Kurt Lewin

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Kurt Zadek Lewin (September 9, 1890February 12, 1947) was a German-American psychologist, known as one of the modern pioneers of social psychology, organizational psychology, and applied psychology. He is often recognized as the "founder of social psychology" and was one of the first to study group dynamics and organizational development.



  • One can ask two different kinds of questions with regard to the topics of study in psychology as well as in other sciences. One can ask for the phenomenal characteristics of psychological units or events, for example, how many kinds of feelings can be qualitatively differentiated from one another or which characteristics describe an experience of a voluntary act. Aside from this are the questions asking for the why, for the cause and the effect, for the conditional-genetic interrelations. For example, one can ask: Under which conditions has been a decision made and which are the specific psychological effects which follow this decision? The depiction of phenomenal characteristics is usually characterized as “description”, the depiction of causal relationships as “explanation.”
  • The essential meaning of such an assertion is this: events a and b are necessarily dependent moments of a single unified occurrence . The mathematical formula states the quantitative relations involved in the occurrence. Already in such cases the dependent moment of the occurrence are moments that obtain temporally by side.
  • [Satiation may spill over outside the specific task to structurally similar tasks) and may end up in an early] exhaustion of the occupational will.
    • Kurt Lewin (1928) "Die Bedeutung der “psychischen Sättigung” für einige Probleme der Psychotechnik" [Significance of “mental satiation” for some problems of psychotechnics]. in: Psychotechnisches Zeitschrift, Vol 3, p. 186. as cited in: E. Demerouti et all. (2002) "From mental strain to burnout"


It is not the similarity or dissimilarity of individuals that constitutes a group, but interdependence of fate.
- Lewin (1939)
  • It is not the similarity or dissimilarity of individuals that constitutes a group, but interdependence of fate.
    • Kurt Lewin (1939) "When facing danger". In Lewin, G. W. (Ed.), Resolving Social Conflict. London: Harper & Row.
  • The scope of time ahead which influences present behavior, and is therefore to be regarded as part of the present life-space, increases during development. This change in time perspective is one of the most fundamental facts of development. Adolescence seems to be a period of particularly deep change in respect to time perspective. The change can be partly described as a shift in scope. Instead of days, weeks, or months, now years ahead are considered in certain goals. Even more important is the way in which these future events influence present behavior. The ideas of a child of six or eight in regard to his occupation as an adult are not likely to be based on sufficient knowledge of the factors which might help or interfere with the realization of these ideas. They might be based on relatively narrow but definite expectations or might have a dream or playlike character. In other words, "ideal goals" and "real goals" for the distant future are not much distinguished, and this future has more the fluid character of the level of irreality. In adolescence a definite differentiation in regard to the time perspective is likely to occur. Within those parts of the life-space which represent the future, levels of reality and irreality are gradually being differentiated.
    • Kurt Lewin (1939) "Field theory and experiments in social psychology" in: American Journal of Sociology. Vol 44. p. 879.

The conflict between Aristotelian and Galileian modes of thought in contemporary psychology, 1931[edit]

Kurt Lewin (1931). "The conflict between Aristotelian and Galileian modes of thought in contemporary psychology". In: Journal of General Psychology Vol 5, p. 141-177

  • [Conflict can be defined] as the opposition of approximately equally strong field forces.
    • p. 109 as cited in: Man Cheung Chung, Michael E. Hyland (2012) History and Philosophy of Psychology. p. 107.
  • For Aristotelian physics the membership of an object in a given class was of critical importance, because for Aristotle the class defined the essence or essential nature of the object, and thus determined its behavior in both positive and negative respects.
    • p. 143 Donald P. Spence (1994) The Rhetorical Voice of Psychoanalysis. p. 50 summarized this quote as "Class membership defined the essence or essential nature of the object".
  • The attitude of Aristotelian physics toward lawfulness takes a new direction. So long as lawfulness remained limited to such processes as occurred repeatedly in the same way, it is evident, not only that the young physics still lacked the courage to extend the principle to all physical phenomena, but also that the concept of lawfulness still had a fundamentally historic, a temporally particular, significance. Stress was laid not upon the “general validity” which modem physics understands by lawfulness, but upon the events in the historically given world which displayed the required stability. The highest degree of lawfulness, beyond mere frequency, was characterized by the idea of the always eternal.
    • p. 147.
  • Whatever is common to children of a given age is set up as the fundamental character of that age. The fact that three-year-old children are quite often negative is considered evidence that negativism is inherent in the nature of three-year-olds, and the concept of a negative age or stage is then regarded as an explanation for the appearance of negativism.
  • Only by the concrete whole which comprises the object and the situation are the vectors which determine the dynamics of the event defined.
    • p. 165.

