Lewin's theoretical work gained him early recognition in Germany as well as in the United States because it stimulated a remarkable number of experiments. As two American commentators on Lewin's studies have stated:
Few other theories of personality have been responsible for generating so much experimentation. Lewin himself, although he is known as a brilliant theoretician, was always a working scientist. He took the lead in formulating empirical tests of many of his basic hypotheses. ... It is impossible to estimate the number of investigations that bear the imprint of Lewin's influence. . . . Whatever may be the fate of Lewin's theory in the years to come, the body of experimental work instigated by it constitutes an enduring contribution.
Lewin's early research into personality and motivation was revolutionary because these areas had been previously regarded as off-limits to psychologists; they were dealt with by the psychoanalysts, who in turn maintained that these issues could not be explored experimentally. Lewin and his graduate students at the University of Berlin showed instead that questions of personality and motivation could be studied in a laboratory. Second, Lewin thought that research in psychology should be guided by a systematic theory.
This approach distinguished him from earlier psychologists, who had usually performed laboratory experiments unrelated to one another and then broke down the data they collected into smaller categories. Lewin was convinced that the older technique led to oversimplified concepts of human behavior that did not fit observable facts.
Lewin's belief that research should proceed within the framework of a theory did not mean, however, that he concocted theories out of thin air and then looked for facts to fit them. Tamara Dembo, one of his first graduate students at Berlin, explained Lewin's approach as follows:
He would say, "These are only the beginning concepts; we will have to find out more about them. We cannot do this [experiment] yet; this [other study] is possible to do," and so on ... if you asked him, "How can one do this?" he would reply, "What's the problem? Let's first look at the problem and see whether any of this is possible." Those were the terms he thought in.
Another feature of Lewin's research that set him apart from his predecessors was the simplicity of the equipment he used for his experiments. Psychologists of the 1920s generally conducted their experiments with complicated machines and other expensive apparatus. Although Lewin enjoyed tinkering with and repairing laboratory equipment—he had a reputation at Berlin as one of the best repair technicians in the Psychological Institute—he used a minimum of equipment for his own work. The Berlin experiments that he conducted with his students were carried out with nothing more elaborate than pencils, papers, and simple games or tasks for the subjects to perform.
These experiments, which were conducted between 1926 and 1930 and published in the Psychologische Zeitung, have been described as "one of the most distinguished groups of empirical studies in the psychological literature." Lewin's analyses of the Berlin experiments were among the papers translated into English for publication in book form in 1935 as A Dynamic Theory of Personality. The students who carried out these studies for their doctoral dissertations included Bluma Zeigarnik, whose work on tension systems was described earlier, Tamara Dembo, Maria Ovsiankina, Vera Mahler, Sarah Sliosberg, Gita Birenbaum, Anitra Karsten, Sara Fajans, Sara Jucknat, Georg Schwarz, and Ferdinand Hoppe. It is noteworthy, given the prejudice against women in graduate education in both Europe and the United States in the late 1920s, that nine out of Lewin's first 11 students were women. The five major psychological categories that were investigated by Lewin and his students included recall of unfinished tasks; level of aspiration; substitution; satiation; and anger. These topics provided fertile ground for additional research after Lewin and several of his students emigrated to the United States.
Was this article helpful?