In Chuck Palahniuk’s Invisible Monsters, he writes, “Nothing of me is original. I am the combined effort of everyone I’ve ever known.” As you learn about Lewin’s Field Theory, this sentiment will sound pretty familiar.
What Is Lewin’s Field Theory?
Invisible Monsters was not about Kurt Lewin or psychological theories, but this quote certainly speaks to what we’re going to talk about today. Although, if it was up to Lewin, this quote would be altered slightly. Lewin’s Field Theory suggests that you are a combination of everything you’ve ever known.
Lewin’s Field Theory Has Nothing to Do With Quantum Physics.
There are many “field theories” out there. Lewin’s Field Theory exists within the world of social psychology. It has nothing to do with quantum field theory or crystal field theory. Einstein’s Unified Field Theory may be similar to Lewin’s Field Theory in that it also suggests that “everything” is connected to each other, but most field theories exist within the world of physic, not psychology.
If you are interested in learning about social psychology, read on!
About Kurt Lewin
Kurt Lewin was a psychologist born in Poland in the late 1800s. He studied psychology in Germany and later emigrated to America. Working closely with Gestalt psychologists, he developed Field Theory and other ideas on change, education, and learning. Throughout his career, Lewin had a mission to use psychology as a way to understand and overcome prejudice. His work set the foundations for “sensitivity training.” Lewin also mentored Leon Festinger, who went on to develop Cognitive Dissonance Theory and Social Comparison Theory.
Lewin was also known for his work connecting the worlds of psychology, mathematics, and topography. Field Theory is also known as “Topological and Vector Psychology.”
Influence From Gestalt Theory
Lewin used concepts from Gestalt psychology to create Field Theory. Gestalt psychology was developed in the early 19th century and introduced new ideas about perception. At the time, structuralism was the dominant school in psychology. Structuralism attempted to break down the adult mind into each of its parts and analyze how these parts fit together.
But Gestalt psychologists were less interested in the individual “parts.” Gestalt Theory suggested that people perceived the “whole” over the individual parts. Today, Gestalt principles are still studied by designers, visual artists, and software developers who want to create a product or interface that is easy to understand.
Field Theory Concepts and Examples
Gestalt Theory can be summed up by saying “the whole is more than the sum of its parts.” Field Theory attempts to define this “whole” and apply these principles to a person or situation. It suggests that patterns should be studied between the individual and the field in which they exist.
Lewin also took inspiration from mathematics and physics to “map out” an individual’s field. (The field is also known as the environment.) Within an individual’s environment is all of the factors that may influence a person’s decisions or behaviors.
Examples of these factors include:
- Experience the individual has endured
- Media consumed
- People and ideas that the individual has come into contact with
- Understanding of social norms and rules
These fields may be similar from person to person, but no two fields will look exactly the same. Each environment is ultimately different, as it is made up of all of an individual’s experiences and feelings, many of which are unique to them.
Lewin believed that in order to analyze a person or a situation, the whole environment must be taken into account. Each experience, even those that may not seem relevant or significant, must be regarded as important. This means that a comment made by a passerby or a childhood birthday party may still contribute to an individual’s overall environment, and ultimately, behavior.
Lewin’s look at behavior varied from that of the behaviorists. He believed behavior was a function of a person’s “life-space,” demonstrated by the equation B = f (LS). The life-space accounts for all of the factors that influence a person’s decisions, including their perceptions of their experiences. These perceptions and interpretations will vary from person to person, as will the experiences that they perceive and interpret.
B = f (P,E)
Let’s break the equation down further. Lewin believed that the person and their environment ultimately determined the individual’s behavior, or B= f(LS) = F(P,E). I discussed the environment earlier in the video, but what exactly is the “person?”
Lewin used ideas from Gestalt Theory to define this term.
Examples of factors that make up the “person” include:
- The values or beliefs held by the individual
- Their perceptions and feelings toward certain experiences
- Abilities and skills
- Other characteristics and properties of the individual
- Motivations that move an individual toward one goal or another (also known as “vectors”)
The life-space is dynamic. Every day comes with new experiences. As an individual develops, learns, and changes, their “person” will change and mold their life-space.
The interaction between the person and what they’ve experienced will ultimately determine their behavior.