A Dynamic Theory of Personality, 1935[edit]

Kurt Lewin (1935) A dynamic theory of personality: selected papers by Kurt Lewin.

  • Only a few years ago one could observe, at least among German psychologists, a quite pessimistic mood. After the initial successes of experimental psychology in its early stages, it seemed to become clearer and clearer that it would remain impossible for experimental method to press on beyond the psychology of perception and memory to such vital problems as those with which psychoanalysis was concerned. Weighty 'philosophical' and 'methodological' considerations seemed to make such an undertaking a priori impossible.
    • p. v.
  • Working in this field I felt that I had begun a task methodologically and technically sound and necessary, the broader elaboration of which could not be expected for decades. Nevertheless it soon became clear that though these problems are difficult, they are by no means impossible to solve. One had only to clear out a number of hoary philosophical prejudices and to set his scientific goal high enough to arrive at explanation and prediction. Today it can no longer be doubted that the questions set, for example, by psychoanalysis are readily accessible to experimental clarification if only appropriate methods and concepts are employed.
    • p. v-vi.
  • The outlook of a Bruno, a Kepler, or a Galileo is determined by the idea of a comprehensive, all-embracing unity of the physical world. The same law governs the courses of the stars, the falling of stones, and the flight of birds. This homogenization of the physical world with respect to the validity of law deprives the division of physical objects into rigid abstractly defined classes of the critical significance it had for Aristotelian physics, in which membership in a certain conceptual class was considered to determine the physical nature of an object.
    • p. 10 as cited in: Coleman Roberts Griffith (1943) Principles of systematic psychology. p. 215.
  • Do not in any way 'prove the rule,' but on the contrary are completely valid disproofs, even though they are rare, indeed, so long as one single exception is demonstrable.
    • p. 24.
  • In the psychological fields most fundamental to the whole behavior of living things the transition seems inevitable to a Galileian view of dynamics, which derives all its vectors not from single isolated objects, but from the mutual relations of the factors in the concrete whole situation, that is, essentially, from the momentary condition of the individual and the structure of the psychological situation. The dynamics of the processes is always to be derived from the relation of the concrete individual to the concrete situation, and, so far as internal forces are concerned, from the mutual relations of the various functional systems that make up the individual.
    • p. 41; partly cited in: Kay Deaux, Mark Snyder (2012) The Oxford Handbook of Personality and Social Psychology. p. 74
[One type] of the conflict situation... [is that the] individual stands between two positive valences of approximately equal strength... It is usually a condition of labile equilibrium.
- Lewin (1935, p. 123)
  • [Progress in psychology depends] upon keeping in mind that general validity of the law and concreteness of the individual case are not antitheses, and that reference to the totality of the concrete whole situation must take the place of reference to the largest possible historical collection of frequent repetitions. This means methodologically that the importance of a case, and its validity as proof, cannot be evaluated by the frequency of its occurrence. Finally, it means for psychology, as it did for physics, a transition from an abstract classificatory procedure to an essentially concrete constructive method.
    • p. 42 as cited in: Anthony C. Westerhof (1938) Representative psychologists. p. 48.
  • The valence of an object usually derives from the fact that the object is a means to the satisfaction of a need, or has indirectly something to do with the satisfaction of a need.
    • p. 78.
  • A conflict is to be characterized psychologically as a situation in which oppositely directed, simultaneously acting forces of approximately equal strength work upon the individual.
    • p. 122.
  • Accordingly, three fundamental types of the conflict situation are possible.
    i. The individual stands between two positive valences of approximately equal strength (Fig. 7). An instance of this sort is that of Buridan's ass starving between two stacks of hay. In general this type of conflict situation is solved with relative ease. It is usually a condition of labile equilibrium.
    • p. 123.
  • The choice between two pleasant things is generally easier than that between two unpleasant unless questions are involved which cut deeply into the life of the individual. Such a conflict situation can upon occasion also lead to an oscillation between two attractions. It is of considerable importance that in these cases a decision between two attractions. It is of considerable importance that in these cases a decision or one goal alters its valence in such a way as to make it weaker than that of the renounced goal.
    • p. 123.

