Kurt Lewin: The Founder of Social Psychology


Kurt Levin (1890 – 1947) was a German and American psychologist who was one of the founders of social psychology. He laid the foundations or developed many areas of this science. Kurt Levin was born in the Polish city of Mogilno; he came from a Jewish family. Nevertheless, in the First World War he fought in the German army, where he was wounded. After demobilization, he studied at the University of Berlin (Nistelrooij, 2018). After the Nazis came to power, Kurt Levin emigrated to the United States, where he continued his scientific activities.

During his not very long life, Kurt Levin managed to transform modern psychology and sociology. It was he who introduced many concepts that are now considered fundamental in psychological research and practice. Among these concepts are group dynamics, the level of claims, game situations, the pursuit of success and the avoidance of failure, field theory. Kurt Levin focused on the study of personality motivations, which before him almost did not attract the attention of psychologists.

Kurt Levin’s Field Theory

The fact that a person’s environment, including social, affects a person’s behavior and fate, Kurt Levin observed as a child. Being orthodox Jews, his parents gave him the Jewish name Zadek. However, they understood that in a German environment, and even in conditions of anti-Semitic prejudice, it would not be easy for a person with such a name to settle in life. Therefore, they gave him a second name, German – Kurt, which later became the main one for him. If it was not for this name, Levin’s fate would most likely have turned out quite differently.

The field theory created by Kurt Levin asserts that a person lives and develops in a psychological field consisting of surrounding objects. Each object has a certain value for a person and encourages certain actions (Langemeyer, 2017). Objects begin to have a particularly strong influence on a person’s behavior when he does not have a clearly defined goal of action. In accordance with this, human behavior can be divided into volitional, conditioned by internal motives, and field, that is, caused by the influence of external objects.

Levin’s followers studied field behavior and even discovered a mental illness in which field behavior becomes the only possible one. This disease is associated with damage to the frontal lobes of the brain, as a result of which the ability to arbitrary behavior decreases (Langemeyer, 2017). A person suffering from this disease tends to manipulate absolutely all the surrounding objects that they can touch. Modern researchers of field behavior often use special diagrams; they depict the forces contributing to the change of the situation and the forces resisting this change. Such diagrams allow predicting the outcome of events – for example, in negotiations.

Experiments Conducted by The Psychologist

To confirm his theory, Kurt Levin conducted an experiment: the subject was called to the laboratory ostensibly to check his intelligence or memory. After that, the instructor said that he urgently needed to go out for a couple of minutes – to call. The instructor went out and, through a special glass, invisible in the laboratory, observed the behavior of the subject. It turned out that all the participants of the experiment, being alone in the room, began to perform some actions with the surrounding objects: leafing through books, touching the closet, curtain, etc.

The experiment showed how strongly the surrounding objects could influence the behavior and perception of an individual if they are not doing something important at that moment. A person can get into such a situation even suddenly, finding themselves in an unfamiliar environment (Burnes & Bargal, 2017). Thus, with the help of simple techniques, one can manipulate people’s behavior. These techniques may well be used, for example, by marketers. The practical application of the results of this experiment is shopping. Visitors to a large shopping center walk aimlessly around it, relax, along the way, they look at the product, pick it up, examine it, and can even buy some goods. That can happen even if before visiting this store the person had no intention to buy this product.

Other experiments have demonstrated that a person remembers events associated with incomplete actions more easily than with completed ones. A student of Kurt Levin, Bluma Zeigarnik, recalled how once in a restaurant he called a waiter who had not yet completed an order and asked what exactly these people had ordered (Burnes & Bargal, 2017). The waiter accurately reproduced the entire list of dishes; after a while, Levin called the waiter again and asked what the couple who was leaving the restaurant at the moment had ordered. The waiter could remember almost nothing, although he approached this couple several times in a row. This case gave rise to the hypothesis that the need to perform some actions generates tension that stimulates the memorization of the task. And when the task is completed, the tension disappears, so that the need to remember it becomes irrelevant. This is how the brain optimizes internal resources; later, Zeigarnik experimentally proved this theory.

