A Father of Modern Social Psychology

by Robert Kleiner and Gerry Kane

From the Summer 2015 issue of Jewish Currents

Kurt-Lewin1IF YOU GOOGLE “Kurt Zadek Lewin” (1890-1947), you will quickly learn that he is often referred to as the father of modern social psychology — and if you are in the habit of Googling people you want to know about, you are part of a rapidly changing world of social psychology that involves new and changing pathways of communication, about which Kurt Lewin would have had much to say.

Changes in social psychology and how people communicate are of particular interest to marketers who are trying to target a particular audience for a product or a political party. The insights of Kurt Lewin are therefore especially pertinent to those who use his “change management theory” to shape and exploit cultural change. But how do the business and marketing insights he’s remembered for today qualify him for inclusion within the pantheon of leftwing, secular Jewish figures?

Lewin was, in fact, a conscious secular Jew, steeped in Jewish culture and education, and a man of the left who organized and demonstrated against the threat of fascism in Germany and counted many German socialists among his close friends. In 1924-’25, as a founder of the “Free University” of Berlin, Lewin invited Albert Einstein to be a trustee, which the physicist “gladly” accepted. When the Society for Empirical Philosophy was founded in 1926 (also involving Einstein), Lewin was one of the first speakers invited to discuss his work in social psychology.

Also included in Lewin’s circle of radical friends was the great Jewish Soviet film director Sergei Eisenstein. In the 1920s, Lewin was known for his films showing the development of children at different ages, with a particular emphasis on their psychological (or cognitive) experience and their facial and bodily expressions. Eisenstein spent many hours with Lewin discussing these films, and was influenced by Lewin’s insights.

Lewin was the first member of the psychology faculty at the University of Berlin to resign in protest against the rise of Nazism, in 1933. Realizing there was no longer a place for him in German academia, he chose to come to America rather than moving to Palestine. Here he continued to make contributions to psychology that are alive and vibrant today.

When Lewin died at 57, he left a legacy of eight books and some eighty articles. He lived long enough to see the destruction of the Yiddish culture and communities of Eastern Europe, as well as the toppling of Nazism, but not long enough to see the formal establishment of the State of Israel. Nor did he live long enough to see his pioneering work in social psychology and group dynamics (he coined the phrase) become a modern touchstone among people seeking to understand and shape social behaviour. His phrase, “change management” is today used in businesses, universities, labor unions, and many other large organizations as they try to get their people to move constructively, with a minimum of friction, through a process of institutional change. Lewin understood the process of change as continuous, and his insights into how to apply this understanding practically — insights that he placed on a scientific footing with actual experiments, observations, and data — were of tremendous value in the organizational world.


THE JEWISH WORLD, in particular, was of special interest to Lewin as it endured many changes, even paradigm shifts, during his lifetime.

He was born in 1890 in Mogilno, Poland, into a Yiddish-speaking, progressive Zionist family. His parents, understanding the role of creativity in the development of children, wanted more for Kurt and his siblings than a shtetl school education and decided that Germany offered their children more than Poland. The family moved to Berlin in 1905, and Kurt became immersed in German education and society.

Lewin was keenly aware of the pressures exerted on Jews by assimilationist governmental decrees in both Poland and Germany, and of the many groups trying to separate Jews from their Jewishness and Judaism. Writing about these issues, he noted that in Poland, as a child, he was living within at least three overlapping, conflicting situations simultaneously: 1) pressures from the Prussian occupation government on Jews (and non-Jews) to Germanize and give up their ethnic identity, their Yiddish language, and their cultural values; 2) pressures to Polonize for the promised rewards of assimilation; and 3) internal Jewish communal conflicts about whether to maintain one’s identity, language (Yiddish) and cultural values.

The rewards of assimilation, theoretically, would be social acceptance, integration, equal access to education at all levels, skilled jobs and professions, places to live, and freedom to travel. In reality, these were never fully realized in Germany or Poland, but varied depending on those in power, their need for the skills of the Jewish people, and their tolerance for Jews and Judaism.

Lewin’s personal response to these pressures was to meet the world consciously and overtly as a Yiddish-speaking secular Jew while becoming a tremendously respected German academic, writer and intellectual. He enrolled in the University of Freiberg in 1909, graduated in time to join the German army in World War I, was wounded, and returned to civilian life and to his studies. He earned a Ph.D. from the University of Berlin in 1916.

His insights into Jewish education helped YIVO and other Jewish educational institutions set the highest programmatic standards for the education of Jewish children in Jewish schools. The goal of Lewin and YIVO was to graduate children from Jewish schools who would be comfortable in their own Jewish skins and culture, and not succumb to the assimilatory pressures placed on secular and cultural Jews in German and Polish society. Lewin was, in fact, one of the first people asked by Leibush Lehrer, a founder of YIVO, to give his insights on “raising the Jewish child,” “self-hate,” and Jewish marginality. Some of Lewin’s research on these questions, which still resonate today, was published in Yiddish, in 1930, in YIVO’s first volume on education. In 1946, the work was translated into English as Psychological Problems in Jewish Education.


LEWIN’S WAR EXPERIENCES in the German army, and the social turmoil engulfing Germany in the Weimar years, had a major impact on his thinking about social psychology — in particular, his understanding that our “individual characteristics and the environment interact to cause behavior.” Individuals behave differently, he observed, depending upon the tensions between self-perception and environmental conditions, including the “life spaces” (family, work, school) in which they found themselves. Such a concept contradicted much classic psychological theory, which did not make much of environmental factors in analyzing the motivation of individual behavior. Lewin’s synthesis of the nature vs. nurture debate was presented in a heuristic statement, expressed as a mathematical equation, perhaps the best-known equation in social psychology: B = ƒ (P, E), in which “B” is behavior and “f” is a person’s functioning, which consists of the person (“P”) in interaction with the environment (“E”).