Principles of topological psychology, 1936[edit]

Kurt Lewin (1936) Principles of Topological Psychology. Transl. Fritz Heider & Grace M. Heider. New York: McGraw-Hill

  • The young mathematical disciple 'topology' might be of some help in making psychology a real science.
    • p. vii.
  • We know, since the theory of relativity at least, that empirical sciences are to some degree free in defining dynamical concepts or even in assuming laws, and that only a system as a whole which includes concepts, coordinating definitions, and laws can be said to be either true or false, to be adequate or inadequate to empirical facts. This "freedom," however, is a somewhat doubtful gift. The manifold of possibilities implies uncertainty, and such uncertainty can become rather painful in a science as young as psychology, where nearly all concepts are open and unsettled. As psychology approaches the state of a logically sound science, definitions cease to be an arbitrary matter. They become far-reaching decisions which presuppose the mastering of the conceptual problems but which have to be guided entirely by the objective facts.
    • p. viii.
  • Theoretical psychology in its present state must try to develop a system of concepts which shows all the characteristics of a Gestalt, in which any part depends upon every other part. As we do not yet have the knowledge of facts which really suffices to determine this system of concepts and as, on the other hand, this knowledge of "facts" cannot be acquired without developing this system of concepts, there seems to be only one way open: to proceed slowly by tentative steps, to make decisions rather reluctantly, to keep in view always the whole field of psychology, and to stay in closest contact with the actual work of psychological research.
    • p. viii.
  • In its present state of development psychology must be thought of as a young science. There is only one field in which it is relatively well established and in which it has advanced steadily: this is the psychology of sensation and perception. The scientific character of this field is fully recognized. Its findings are based almost entirely on experimental evidence, and even when its theories are in conflict one feels that as far as method is concerned it stands on relatively firm ground. The situation is different with the psychology of will, of needs, and of personality despite the fact that these fields have always attracted popular interest. As recently as fifteen years ago it was assumed that they, by their very nature, were not amenable to scientific methods. The little experimental work that had been done seemed too artificial and abstract to give an insight into the real processes. It was generally accepted that experimental investigations of these elusive and highly complicated processes were intrinsically impossible, at least in so far as human beings are concerned. Thus in Europe these problems were treated in a half-literary, half-philosophical way, and in America the tendency was to study individual differences by means of tests.
    • p. 3.
  • After this first approximation, the various aspects of the situation undergo a more and more detailed analysis. In contrast to this the second method [for analysis of life space] begins with the life space as a whole and defines its fundamental structure. The procedure in this case is not to add disconnected items but to make the original structure more specific and differentiated. This method therefore proceeds by steps from the more general to the particular and thereby avoids the danger of a "wrong simplification" by abstraction.
    • p. 4; partly cited in: Chris Argyris (1952) An introduction to field theory and interaction theory.
  • Even if all the laws of psychology were known, one could make a prediction about the behavior of a man only if in addition to the laws, the special nature of the particular situation were known.
    • p. 11.
  • We no longer seek the “cause” of events in the nature of a single isolated object, but in the relationship between an object and its surroundings.
    • p. 11.
  • In psychology one can begin to describe the whole situation by roughly distinguishing the person (P) and his environment (E). Every psychological event depends upon the state of the person and at the same time on the environment, although their relative importance is different in different cases.
    • p. 12.
  • At the present we have no adequate scientific method for representing the psychological life span. In accord with the general methods of psychology, the study of environmental influences began with classification and statistics... they gave us excellent descriptions of the home environment. The method of representation is partly akin to that of the novelist i.e., one trying to make as lifelike picture of the situation as possible by choosing expressive words and bringing out significant traits with examples. In general, the descriptions that have been made valuable to science have not been those made by scientific methods. Where theoretical concepts have been introduced with the concrete description, they often stand out as something alien. In stead of scientific descriptions they are nothing more than speculative interpretation.
    • p. 12-13.
  • A goal can play an essential role in the psychological situation without being clearly present in consciousness.
    • p. 19.
  • [Life space was defined as] the totality of facts which determine the behavior (B) of an individual (or group/organization) at a certain moment. The life space (L) represents the totality of possible events. The life space includes the person (P) and the environment (E). B = f(L) = f(P.E)
    • p. 216 as cited in: David Boje, Bernard Burnes, John Hassard (2012) The Routledge Companion to Organizational Change. p. 34.
  • [Lewin formally defines a Gestalt as:] a system whose parts are dynamically connected in such a way that a change of one part results in a change of all other parts.
    • p. 218, as cited in: Granville Stanley Hall, Edward Bradford Titchener, Karl M. Dallenbach (1937) The American journal of psychology. Vol. 50, p. 374.

