Thursday, April 14, 2016

L is for Kurt Lewin

Wilhelm Wundt may have been the first to use the term "social psychology" and Floyd Allport may have been the first to identify it as the study of groups, but Kurt Lewin is widely recognized as the father of modern social psychology. His ideas continue to influence the field, and even other fields, and they manage to be both revolutionary and easy-to-understand. In short, Kurt Lewin is awesome.

And there is nothing so practical, when teaching about theory, as a great quote about the importance of theory.

Born in Prussia and educated in Germany, Lewin came to the United States in 1933 (where he changed the pronunciation of his name from Leh-veen to Lou-win), fleeing Jewish persecution. During his career, he worked at Cornell University, the University of Iowa, MIT, and Duke, and he founded the National Training Laboratories, at Bethel, Maine. Among his contributions are the concepts of "action research" (which he defined as "a comparative research on the conditions and effects of various forms of social action and research leading to social action"), applied research (that is, research that examines real-world issues, rather than theoretical research), "genidentity" (the multiple phases, or identities, of an object across time - a concept used in theories of space-time), and sensitivity training (an intervention to combat religious and racial prejudice).

But perhaps his strongest contribution has to do with what is known as the nature versus nurture debate. From its beginnings, psychology was the study of what makes a person the way they are, that is, understanding their thoughts, feelings, and actions. Some psychologists, such as the psychoanalysts, believed that the person was a product of his/her experiences - that is, to understand the current person, you had to know something about his/her past. Others, such as the behaviorists, believed people were shaped entirely by their experiences - specifically, reinforcements and punishments that shape behavior.

Then Lewin published his formula:
B = f(P, E)
Specifically, behavior is a function of person and environment, or person in the environment. This simple formula speaks volumes about human behavior. First of all, it slices through the nature-nurture debate by establishing the person-environment interaction, essentially saying "it's a bit of nature and a bit of nurture." But most importantly, it was revolutionary in its assertion that human behavior could be determined entirely by the situation. The situation exerts a powerful influence on us, sometimes even making us behave in ways that are completely contrary from how we usually behave. Taken to its extreme, some psychologists completely deny the existence of personality, instead highlighting that we behave in very unique ways depending on the situation and the specific social role we play in that situation.

Lewin's equation also sets the stage for a concept called multifinality - that is, how people in similar situations could arrive at different outcomes. This is because of the interaction with person; because of this interaction, no environment is the same for any two people. Reality is determined by the person perceiving it, a concept known as psychological reality.

He extended this work when he developed the force-field model, in which the person is at the center of the life space, with forces (often social) exerting influence on the person as either helping forces or hindering forces.

Lewin's ideas continue to influence the field, and his focus on the importance of applied psychological research definitely shaped my education. I usually tell people my PhD is in social psychology; this isn't a lie, but technically, my degree is in applied social psychology. In addition to learning about theory, methods, and statistics, we took courses in applied topics (such as the law, politics, and so on) and were encouraged to seek out internships and research opportunities that tackled real-world issues. I would like to think the existence of such a program is an extension of Lewin's legacy.

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