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Kurt Lewin is often described as the father of social psychology.

His famous study about the three types of leadership helped psychologists and leaders understand how to form and lead effective groups. Let’s take a closer look at Kurt Lewin’s leadership study and how it impacted the field of psychology.

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Kurt Lewin

Kurt Lewin was a famous psychologist who is largely considered to be the father of social psychology, due to the fact that his studies paved the way for future psychologists to look at the relationship between a person’s thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and the society around them.

Lewin was born and raised in what is now Poland. He was injured in World War I and moved to Germany afterwards to study at the University of Berlin. He stayed in Germany until 1933.

At that time, the Nazis had risen to power in Germany and were persecuting Jewish people. Since Lewin was Jewish, he immigrated to the United States.

Nazi influence over the German people inspired Lewin to study group membership.

Kurt Lewin Nazis

But, something about the Nazi party bugged Lewin. He was curious about why normally good people could end up believing in a leader who was so openly against a large portion of society.

How had the Nazis taken over Germany’s political scene? What made people join their party?Lewin was interested in these questions, as well as many other questions that dealt with the way people interacted in society. His quest to find answers to these questions became the basis of what is today known as social psychology – that is, the study of how society affects a person’s thoughts, feelings, and actions.

Study of Leadership Types

Lewin did many studies that fall into the category of social psychology, but his most famous study had to do with how groups interact with different types of leaders.Lewin divided school children into three groups with three different types of leaders, which he called laissez-faire, democratic, and authoritarian.

Laissez-faire leaders had little to do with the division of labor or of the day-to-day running of things. They let the group decide who would do what work and offered very little, if any, praise or criticism.Democratic leaders also let the group decide how to divide up the work, but they helped guide the group in their decisions, and they offered praise and criticism when needed. Finally, authoritarian leaders ran the whole show; they assigned each person their share of the work and oversaw everything. They did not encourage or even allow students to have input into the process.

The types of leadership styles Lewin studied
Leadership Types

The results of the study were interesting. As you might expect, the authoritarian groups made less creative and more dysfunctional decisions than did the democratic groups. The students in the democratic group were also more likely to make changes in a positive manner; it seems that being involved in the decision-making process creates an environment that is good for everyone involved.However, what you might not expect is that the democratic group also did better than the laissez-faire group.

Apparently, besides being involved in the decision-making process, it is also important for groups to have structure. Too much structure and you end up with authoritarian leadership, which isn’t good. But, too little structure, as is the case with laissez-faire leadership, is also not good.

Democratic leaders are somewhere in the middle, and they offer the best option.

Impact on Psychology

Lewin and his research had a significant impact on social psychology. As a result of the study of leadership types, Lewin and some of his colleagues founded the National Training Laboratories in Maine.

There, executives and government leaders can go through training to learn how to be better leaders. The workshops run at the National Training Laboratories are directly based on the study done by Lewin of the most effective types of group leadership.In addition, many future psychologists would use Lewin’s studies as a starting point for their own research. Indeed, much of current social psychology is in some way tied to Lewin’s work. He was the first person to study group dynamics, or the way groups react to changing circumstances.

When he first began to study group dynamics, people didn’t really study groups as a unit; they studied individuals, and they might have studied large entities, like a country or a culture, but they didn’t study specific groups. Lewin opened the gate for thousands of future experiments by showing that groups of all sizes were worth studying.

Lesson Summary

Kurt Lewin was a famous psychologist whose work with groups and group dynamics changed psychology by allowing and encouraging the study of how individuals work within groups. His famous study on three types of leadership – laissez-faire, democratic, and authoritarian – showed that both structure and freedom were needed in groups.

And, to this day, many leaders in business and government use his work as a guide for how to be the most effective leaders they can be.

Learning Outcomes

At the conclusion of this video lesson, you’ll be able to:

  • Define social psychology and group dynamics
  • Examine Kurt Lewin’s background and explain what inspired him to study group membership, forming the basis for the field of social psychology
  • Describe the experiment that Lewin conducted utilizing laissez-faire, democratic, and authoritarian leadership styles
  • Summarize Lewin’s results and explain how his study led to further studies on group dynamics
  • Understand the purpose of the National Training Laboratories in Maine, which formed out of Lewin’s research

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