Patterns of aggressive behavior in experimentally created “social climates”, 1939[edit]

Kurt Lewin, Ronald Lippitt, R.K. White (1939) "Patterns of aggressive behavior in experimentally created “social climates”]" in: The Journal of Social Psychology.

  • The present report is a preliminary summary on one phase of a series of experimental studies of group life which has as its aim a scientific approach to such questions as the following : What underlies such differing patterns of group behavior as rebellion against authority, persecution of a scapegoat, apathetic submissiveness to authoritarian domination, or attack upon an outgroup? How may differences in subgroup structure, group stratification, and potency of ego- centered and group-centered goals be utilized as criteria for predicting the social resultants of different group atmospheres? Is not democratic group life more pleasant, but authoritarianism more efficient?
    • p. 271.
  • The second experiment, with four leaders, makes possible a comparison of the authoritarianism and democracy of four different leaders, and the "laissez-faire" method of two different leaders. In two cases it is also possible to compare the same atmosphere, created by two different leaders with the same club. One other type of control seemed very important, the nature of the club activity, and the physical setting...
    • p. 272.


  • A business man once stated that there is nothing so practical as a good theory.
    • Lewin (1943, 118), as cited in Karl E. Weick, "Theory and practice in the real world." in: The Oxford Handbook of Organization Theory, Tsoukas et al. (eds.), ‎Oxford University Press, 2003, p. 460; Also in Lewin, K. (1951). Field theory in social science: Selected theoretical papers (D. Cartwright, Ed.). New York, NY: Harper & Brothers Publishers, p. 169.
  • One should view the present situation – the status quo – as being maintained by certain conditions or forces. A culture – for instance, the food habits of a certain group at a given time – is not a static affair but a live process like a river which moves but still keeps to a recognizable form...Food habits do not occur in empty space. They are part and parcel of the daily rhythm of being awake and asleep; of being alone and in a group; of earning a living and playing; of being a member of a town, a family, a social class, a religious group . . . in a district with good groceries and restaurants or in an area of poor and irregular food supply. Somehow all these factors affect food habits at any given time. They determine the food habits of a group every day anew just as the amount of water supply and the nature of the river bed determine the flow of the river, its constancy or change.
  • The life space... includes both the person and his psychological environment. The task of explaining behavior then becomes identical with (1) finding a scientific representation of the life space (LSp) and (2) determining the function (F) which links the behavior to the life space. This function (F) is what one usually calls a law... The novelist who tells the story behind the behavior and development of an individual gives us detailed data about his parents, his siblings, his character, his intelligence, his occupation, his friends, his status. He gives us these data in their specific interrelation, that is, as part of a total situation. Psychology has to fulfill the same task with scientific instead of poetic means.... The method should be analytical in that the different factors which influence behavior have to be specifically distinguished. In science, these data have also to be represented in their particular setting within the specific situation. A totality of coexisting facts which are conceived of as mutually interdependent is called a field. Psychology has to view the life space, including the person and his environment, as one field.
    • Kurt Lewin (1946) "Behavior and development as a function of the total situation". In K. Lewin (Ed.) Field theory in social science (pp. 238-305). New York: Harper & Row. p. 240 as cited in: John F. Kihlstrom (2013) "The Person-Situation Interaction"

Action research and minority problems, 1946[edit]

Kurt Lewin (1946) "Action research and minority problems". J Soc. Issues 2(4)

Planning starts usually with something like a general idea. For one reason or another it seems desirable to reach a certain objective, and how to reach it is frequently not too clear.
- Lewin, 1946, p. 37
  • The research needed for social practice can best be characterized as research for social management or social engineering. It is a type of action research, a comparative research of the conditions and effects of various forms of social action, and research leading to social action. Research that produces nothing but books will not suffice.
    • p. 35.
  • An attempt to improve intergroup relations has to face a wide variety of tasks. It deals with problems of attitude and stereotypes in regard to other groups and to one's own group, with problems of development of attitudes and conduct during childhood and adolescence, with problems of housing, and the change of the legal structure of the community; it deals with problems of status and caste, with problems of economic discrimination, with political leadership and with leadership in many aspects of community life. It deals with the small social body of a family, a club or a friendship group, with the larger social body of a school or a school system, with neighborhoods and with social bodies of the size of a community, of the state, a nation and with international problems.
    • p. 36.
  • Planning starts usually with something like a general idea. For one reason or another it seems desirable to reach a certain objective, and how to reach it is frequently not too clear. The first step then is to examine the idea carefully in the light of the means available. Frequently more fact-finding about the situation is required. If this first period of planning is successful, two items emerge: namely, an ‘over-all plan’ of how to reach the objective and secondly, a decision in regard to the first step of action. Usually this planning has also somewhat modified the original idea. The next period is devoted to executing the first step of the original plan.
    • p. 37.

