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Kurt Lewin Biography (1890-1947)

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Kurt Lewin

Kurt Lewin

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"There is nothing so practical as a good theory."
--Kurt Lewin

Best Known For:

Timeline of Events:

  • Born on September 9, 1890
  • 1914 - Joined the German army.
  • 1916 - Earned a Ph.D. from the University of Berlin.
  • 1921 - Became a lecturer at the Psychological Institute of the University of Berlin.
  • 1932 - Emigrated to the United States.
  • 1935 - Became a professor at the University of Iowa; published A Dynamic Theory of Personality.
  • 1944 - Established research center at MIT.
  • Died at age 57 on February 12, 1947 of a heart attack.

Kurt Lewin's Early Life:

Born in Prussia to a middle-class Jewish family, Kurt Lewin moved to Berlin at the age of 15 to attend the Gymnasium. He enrolled at the University of Frieberg in 1909 to study medicine before transferring to the University of Munich to study biology. He eventually completed a doctoral degree at the University of Berlin.

He originally began his studies with an interest in behaviorism, but he later developed an interest in Gestalt psychology. He volunteered for the German army in 1914 and was later injured in combat. These early experiences had a major impact on the development of his field theory and later study of group dynamics.


In 1921, Kurt Lewin began lecturing on philosophy and psychology at the Psychological Institute of the University of Berlin. His popularity with students and prolific writing drew the attention of Stanford University, and he was invited to be a visiting professor in 1930. Eventually, Lewin emigrated to the U.S. and took a teaching position at the University of Iowa, where he worked until 1944.

While Lewin emphasized the importance of theory, he also believed that theories needed to have practical applications. He began applying his research to the war effort, working for the U.S. government. Lewin also established the Group Dynamics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the National Training Laboratories (NTL). Lewin died of a heart attack in 1947.


Field Theory
Influenced by Gestalt psychology, Lewin developed a theory that emphasized the importance of individual personalities, interpersonal conflict and situational variables. Lewin's Field Theory proposed that behavior is the result of the individual and the environment. This theory had a major impact on social psychology, supporting the notion that our individual traits and the environment interact to cause behavior.

The Lewin, Lippitt, and White Study
In this study, schoolchildren were assigned to either authoritarian, democratic or laissez-fair leadership groups. It was demonstrated that democratic leadership was superior to authoritarian and laissez-faire leadership. These findings prompted a wealth of research on leadership styles.

Contributions to Psychology:

Kurt Lewin contributed to Gestalt psychology by expanding on gestalt theories and applying them to human behavior. He was also one of the first psychologists to systematically test human behavior, influencing experimental psychology, social psychology and personality psychology. He was a prolific writer, publishing more than 80 articles and eight books on various psychology topics. Many of his unfinished papers were published by his collegues after his sudden death at age 56.

Lewin is known as the father of modern social psychology because of his pioneering work that utilized scientific methods and experimentation to look as social behavior. Lewin was a seminal theorist whose enduring impact on psychology makes him one of the preeminent psychologists of the twentieth century.

Selected Publications by Kurt Lewin:

  • Lewin, K. (1935) A dynamic theory of personality. New York: McGraw-Hill.

  • Lewin, K. (1936) Principles of topological psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill.

  • Lewin, K. (1951) Field theory in social science; selected theoretical papers. D. Cartwright (ed.). New York: Harper & Row.
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