"In the future history of our psychological era there are two names which, I believe, will stand out above all others: those of Freud and Lewin. Freud will be revered for his first unraveling of the complexities of the individual history, and Lewin for his first envisioning of the dynamic laws according to which individuals behave…" (E. C. Tolman, 1948, p. 4)

Kurt Lewin: Facts, thoughts, observations

Kurt Lewin was born in Prussia in 1890 and died in Massachusetts in 1947. He was married twice, with two children by each marriage. Already from these skeletal statistics, we notice that he was an émigré, that he was married more than once at a time when this was relatively unusual, and that he died young.

On looking further, a few pointers to a lifetime of achievement are noted. We learn that his parents moved from a small town to Berlin so, it is alleged, that Kurt and his brothers would have access to better schools (Marrow, 1969). We learn, but are perhaps not particularly surprised by, the fact that Lewin's cause of death at age 57 was heart failure.

A cue of less certain significance is that one daughter, Miriam, would become a psychologist. Does this suggest that Kurt was an exemplary parent, one whose achievements his daughter chose to emulate of her own unconstrained volition? Or, instead, was Kurt an oppressive father who stifled her daughter's inclinations to become her own person? Or should one reject evaluative characterizations of behavior such as these and seek a middle ground? We might hypothesize that Kurt, like all of us, selectively reinforced those things which were most important to him, and that Miriam, like many children of hardworking parents, was particularly sensitive to any way that she could make an impression on her father. But all of this is speculative, and, more problematic, a grotesque oversimplification of a life-shaping relationship between father and daughter. Ideally, it should be possible to psychologize without trivializing, to attempt to understand intrapsychic dynamics without reducing behavior to inappropriate generalities.

We can note, or begin to note, the impact of Judaism on Lewin's life and work. Lewin was Jewish. Following a visiting appointment at Stanford in 1932-33, Lewin returned to Germany to find Hitler as Chancellor. Lewin resigned immediately from the University of Berlin, saying he refused to serve at a university where his own child could not be a student (Marrow, 1969). But Lewin would meet anti-Semitism in the US as he did in Germany, and his life in Germany was not fully behind him. In the early war years he strove desperately but unsuccessfully to attain extradition from Germany for his mother, who would be murdered by Nazis. Other family members would also be killed. Throughout his life Lewin remained a Zionist, and dedicated his Principles of Topological Psychology to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

We can chronicle Lewin's intellectual sphere by noting those with whom he worked and met. Lewin's influences include Ernst Cassirer (Lewin, 1946) and the Gestaltists. Lewin met with Einstein on at least one occasion, possibly more (Marrow, 1969). Lewin was a major influence on E. C. Tolman, who played a seminal role in the explosive growth of cognitive psychology in the mid 20th century. But Lewin's impact was not restricted to psychology: Lewin worked closely with the anthropologist Margaret Mead during WWII on the American diet. About their collaboration, Mead says that Lewin helped her realize that their efforts to change the diet were based on a mistaken premise, that "…the question had been asked incorrectly, that we should not ask 'How can we change food habits?' but rather 'How do food habits change?'" (Mead 1954/1983, p. 162).

In each of these paragraphs, we develop our understanding of Lewin by looking at the social, intellectual, and familial forces around him. But there is a more direct approach to understanding Lewin, an approach which complements the description of these external influences. This is to examine Lewin's own achievements, and his own personality.

Lewin's studies were initially focussed in medicine and philosophy, then biology, finally psychology (though, it is said, always with a philosophical bent, ref). He earned his Ph.D. in Berlin at the tender age of 24. During World War I he earned the Iron Cross for his service in the German army. His major academic appointments included positions in Berlin (1921-1933), Iowa (1935-45), and, at the end of his life, MIT (1945-47). In addition, he held visiting appointments at Stanford, Cornell, Berkeley, and Harvard. In the years surrounding World War II, he was a consultant to a number of governmental organizations, including the Department of Agriculture, the Office of Strategic Services, the Public Health Service, and the Office of Naval Research. He was a member of many scientific organizations, and a founder of at least one, the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI).

