Kurt Lewin: Experiments, Theories & Contributions

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  • 0:05 Kurt Lewin and Social…
  • 1:00 Lewin and Behavior
  • 3:09 Three-Stage Theory of Change
  • 4:39 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nathan Kilgore

Nathan has taught college Psychology, Sociology, English, and Communications and has a master's degree in education.

Kurt Lewin contributed greatly to our understanding of behavior and group dynamics, utilizing gestalt theory and defining influences on behavior and change.

Kurt Lewin and Social Psychology

Social psychology is the scientific study of human interaction, and Kurt Lewin is considered by many to be the father of modern social psychology. Born in a middle-class family in Poland in 1890, Lewin would later serve in the German army during the first World War.

In the early 1920s, Lewin worked under Carl Stumpf at the University of Berlin. Lewin also worked closely with Wolfgang Kohler and Max Wertheimer, who were both prominent psychologists. In the early 1930s, Lewin moved to the United States and later went on to teach at Stanford, Cornell, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). While at MIT, Lewin established the Research Center for Group Dynamics. Lewin helped the world understand the social psychology of groups, experiential learning, action research, and many other elements of human behavior.

Lewin and Behavior

To understand Lewin and his contributions to psychology, it is critical first to understand Lewin's roots in gestalt theory. A gestalt is defined as a part of a whole.

For example, at times you might hear people talk about 'their' reality (representing a part), in contrast to 'the' reality (representing a whole). Their reality is comprised of their own set of rules, experiences, and truths. If a gestalt is a part of a whole, and in terms of the 'whole' reality that is said to exist, some suggest that each individual experiences their own 'part' of reality.

To Lewin, behavior was determined by a person defining reality and how that personal reality responded and interacted with others. Also, Lewin suggested behavior is driven by an individual's needs or underlying forces. Lewin believed another component that determines behavior was a person's 'life space.'

Can you remember a time when you were reading a book or watching a movie and your imagination was engaged as your mind traveled to another place? To Kurt Lewin, this place is part of your life space. These imaginative places, and also the places we physically go to (for example, the store, the movies, the library) make up our life space. Ultimately, our life space helps to form our perceptions and ultimately our behavior.

Continuing his focus on human behavior, Lewin grew specifically interested in identifying what produces behavior. He believed that behavior was rooted in the need to accomplish a goal. The goal in view was accomplished by using what Lewin referred to as 'field principles,' thus field theory. The following statements summarize field theory:

  • Field refers to life space, a person, and his or her behavioral environment.
  • Behavior is born out of the summation of coexisting facts.
  • Coexisting facts are interdependent, creating a field that is dynamic.
  • Behavior relies on the present, instead of the future (as with teleology) or the past (associationism).

Three-Stage Theory of Change

Kurt Lewin contributed greatly to our ideas of group dynamics and group management. Lewin crafted a theory of change, particularly helpful in leadership venues, and consists of three stages: unfreezing, change, and freezing.

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