Social Equilibria and the Problem of Permanent Change
6 in "Human Relations in Curriculum
Change" (pages 39-44)
Kurt Lewin, “Group Decision and Social Change”)
In Readings in Social Psychology by
Theodore M. Neweomb and Eugene L. Hartley, Co-Chairmen of
Editorial Committee, Henry Holt and Co., 1947, pp. 340-44)
The intentional process of radical social change demands
continual tension or crisis. These may be spontaneous
or manufactured. This book helped lay the foundation for the
psycho-social strategies that have transformed education and
culture around the world. Based on the research begun at Tavistock
(England), continued at the Frankfurt Institute (Germany)
then moved to MIT, Columbia University, Stanford and various
tax-funded "Educational Laboratories" after World War
II, it established the strategies for brainwashing that now
permeate our schools, media and organizations.
Brainwashing in America
The Objective of Change.
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.” A certain standard of consumption, for instance,
means that a certain action—such as making certain decisions,
buying, preparing, and canning certain food in a family—occurs
with a certain frequency within a given period.
Similarly, a certain type of group relations means that within
a given period certain friendly and hostile actions and reactions
of a certain degree of severity occur between the members
of two groups. Changing group relations or changing consumption
means changing the level at which these multitude of events
proceed. In other words, the “level” of consumption, of friendliness,
or of productivity Is to be characterized as the aspect of
an ongoing social process.
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.
The Conditions of a Stable Quasi-stationary Equilibrium.
of the conditions for change begins appropriately with an
analysis of the conditions for “no change,” that is, for the
state of equilibrium.
From what has been just discussed, it is clear that by a state
of “no social change” we do not refer to a stationary but
to a quasi-stationary equilibrium; that Is, to a state comparable
to that of a river which flows with a given velocity in a
given direction during a certain time interval. A social change
Is comparable to a change in the velocity or direction of
of statements can be made in regard to the conditions of quasi-stationary
equilibrium. (These conditions are treated more elaborately
(A) The strength of forces which tend to lower that standard
of social life should be equal and opposite to the strength
of forces which tend to raise its level. The resultant of
forces on the line of equilibrium should therefore be zero.
(B) Since we have to assume that the strength of social forces
always shows variations, a quasi-stationary equilibrium presupposes
that the forces against raising the standard increase with
the amount of raising and that the forces against lowering
increase (or remain constant) with the amount of lowering.
This type of gradient which is characteristic for a “positive
central force field” has to hold at least In the neighborhood
of the present level...
(C) It is possible to change the strength of the opposing
forces without changing the level of social conduct. In this
case the tension (degree of conflict) increases.
Two Basic Methods of Changing Levels of Conduct.
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. [See Force
Field analysis] If a change from the level L1 to L [the
present to a new level] brought about by Increasing the forces
toward L2 (the new level] the secondary effects should be
different from the case where the same change of level is
brought about by diminishing the opposing forces.
In both cases the equilibrium might change to the same new
level. The secondary effect should, however, be quite different.
In the first case, the process on the new level would be accompanied
by a state of relatively high tension; In the second case,
by a state of relatively low tension. Since increase of tension
above a certain degree is likely to be paralleled by higher
aggressiveness, higher emotionality, and lower constructiveness,
It Is clear that as a rule the second method will be preferable
to the high pressure method.
The group decision procedure which is used here attempts
to avoid high pressure methods and is sensitive to resistance
to change. In the experiment by Bavelas on changing production
in factory work (as noted below), for instance, no attempt
was made to set the new production goal by majority vote because
a majority vote forces some group members to produce more
than they consider appropriate. These individuals are likely
to have some inner resistance. Instead a procedure was followed
by which a goal was chosen on which everyone could agree fully.
It is possible that the success of group decision and particularly
the permanency of the effect is, in part, due to the attempt
to bring about a favorable decision by removing counterforces
within the individuals rather than by applying outside pressure.
Social Habits and Group Standards.
Viewing a social stationary process as the result of a quasi-stationary
equilibrium, one may expect that any added force will change
the level of the process. The idea of “social habit” seems
to imply that, in spite of the application of a force, the
level of the social process will not change because of some
type of “inner resistance” to change. To overcome this inner
resistance, an additional force seems to be required, a force
sufficient to “break the habit,” to “unfreeze” the custom.
Many social habits are anchored in the relation between the
individuals and certain group standards. An individual P may
differ in his personal level of conduct. . . from the level
which represents group standards... by a certain amount. If
the individual should try to diverge “too much” from group
standards, he would find himself in increasing difficulties.
He would be ridiculed, treated severely and finally ousted
from the group. Most individuals, therefore, stay pretty close
to the standard of the groups they belong to or wish to belong
to. In other words, the group level itself acquires value.
It becomes a positive valence corresponding to a central force
field with the... [forces] keeping the individual in line
with the standards of the group.
Individual Procedures and Group Procedures of Changing Social
If the resistance to change depends partly on the value which
the group standard has for the individual, the resistance
to change should diminish if one diminishes the strength of
the value of the group standard or changes the level perceived
by the individual as having social value.
This second point is one of
the reasons for the effectiveness of “group carried” changes’
resulting from procedures which approach the individuals as
part of face-to-face groups. Perhaps one might expect single
individuals to be more pliable than groups of like-minded
individuals. However, experience in leadership training, in
changing of food habits, work production, criminality, alcoholism,
prejudices, all indicate that it is usual easier to change
individuals formed into a group than to change any one of
them separately.” As long as group standards are unchanged,
the individual will resist changes more strongly the farther
he is to depart from group standards. If the group standard
itself is changed, the resistance which is due to to relation
between individual and group standard is eliminated.
Changing as a Three-step Procedure: Unfreezing, Moving, and
Freezing of a Level.
A change toward a
higher level of group performance is frequently short lived:
after a “shot in the arm”, group life soon returns to the
previous level. This indicates that it does not suffice to
define the objective of a planned change in group performance
as the reaching of a different level. Permanency of the new
level, or permanency for a desired period, should be included
in the objective. A successful change includes therefore
UNFREEZING (if necessary) the present level . . .
MOVING to the new level . . . and
group life on the new level.
any level is determined by a force field, permanency implies
that the new force field is made relatively secure against
The “unfreezing” of the present level may involve quite different
problems in different cases. Allport” has described the “catharsis”
which seems to be necessary before prejudices can be removed.
To break open the shell of complacency and self-righteousness,
it is sometimes necessary to bring about deliberately an
emotional stir-up. .
The experiments on group decision reported here cover but
a few of the necessary variations. Although in some cases
the procedure is relatively easily executed, in others it
requires skill and presupposes certain general conditions.
Managers rushing into a factory to raise production by group
decisions are likely to encounter failure. In social management
as in medicine there are no patent medicines and each case
demands careful diagnosis.
One reason why group decision facilitates change is
illustrated by Willerman... . [His study dealt with an eating
cooperative that sought to change from white to whole wheat
bread] When a change was simply requested, the degree of eagerness
varied greatly with the degree of personal preference for
whole wheat. In case group decision, the eagerness seems to
be relatively independent of personal preference; the individual
seems to act mainly as a group member."
Kurt Lewin, “Group Decision and Social Change”
Dissatisfaction (a crisis) for social transformation and