His teachings in social psychology were strongly associated with gestalt theory, which views behavior as determined by, in his words, “the totality of coexisting facts which are conceived of as mutually interdependent.” Yet people with very different dispositions, he argued, can share common objectives and act together to achieve them. Their interdependence can shape the group into a “dynamic whole,” in which members participate and communicate more effectively, display less aggression, like each other more, and are more productive.

Jewish identity was a model of this for Lewin: “It is not similarity or dissimilarity of individuals that constitutes a group,” he wrote in 1939,

but rather interdependence of fate…. It is easy enough to see that the common fate of all Jews makes them a group in reality. One who has grasped this simple idea will not feel that he has to break away from Judaism altogether whenever he changes his attitude toward a fundamental Jewish issue, and he will become more tolerant of differences of opinion among Jews. What is more, a person who has learned to see how much his own fate depends upon the fate of his entire group will be ready and even eager to take over a fair share of responsibility for its welfare.

It was with the encouragement of Horace Kallen, an American Zionist, socialist, and philosopher (who coined the phrase “cultural pluralism”) that Lewin chose to come to take a post at Cornell University rather than at the Hebrew University in Palestine. (When Lewin was considering the latter, he proposed a research institute for developing a progressive state that would include Jews and Palestinians working together.) Lewin then moved from Cornell to the University of Iowa, where he helped shape the Child Welfare Research Station. In the 1930s, Lewin had studied three classic group leadership models — democratic, autocratic and laissez-faire — and concluded that even among children there was more group cohesion, creativity, and friendliness in democratically run groups. “There have been few experiences for me as impressive as seeing the expression in children’s faces change during the first day of autocracy,” Lewin wrote. “The friendly, open, and cooperative group, full of life, became, within a short half-hour, a rather apathetic-looking gathering without initiative. The change from autocracy to democracy seemed to take somewhat more time than from democracy to autocracy. Autocracy is imposed upon the individual. Democracy he has to learn.” These insights helped shape his work at the University of Iowa.

During his stay there he also helped establish a secular Yiddish school that served both faculty families and families in the general community. The school had Yiddish, Hebrew, and literature as its foci.


HIS NEXT MOVE was to MIT, where he established the Research Center for Group Dynamics and pursued three major subjects for research: how to improve the effectiveness of community leaders; how to best facilitate contact between persons from different groups; and how to produce in minority-group members an increased sense of belonging, improved personal functioning, and better relations with individuals of other groups. This last topic, especially, gave rise to “sensitivity training” as a strategy for effectively managing racial and religious prejudice.

Two examples of his work at MIT are described by Julie Greathouse (at the Muskingum University website). In one, “religious services had been disturbed on Yom Kippur by a gang of Italian Catholics.” Lewin brought together a religiously and racially mixed group of workers.

The group’s first action was to get the four young men who were arrested for the crime put into the custody of local priests and the Catholic Big Brothers. Next, they involved as many community members as possible to make improvements more likely. It was decided that the act was not one of anti-Semitism, but one of general hostility. Likewise, it was not a problem that could be solved by sending the men to jail. The solution was to eliminate the frustrations of community life by establishing better housing, enhancing transportation, and building recreational facilities. These would allow members of different backgrounds and groups to integrate.

Plans to improve the community’s facilities, writes Greathouse, were put into motion. The gang members were kept in contact, and within a year, “conditions had improved greatly. While there was no reported change in racist or anti-Semitic attitudes, aggression towards blacks and Jews ceased.”

In another instance, some department stores were not hiring black personnel because of fears that white customers would object. Lewin’s team interviewed customers who had dealt with both black clerks and white clerks. The twelve who responded in a prejudiced manner were asked if they would continue to shop at a particular store if there were black salespeople. Although five said no, they had already been observed shopping at a counter with a black salesperson — and the rest said they would still shop at the department store. “It was concluded,” Greathouse writes, “that even if a customer [was] prejudiced, it did not influence where they shopped, or who they purchased goods from… Therefore, fear of sales declining was not supported by the evidence.” (These and other examples of Lewin’s research can be explored at infed, among other websites.)

The social elements of Lewin’s psychological insights, as well as his scientific creativity, attracted many Soviet students who became his students at the University of Berlin. Five of his first six doctoral students were Soviet Jewish women who had come to Berlin with other academic interests. Amongst the pedagogues in the Soviet Union who became his friends and were influenced by his insights were Lev Vygotski, who became a pioneer of educational psychology, and Alexander Luria, a pioneer of multiculturalism.

Today, Lewin is accepted as the key pioneer of an entire psychology discipline. He should also be viewed as one of the secular Jewish movement’s 20th-century heroes.


Robert Kleiner received his Ph.D from the University of Pennsylvania in Social Psychology, trained in the tradition of Kurt Lewin’s Field Theory. He has been an active leader in the Sholom Aleichem Club and the Conference of Secular Jewish Organizations, and chaired the board and curriculum committee of the Jewish Children’s Folkshule in Philadelphia. His academic interests include the history of the Jewish people, and he is currently working on a biography of Kurt Lewin.

Gerry Kane, a graduate of the secular Morris Winchevsky Yiddish School in Toronto, spent most of his career as the creative director and president of some of Canada’s largest advertising agencies. He specialized in social marketing. Kurt Lewin’s change management theories were an important part of that work. Gerry was a founder of the Secular Jewish Association in Toronto, chair of the Yiddish Committee of the Canadian Jewish Congress, and the Yiddish columnist for the Canadian Jewish News.