Field theory was born on the battlefields of World War I. Lewin served as a soldier in the German army. His first published article was titled "The War Landscape," and it described the battlefield in terms of life space. The soldier's needs determined how the landscape was to be perceived. When the soldier was miles from the front, the peaceful landscape seemed to stretch endlessly on all sides without direction. As the war front approached, the landscape took on direction, and peaceful objects such as rocks and trees became elements of battle, such as weapons and places to hide.
After the war, Lewin took an academic appointment at the Psychological
Institute of Berlin, where he served on the faculty with Gestalt psychologists Wolfgang Köhler and Max Wertheimer. While at the institute, Lewin further developed his field theory and conducted the first program of experimental social psychological research exploring topics such as memory for interrupted tasks, level ofaspiration, and anger. His work derived as much from field theory as it did from his curiosity about the social world. For example, research on memory for interrupted tasks began when he and his students wondered why a waiter could remember their rather lengthy order but would forget it immediately after the food was served. In field theory terms, noncompleted tasks (such as the waiter's recall before delivering the order) were recalled better because they maintained a tension for completion compared to completed tasks, for which this tension is resolved.
As the Nazi Party rose to power in Germany, Lewin correctly perceived that his own Jewish life space and that ofhis family were becoming progressively more threatened and intolerable. Like many Jewish intellectuals of the time, Lewin emigrated to the United States; he obtained a number ofvis-iting appointments until he established the Center for Group Dynamics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1944. Lewin's American research was much more applied than his work in Europe, and it concentrated particularly on social problems such as prejudice and intergroup conflict— perhaps as a result of his own experience of prejudice as aJew in Germany.
Before his death in 1947, Lewin helped train the first generation of American students interested in experimental social psychology, including such notables as Leon Festinger, Harold Kelley, Stanley Schachter, and Morton Deutsch. As a result, Lewin's intellectual legacy pervades the field of experimental social psychology. Today, first-, second-, third-, and even fourth-generation Lewinian social psychologists continue to carry on his research legacy by investigating topics of long-standing interest to Lewin, such as prejudice, achievement, organizational behavior, social cognition, and the reduction of cognitive tensions or dissonance and by attempting to explain how individuals construe their environments and how those environments affect behavior.
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