Lewin is the single most important figure in the history of social psychology, and has been called the "George Washington" of the field (Oskamp, 1992). Historians of psychology typically describe the impact of important figures in one of two ways - some great figures can be said to found a psychological system, a single coherent approach to theory and experiment, while others impact the field in a less direct but often more lasting way by founding a school of psychological thought. Lewin's greatest impact on psychology was probably in the second of these. His impact on his students would be found in disparate strains of social psychology ranging from the descriptive (Barker, 19) to the experimental (Festinger, Schachter).

Those around him characterized Lewin as both childlike and charismatic. In his early years in America, Lewin could barely speak English, but was an energetic, excited communicator. In Allport's (1947) obituary, he described Lewin as an original genius, one whose discourse was characterized more by completeness than by internal consistency, as a hard worker, and as deeply devoted to making the world a better place. Lewin is said to have had "a sense of musical delight in ideas" (Eric Trist, in Marrow, p. 69). He was "playful," and "able to transmit to others a little of his own enormous creativity" (French, 1992). He infused others with his energy as well. He was, however, not a great listener, and became known for his accented dissent from the claim of a student "I sink absolute ozzer!" Taken literally, this suggests that Lewin can be seen as "disagreeable." But for me, this well-known quote illuminates a very different aspect of Lewin's character, and that is the teasing, playful relationship he maintained with his students. (One would be hard pressed to imagine a similar quote from a student of Titchener or MacDougall, for example).

Lewin's life can be understood, finally, from a more dialectic stance, as a tension between opposing forces, even as a balancing of these forces (Marrow, 1969). Lewin has been called "Autocratic in his insistence on democracy." His famous formula for framing behavior, that behavior is a function of the person and the environment, seems self-evident, but in fact is an attempt to reconcile two competing strains of modern psychology. He worked with brilliant and influential minds, yet was unable to obtain a prestigious position in the United States until 1945. He was energetic, congenial and hopeful, yet suffered terrible personal hardships, including his experience as a soldier in World War I, his failed first marriage, the distress of German reconstruction, and finally Nazism. And his best known quote is "there is nothing so practical as a good theory."

The role of description and observation in psychology

One less-known aspect of Lewin's life is that he was a filmmaker, with whom the Russian director Sergei Eisenstein would share a mutual influence (ref.). Lewin's own interest in film began as a hobby; later, Lewin used film as a tool to provide insight into behavior and to illustrate complex ideas. Among Lewin's films more substantial films is Das Kind und die Welt (The Child and the World) which was rediscovered in 1987 (vanElteren & Luck, ref.). In the United States, Lewin is also known for a short film which he showed during his first visits in the 1930s. In this film, a three-year-old girl is looking at a rock, which she evidently finds compelling, for she is unable to take her eyes off of it as she attempts to sit on it. Initially, she finds it impossible to simultaneously sit on and watch the rock - finally, she solves her dilemma by approaching the rock bent over, watching between her legs, as she scoots backwards towards it.

The film is charming because it provides a window onto interesting behavior. The behavior is interesting because it is a manifestation of a sort of benign conflict: The two ideas "watch the rock" and "sit on the rock" are both attractive to the girl, but they cannot be easily reconciled. Lewin would use topological diagrams to map and attempt to understand behavior such as this. In these diagrams, the life space of the person is described by a Jordan curve, an outer boundary which distinguishes the psychologically relevant (inside the curve) from the psychologically irrelevant (outside the curve). The study of such boundaries is in a sense the raison d'être for this course (i.e., it is the conjunction of the facts that boundaries are important in psychology, and topology is a formal language for understanding such boundaries which leads us to consider topological psychology).