Frontiers in group dynamics II, 1947[edit]

Kurt Lewin (1947) "Frontiers in group dynamics II. Channels of group life; social planning and action research". In: Human relations Vol I, nr. 3 pp. 143-153

  • A certain area within a channel may function as a “gate”; the constellation of the forces before and after the gate region is decisively different in such a way that the passing or not passing of the unit through the whole channel depends to a high degree upon what happens in the gate region. This holds not only for food channels but also for the travelling of a news item through certain communication channels in a group, for movement of goods, and the social locomotion of individuals in many organizations.
    • p. 145.
  • The survival and development of democracy depends not so much on the development of democratic ideals which are wide-spread and strong. Today, more than ever before, democracy depends upon the development of efficient forms of democratic social management and upon the spreading of the skill in such management to the common man.
    • p. 153.

Quasi-Stationary Social Equilibria and the Problem of Permanent Change, 1947[edit]

Kurt Lewin (1947) "Quasi-Stationary Social Equilibria and the Problem of Permanent Change". In: Human Relations in Curriculum Change. p. 39-44 (online experts)

  • The objective of social change might concern the nutritional standard of consumption, the economic standard of living, the type of group relation, the output of a factory, the productivity of an educational team. It is important that a social standard to be changed does not have the nature of a “thing” but of a “process.”.
    • p. 39.
  • Any planned social change will have to consider a multitude of factors characteristic for the particular case. The change may require a more or less unique combination of educational and organizational measures; it may depend upon quite different treatments or Ideology, expectation and organization. Still, certain general formal principles always have to be considered.
    • p. 39.
  • The study of the conditions for change begins appropriately with an analysis of the conditions for “no change,” that is, for the state of equilibrium.
    • p. 40.
  • For any type of social management, It is of great practical importance that levels of quasi-stationary equilibria can be changed in either of two ways: by adding forces in the desired direction, or by diminishing opposing forces.
    • p. 40.

Resolving social conflicts; selected papers on group dynamics, 1948[edit]

Kurt Lewin (1948) Resolving social conflicts; selected papers on group dynamics. Gertrude W. Lewin (ed). New York: Harper & Row, 1948.

  • To instigate changes toward democracy a situation has to be created for a certain period where the leader is sufficiently in control to rule out influences he does not want and to manipulate the situation to a sufficient degree. The goal of the democratic leader in this transition period will have to be the same as any good teacher, namely to make himself superfluous, to be replaced by indigenous leaders from the group.
  • A successful individual typically sets his next goal somewhat but not too much above his last achievement. In this way he steadily raises his level of aspiration... The unsuccessful individual on the other hand, tends to show one of two reactions: he sets his goal very low, frequently below his past achievement... or he sets his goals far above his abilities.
    • p. 133 as cited in: Roger Dale, Madeleine MacDonald, Geoff Esland (1976) Schooling & Capitalism: A Sociological Reader. p. 111.

Attributed to Kurt Lewin[edit]

  • If you want truly to understand something, try to change it.
    • Attributed to Kurt Lewin in: Charles W. Tolman (1996) Problems of Theoretical Psychology - ISTP 1995. p. 31.

Quotes about Kurt Lewin[edit]

  • In 1946, a Macy Foundation interdisciplinary conference was organized to use the model provided by "feedback systems," honorifically referred to in earlier conferences as "teleological mechanisms," and later as "cybernetics," with the expectation that this model would provide a group of sciences with useful mathematical tools and, simultaneously, would serve as a form of cross-disciplinary communication. Out of the deliberations of this group came a whole series of fruitful developments of a very high order. Kurt Lewin (who died in 1947) took away from the first meeting the term "feedback". He suggested ways in which group processes, which he and his students were studying in a highly disciplined, rigorous way, could be improved by a "feedback process," as when, for example, a group was periodically given a report on the success or failure of its particular operations.
    • Margaret Mead (1964) Continuities in Cultural Evolution, p. 272-273.

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