Life-Space in Kurt Lewin’s Words
Here’s what Kurt Lewin had to say about the life-space in his book Field Theory as a Social Science:
“The life space… includes both the person and his psychological environment. The task of explaining behavior then becomes identical with (1) finding a scientific representation of the life space (LSp) and (2) determining the function (F) which links the behavior to the life space. This function (F) is what one usually calls a law… The novelist who tells the story behind the behavior and development of an individual gives us detailed data about his parents, his siblings, his character, his intelligence, his occupation, his friends, his status. He gives us these data in their specific interrelation, that is, as part of a total situation. Psychology has to fulfill the same task with scientific instead of poetic means….
The method should be analytical in that the different factors which influence behavior have to be specifically distinguished. In science, these data have also to be represented in their particular setting within the specific situation. A totality of coexisting facts which are conceived of as mutually interdependent is called a field. Psychology has to view the life space, including the person and his environment, as one field.“
Goals, Barriers, Conflicts
According to Lewin, an individual’s environment was not just a collection of experiences. Maps of a person’s environment may also include their goals and any barriers that prevent them from reaching their goals. These goals may include things that the individual wants to achieve (positive valence) or goals that include things that the individual is trying to avoid (negative valence.)
Until that goal is achieved, the individual may feel tension. Until the goal is reached and the attraction to that goal is satisfied, that tension will still exist. Lewin believed that this tension is especially memorable. An unfinished task surrounded by tension, for example, is more likely to stick out in someone’s mind than a finished task without any tension.
As a person overcomes certain barriers or conflicts, their life-space will continue to mold and change.
Kurt Lewin’s Other Contributions to Social Psychology
Until Field Theory, psychologists focused more on an individual’s behavior and how it could be understood or altered. Lewin was one of the first psychologists to examine how individuals interacted with their environments and each other. For this reason, he is considered the “father” of social psychology.
Throughout his development of Field Theory and other ideas, Lewin brought ideas from mathematics and science into the world of psychology. He was one of the first psychologists to pull ideas from the scientific method and apply them to social psychology. Rather than observing individuals and their interactions, he controlled elements of the environment and pioneered the way that psychologists conducted experiments.
Lewin’s contributions to the world of psychology are numerous. Without his work and the ideas within Field Theory, the world of social psychology would probably look drastically different.
Change Theory vs. Field Theory
Kurt Lewin’s Field Theory is arguably his most well-known contribution to social psychology, but he also developed Change Theory. Kurt Lewin’s Change Theory is quite different from field theory, in that it tries to explain how we can reject and replace the information that we have learned. Lewin developed an unfreeze-change-refreeze model that instructs individuals and teams on how to change their thinking and behavior. You can learn more about this theory here!
Kurt Lewin Quotes From Field Theory in Social Science
Interested in reading more about field theory? Borrow Field Theory in Social Science from your local library. Here are some notable quotes from the book:
On Proposing a New Theory
- “The history of acceptance of new theories frequently shows the following steps: At first the new idea is treated as pure nonsense, not worth looking at. Then comes a time when a multitude of contradictory objections are raised, such as: the new theory is too fancy, or merely a new terminology; it is not fruitful, or simply wrong. Finally a state is reached when everyone seems to claim that he had always followed this theory. This usually marks the last state before general acceptance.”
- “There is nothing so practical as a good theory.”
On the Impact of the Past
- “It has been frequently misunderstood and interpreted to mean that field theorists are not interested in historical problems or in the effect of previous experience. Nothing can be more mistaken. In fact, field theorists are most interested in development and historical problems and have certainly done their share to enlarge the temporal scope of the psychological experiment from that of the classic reaction time experiment, which lasts only a few seconds, to experimental situations, which contain a systematically created history throughout hours or weeks.”
- “Learning is more effective when it is an active rather than a passive process.”
- “One should view the present situation – the status quo – as being maintained by certain conditions or forces. A culture – for instance, the food habits of a certain group at a given time – is not a static affair but a live process like a river which moves but still keeps to a recognizable form…Food habits do not occur in empty space. They are part and parcel of the daily rhythm of being awake and asleep; of being alone and in a group; of earning a living and playing; of being a member of a town, a family, a social class, a religious group . . . in a district with good groceries and restaurants or in an area of poor and irregular food supply. Somehow all these factors affect food habits at any given time. They determine the food habits of a group every day anew just as the amount of water supply and the nature of the river bed determine the ﬂow of the river, its constancy or change.”