Here, we can consider how we might model the behavior of the girl in a topological diagram. This model will have the following features: (1) the life space will include the girl and the rock, (2) the rock will be denoted by a positive valence (weight), signifying its attractiveness to the girl, (3) because the rock has a positive valence, the girl will be drawn towards it, (4) because the girl cannot (at first) simultaneously sit on and watch the rock, a barrier of sorts is imposed between the girl and the rock, and finally (5) this barrier or boundary is not impermeable, as ultimately the girl succeeds at this. These elements can be combined into a single diagram (see Figure 1).

Film was a useful medium for Lewin because of its value as a descriptive tool: If a still picture is worth a thousand words, a moving picture is surely worth a million. With this in mind, the class observed another psychological film, albeit not one of Lewin's.

A two year old goes to hospital

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, hospitals in both Europe and the United States maintained strict visiting hours, even on the children's wards. Visiting hours were maintained, in part, in order to keep children "settled." In settings such as hospitals and child-care facilities, even the casual observer will note that children appear most upset upon the departure of their families, and that after the family has gone, children appear relatively calm.

James and Joyce Robertson and their colleagues at the Tavistock clinic in London believed that the seeming comfort of children in situations such as these was illusory, that the children only appeared settled, and, that on closer examination, a deeper level of distress would be seen. For this reason, the Robertsons made a film of Laura, a two-year old girl, as she spent eight days in a children's ward for abdominal surgery. The class observed this film with the instructions to look for what was interesting, that is, to uncover the explicanda for the course, or to ask what aspects of human behavior are worth explaining? The classes perceptions of the film are given in the following table:

Things worth explaining in "A two year old goes to hospital"

On the first day, Laura eats more than usual.

On a number of occasions, Laura cries calmly.

On a number of occasions, Laura calmly asks for her mother.

On a number of occasions, Laura asks about and consoles other children on the ward.

In the first few days, Laura infers that others are distressed because their mothers aren't there.

Beginning on the third day, Laura is seen beating her teddy bear.

Laura plays more nicely while her mom is present.

Beginning on the third day, Laura turns away from her mother and father at times during their visits.

On the third or fourth day, Laura grabbed her father's tie to hold on to him.

On the third or fourth day, Laura appeared apathetic and inactive following her mother's departure and asks to go to sleep.

On the third or fourth day, Laura asked for her mother, but grabbed her father.

Laura offers the first biscuit to her mother

Repeatedly, Laura turned away from her mother before she would leave

Things worth explaining in "A two year old goes to hospital" (continued)

Laura appeared animated in reading her book when her mother is present, not when her mother is absent.

On several occasions, Laura was calm, uncomplaining, or minimally complaining on her mother's departure.

The mother appeared fearful of hospital rules and reluctant to touch Laura.

The mother said "Don't cry" to Laura

The nurse seemed oblivious to Laura's crying

On the fourth or fifth day, the mother did Laura's hair, appearing maternal yet not overtly affectionate.

On the fourth or fifth day, Laura wiped away her mother's kiss, appears unresponsive

On the fourth or fifth day, Laura asked for her father, and appeared more excited by his presence.

On the fourth or fifth day, Laura accepted her mother not taking Laura on to her lap.

Laura's crying appeared to be related to other kids' crying, i.e., P(Laura cries) = f (other kids' crying).

On the seventh day, Laura turned away before her mother left, but then went to the window to watch her mother's bus leave.

On the last (eighth) day, Laura remembered her mother's comment of 4 days earlier that "you can leave when your tummy is better."

The class responded with empathy to Laura's distress.


The psychologically interesting behaviors include not only Laura's actions, but those of the nurse, the mother and, indeed, the class itself. Of particular interest are the shaded events which are repeated manifestations of ambivalence in Laura's behavior: For example, she clearly wants her mother yet, when her mother is present, she often turns away. We can note, for now, two possible reasons for her turning away from her mother: (1) to make it less painful for herself and (2) to punish her mother. While it is difficult to disentangle these explanations, the episode on the seventh day (in which Laura ignored her mother as she left, then scampered to the window to watch her from afar) provided at least partial support for the second of these explanations.