Kurt Lewin and Modern Social Psychology

Crowd walking on a city street
Kurt Lewin studied group dynamics. Jack Berman / Moment / Getty Images

Kurt Lewin was an influential psychologist who is today recognized as the founder of modern social psychology. His research on group dynamics, experiential learning, and action research had a tremendous influence on the growth and development of social psychology. He is also recognized for his important contributions in the areas of applied psychology and organizational psychology. In a 2002 review of some of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century, Lewin was ranked as the 18th most eminent psychologist.

"There is nothing so practical as a good theory." —Kurt Lewin

Best Known For

  • Experiential learning
  • Field Theory
  • Group dynamics
  • Considered the founder of modern social psychology

Timeline of Events

  • Born on September 9, 1890.
  • 1914 - Joined the German army.
  • 1916 - Awarded a Ph.D. from the University of Berlin (although he'd completed the requirements two years prior).
  • 1921 - Became a lecturer at the Psychological Institute of the University of Berlin.
  • 1933 - Emigrated to the United States.
  • 1935 - Became a professor at the University of Iowa; published A Dynamic Theory of Personality.
  • 1944 - Established research center at MIT.
  • Died at age 56 on February 12, 1947 of a heart attack.

Early Life

Born in Prussia to a middle-class Jewish family, Kurt Lewin moved to Berlin at the age of 15 to attend the Gymnasium. He enrolled at the University of Frieberg in 1909 to study medicine before transferring to the University of Munich to study biology. He eventually completed a doctoral degree at the University of Berlin.

He originally began his studies with an interest in behaviorism, but he later developed an interest in Gestalt psychology. He served in the German army and was later injured in combat. These early experiences had a major impact on the development of his field theory and later study of group dynamics.


In 1921, Kurt Lewin began lecturing on philosophy and psychology at the Psychological Institute of the University of Berlin. His popularity with students and prolific writing drew the attention of Stanford University, and he was invited to be a visiting professor in 1932. Eventually, Lewin emigrated to the U.S. and took a teaching position at the University of Iowa, where he worked until 1945.

While Lewin emphasized the importance of theory, he also believed that theories needed to have practical applications. Lewin established the Research Center for Group Dynamics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the National Training Laboratories (NTL). Lewin died of a heart attack in 1947.

Field Theory

Influenced by Gestalt psychology, Lewin developed a theory that emphasized the importance of individual personalities, interpersonal conflict, and situational variables.

Lewin's Field Theory proposed that behavior is the result of the individual and the environment. This theory had a major impact on social psychology, supporting the notion that our individual traits and the environment interact to cause behavior.

The Lewin, Lippitt, and White Study

In this study, schoolchildren were assigned to either authoritarian, democratic, or laissez-faire leadership groups. It was demonstrated that democratic leadership was superior to authoritarian and laissez-faire leadership. These findings prompted a wealth of research on leadership styles.

Contributions to Psychology

Kurt Lewin contributed to Gestalt psychology by expanding on gestalt theories and applying them to human behavior. He was also one of the first psychologists to systematically test human behavior, influencing experimental psychology, social psychology, and personality psychology. He was a prolific writer, publishing more than 80 articles and eight books on various psychology topics. Many of his unfinished papers were published by his colleagues after his sudden death at age 56.

Lewin is known as the father of modern social psychology because of his pioneering work that utilized scientific methods and experimentation to look at social behavior. Lewin was a seminal theorist whose enduring impact on psychology makes him one of the preeminent psychologists of the 20th century.

Selected Publications

  • Lewin, K. (1935) A dynamic theory of personality. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Lewin, K. (1936) Principles of topological psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Lewin, K. (1951) Field theory in social science: Selected theoretical papers. D. Cartwright (ed.). New York: Harper & Row.
3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Haggbloom SJ, Warnick JE, Warnick R, et al. The 100 most eminent psychologists of the 20th century. Review of General Psychology. 2002;6(2):139-152. doi:10.1037//1089-2680.6.2.139

  2. Miller ML. Lewin, Kurt. In: Rieber RW, ed. Encyclopedia of the History of Psychological Theories. New York: Springer; 2012. doi:10.1007/978-1-4419-0463-8_358

  3. Lewin K, Lippitt R, White RK. Patterns of aggressive behavior in experimentally created “social climates”. The Journal of Social Psychology. 1939;10:269-308. doi:10.1080/00224545.1939.9713366

Additional Reading

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is the author of the "Everything Psychology Book (2nd Edition)" and has written thousands of articles on diverse psychology topics. Kendra holds a Master of Science degree in education from Boise State University with a primary research interest in educational psychology and a Bachelor of Science in psychology from Idaho State University with additional coursework in substance use and case management.