Kurt Lewin (1890-1947)

Social psychologist working on group dynamics and "field theory"

Updated: November 27, 2012

Kurt Lewin was a social psychologist whose work was influential for theories of persuasion in marketing. Lewin, born in Posen in 1890, studied psychology in Berlin with Wilhelm Stumpf. During the interwar years, Berlin was one of the centers of emerging Gestalt psychology, but Lewin was more interested in motivations than perception, which made his work influential for market researchers such as Paul Lazarsfeld, who were interested in the motivations behind purchasing acts. Lewin became a pioneer of “field theory,” expanding behaviorist stimulus-response models by considering the “field” (understood as “a totality of existing facts” or “lifespace”) and the psychological environment within which perception took place. 

After immigrating to the United States, Lewin was able to build on this work. He had been to the US in 1929 as a participant at the International Congress of Psychologists at Yale and in 1932 he was a visiting professor at Stanford University. Between 1933 and 1935 he worked at Cornell University before moving into a more permanent position at the Iowa Child Welfare Research Station. During World War II, Lewin was part of a research group studying consumer motivation in food consumption. This research focused on changing consumption habits under conditions of scarcity and rationing, e.g. persuading women, as household “gatekeepers” to prepare less popular cuts of meat or liver and kidney. In 1944, Lewin started the Research Center on Group Dynamics at MIT, which after his death in 1947 merged with the Survey Research Center at the University of Michigan where George Katona, another émigré, was conducting research on the intersection of psychology and economics. 

During the 1930s, Lewin’s work went beyond motivations and focused increasingly on the group dynamics of persuasion and attitude change as well as the role of leadership in group decision making. His work on “gatekeepers” and group persuasion dynamics had several applications, including nascent efforts in direct marketing. Lewin’s research proved interesting for advertisers and for companies who employed consumers in marketing their product (e.g. Tupperware parties). Along with Gestalt psychologists, Lewin has been credited with contributing to the “cognitive revolution” in market research during the postwar years. 

Selected Publications

Lewin, Kurt. “Group Decision and Social Change” in Readings in Social Psychology edited by E. Maccoby, E. Newcomb and E. Hartley, 265-84. New York: Holt, 1948.

Lewin, Kurt and Martin Gold. The Complete Social Scientist: A Kurt Lewin Reader. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 1999.

Selected Bibliography

Chaffee, Steven and Everett Rodgers. The Beginnings of Communication Study in America: A Personal Memoir by Wilbur Schramm. Thousand Oaks: Sage, 1997.

Kassarijian, Harold. Scholarly Traditions and European Roots of American Consumer Research. Boston: Kluwer, 1993.

Marrow, Alfred. The Practical Theorist: The Life and Work of Kurt Lewin. New York: Basic Books, 1969.

Archival Collections

Kurt Lewin Papers, Archives of the History of American Psychology, University of Akron, Akron, OH.

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MLA Style

"Kurt Lewin," Transatlantic Perspectives, 2021, Transatlantic Perspectives. 17 Apr 2021 <http://www.transatlanticperspectives.org/entry.php?rec=17>

APA Style

"Kurt Lewin." (2021) In Transatlantic Perspectives, Retrieved April 17, 2021, from Transatlantic Perspectives: http://www.transatlanticperspectives.org/entry.php?rec=17