The Echoes of the Mind (13-7) Kurt Lewin

Kurt Lewin

Our behavior is purposeful; we live in a psychological reality or life space that includes not only those parts of our physical and social environment to us but also imagined states that do not currently exist. ~ Kurt Lewin

German American psychologist Kurt Lewin was a colleague of Wertheimer and Köhler at the Berlin Psychological Institute after the 1st World War, and a professional friend of Koffka. Lewin found their Gestalt approach appealing.

Lewin thought that psychology at the time was too Aristotelian in seeking inner determinants of behavior, such as instinct, and in its focus on categorizing psychological traits and developmental stages.

Lewin preferred Galileo’s conception of causation: that the behavior of an object or organism was a product of the totality of forces acting upon it in the moment. To Lewin, dynamic forces, not inner essences, explain human behavior. Drawing from physics and mathematics, Lewin first published his psychological field theory in 1935.

Lewin thought of an individual as a complex energy field: a gyre of needs and tensions that directs perceptions and behaviors. From this he conceived of life space: the sum of all influences acting upon a person at a time. This included internal belief systems.

According to Lewin, an infant has a small life space. Development enlarges life space with greater differentiation.

Lewin believed that both biological and psychological needs create tension in life space that are resolved only by satisfaction of those needs. He termed psychological needs quasi needs.

Lithuanian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik found in 1927 that people remember more about unfinished tasks than completed ones. This came to be termed the Zeigarnik effect. Her explanation was that unfinished tasks remained with intention, thereby holding the associated tension.

A year after Zeigarnik did her research, Russian psychologist Maria Rickers-Ovsiankina, who was working with Lewin, discovered that people preferred resuming an interrupted task rather than continuing on a completed one: to resolve the tension, she hypothesized.

 Internal Conflict

Internal conflict was an old topic of contemplation by the time Lewin tackled it. Plato, Spinoza, and many others spilled much ink over it. Sigmund Freud made internal conflict the cornerstone of his psychoanalysis.

Lewin studied conflict experimentally, concentrating on 3 types. Approach–approach conflict comes from mutually exclusive desires. Avoidance–avoidance conflict comes when one is repelled by 2 unattractive outcomes, such as having an unpleasant task at work or facing disapproval from the boss for poor performance.

Approach–avoidance conflict comes in facing a situation with mixed feelings: where there are perceived pros and cons to either path. It is often the most difficult internal conflict to resolve.

 Group Dynamics

Lewin studied group dynamics. According to Lewin, a group could be considered a physical system, just as the brain is. In both cases, the behaviors of the individual elements were hypothesized to be determined by the configuration of the existing energy field. Therefore, group dynamics strongly influence individual members’ behaviors. Lewin termed the relations among group members dynamic interdependence.

In one study Lewin found that discussion groups were much more effective in changing behaviors than lecturing, even though the same materials were presented in both instances. Lewin concluded that more forces were made available for behavioral change in a discussion group.

Another study Lewin undertook was on leadership style and group performance. Boys were put into 1 of 3 groups by leadership type: democratic, autocratic, and laissez faire.

In the democratic group, the leader encouraged group discussion, with the boys participating in decision-making. In the authoritarian group, the leader made all the decisions, telling the boys what to do. The laissez-faire group lacked leadership, allowing the boys to do as they pleased.

The democratic group turned out to be friendly and productive. Autocracy instilled aggression. The laissez-faire group got little done. Lewin concluded that leadership style influenced the Gestalt of the group, which shaped the attitude and productivity of group members.