In general, Kurt Levin was the first psychologist who discovered the possibility of conducting psychological experiments. Before that, it was believed that an experiment in psychology could not exist since the psyche is not a material object that could be manipulated. Kurt Levin showed that manipulations in the experiment could be subjected to a carrier of the psyche, that is, a person. Kurt Levin was also one of the first psychologists who actively engaged in group psychology. The experience of the First World War again pushed him to study group behavior and group therapy. Kurt Levin noticed that the above-mentioned changes in perception do not appear in some individual soldiers but in all at once. Subsequently, Levin came to the conclusion that it is easier to change the behavior of a whole group of people than to work with each one individually.

The scientist conducted one of these group sessions in practice. During World War II, the US government asked him to come up with a way to convince Americans to switch from white bread to black bread. And Kurt Levin coped with this task – with the help of certain techniques, he achieved that black bread became fashionable in the USA. He came to the conclusion that people are most willing to abandon their previous consumer habits when they are encouraged to shout about it at crowded rallies.

Types of Leadership

Kurt Levin also studied leadership behavior. He put forward the theory that leadership behavior can be of three types – authoritarian, democratic, and liberal. The scientist found out through the experiment which of the types is the most effective. He divided a large number of ten-year-old boys into three groups, each of which was headed by an adult (Bakaria et al., 2017). Under the guidance of this leader, the boys performed various tasks. And each leader used some separate type of leadership in his behavior.

Under the authoritarian type, the leader alone set goals and methods to achieve them, and the members of the group only followed their orders. This option allowed solving the maximum number of tasks, but the boys did not have motivation, group thinking, an original approach to tasks, friendliness, they showed aggressiveness towards each other and the leader. Under the democratic type, the leader kept key positions with them, but gave some freedom to the boys, gave them the right to participate in management. Tasks were performed somewhat less, but in such a team, there were optimal conditions for a fruitful group activity, the boys could realize their potential, express themselves, contributing to the common cause.

Under the liberal type, the leader took minimal part in the management, and the children had complete freedom of action. It turned out that this type of management significantly reduced both the number of completed tasks and the quality of their execution (Bakaria et al., 2017). As a result, the scientist came to the conclusion that the democratic principle of governance is the most optimal. The children who participated in the experiment also agreed with this.

While studying leadership, Levin was able, with the support of the government, to create experimental laboratories in which it was planned to educate future leaders of the country. He never managed to finish his work because he died of a serious illness. However, Levin sought to work not only with potential leaders of the state; his main goal was to change the whole society for the better, to humanize it, and for this, he planned to conduct group trainings.


Bakaria, H., Hunjrab, A. I., & Masood, M. T. (2017). Managing organizational change in Pakistan: Insights from the work of Kurt Lewin. Journal of Management Sciences, 1(9), 53-64.

Burnes, B., & Bargal, D. (2017). Introduction: Kurt Lewin: 70 years on. Journal of Change Management, 17(2), 1-18.

Langemeyer, I. (2017). The field concept in psychology, gestalt theory, physics, and epic theatre – Brecht’s adaptations of Kurt Lewin. Journal of New Frontiers in Spatial Concepts, 9(8), 1-16.

Nistelrooij, A. T. M. (2018). Coping with uncertainty during change: A relational approach inspired by Kurt Lewin. Challenging Organisations and Society, 7(1), 1270-1280.

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PsychologyWriting. (2022) 'Kurt Lewin: The Founder of Social Psychology'. 13 October.


PsychologyWriting. 2022. "Kurt Lewin: The Founder of Social Psychology." October 13, 2022. https://psychologywriting.com/kurt-lewin-the-founder-of-social-psychology/.

1. PsychologyWriting. "Kurt Lewin: The Founder of Social Psychology." October 13, 2022. https://psychologywriting.com/kurt-lewin-the-founder-of-social-psychology/.


PsychologyWriting. "Kurt Lewin: The Founder of Social Psychology." October 13, 2022. https://psychologywriting.com/kurt-lewin-the-founder-of-social-psychology/.