Lewin, Kurt

Lewin, Kurt (1890-1947), a German-born American psychologist, developed the field theory of behavior and helped found modern experimental social psychology.

Kurt Zadek Lewin was born Sept. 9, 1890, in Mogilno, Prussia (now in Poland), the son of a Jewish shopkeeper. At 15, Lewin moved with his family to Berlin. After graduating from the gymnasium (preparatory school) there, he studied at the universities of Freiburg and Munich before enrolling at the University of Berlin. There he explored philosophy and the method of science. He completed a doctorate while working at the University's Psychological Institute. His service in the German Army during World War I (1914–1918) led to his paper suggesting that the same objects were perceived differently during peacetime than during wartime. This publication was his first venture into what Lewin later called “life space.” According to Lewin's field theory of behavior, human behavior can be understood and predicted only by examining how a person experiences a given environment, or “field.” His equation, Bf(PE), summarizes his belief that behavior is a function of the person and the environment.


Following the war, Lewin returned to the Psychological Institute, where he rose to the highest faculty rank possible and attracted talented international students. His work, particularly as it applied to child psychology, became known in America. In 1933, after Hitler's rise to power, Lewin left Germany for the United States and became a U.S. citizen in 1940. Lewin's American research focused on group dynamics as he broadened his field theory beyond individual psychology to include the effects of groups on their members' behavior. His studies led Lewin to conclude that small groups operated most successfully when they were democratically conducted.

Although he died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 57, Lewin played a significant role in shaping contemporary psychology. Lewin's field theory still influences such fields as business management, social reform, communication, and education.