic change cannot just impose his conceptions, but sttill must lead.
  • The limits of democratic tolerance: "democratic intolerance toward intolerance."

A cultural change in regard to a specific item will have to be able to stand up against the weight of the thousand and one other items in the culture that tend to turn the conduct back to its old pattern. To be stable, a change must penetrate into all aspects of a nation's life. It must be a change in the cultural atmosphere, not merely a change in single items.

General aspects of cultural change: We need to look at:

  • Culture as an equilibrium
  • Changing the constellation of experiences


"Satisfaction" of needs is not enough. Example: in an aggressive and aristocratic cuture, these traits cannot be considered symptoms of maladjustment and can't be removed just by satisfying people's needs.

In bringing positive change,

  1. There must be a change of atmosphere rather than only of single items.
  2. Change in the culture of a group is interwoven with changes in the power constellation of the group.
  3. Change in leadership methods is probably the quickest way to induce changes in group atmosphere.

PRE-WORLD-WAR II GERMANY: Loyalty was typically linked with obedience. (How does this compare with the present situation in the U.S.?)

The "unfreezing, moving to a new level, and refreezing" formula. Lewin recognized the role of habit in our thoughts and actions. "Unfreezing" involves finding a method of making it possible for people to let go of an old pattern that was counterproductive in some way. "Moving to a new level" involves a process of change--in thoughts, feelings, behavior, or all three, that is in some way more liberating or more productive. "Refreezing" is establishing the change as a new habit, so that it now becomes the "standard operating procedure." Without some process of refreezing, it is easy to backslide into the old ways.


THE NATIONAL TRAINING LABORATORIES in Bethel, Maine. Lewin wanted to train leaders of society in more sensitive, democratical ways of exercising leaderships. Together with several colleagues he founded the National Training Labs. This organization, which still exists, runs workships for executives and anyone else who wants and can afford to participate. They called the approach they developed "sensitivity training," which for a time was vilified by right-wing Americans who viewed it as a threat to the system of authoritarian management and control in both businesses and families to which they were committed. Sensitivity training was ran what Carl Rogers latter called "encounter groups" for quite some time before Rogers picked up the process and popularized it widely. . This process helped people to let down their facades and be genuinely themselves, to perceive the totality of others, and to alter their own and others' mindsets. In some cases it is also a useful phenomenological tool of conflict resolution.Lewin considered it very importan, to relate to the other as a whole person, and not just relate in a fragmentary way to part of the person.


SAUL ALINSKY. Alinsky was one a social psychologistof the significant labor organizers of the 20th century. He used the Lewinian approach in his organizational and conflict managment skills.

Example: The San Francisco International airport custodians --the janitors-- were going out on strike. Neither union nor management wanted a long strike, but they had reached an impasse. Alinsky thought the situation over, and then gave everyone in the union a dime. In those days, bathrooms in airports, train depots and bus stations customarily had a lock requiring a dime on all the bathroom stalls except for one free stall, which tended to be highly used and less clean That was the case at SFO.) All the striking union members took their dime and went into the 10-cent johns. The one free toilet in each restroom was left open, out of humanitarian considerations. Lines for the open toilet grew huge. People were in danger of missing their planes. (Perhaps there were even regrettable accidents.) Management said, "We can't abide this,." settled with the janitors, and the strike was over almost immediately.The message: "If you do what you can do, you can succeed." So the janitors used the toilets.

Clever twists such as that were characteristic of both Lewin and Alinsky.


  • Principal References:
  • Bolles, Robert Cl. (1993) The Story of Psychology: A Thematic History. Wadsworth/Brooks Cole.
  • Horowitz, Laurence J. (1986) Guest lecture on Kurt Lewin.
  • Lewin, Kurt. A Dynamic Theory of Personality. McGraw Hill.
  • Lewin, Kurt. Resolving Social Conflicts.
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