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Kurt Lewin, the Refugee Who Founded Social Psychology

Imagine what our world would be if the U.S. had sent Lewin back to Nazi Germany.

Wikimedia Commons.
Ellis Island at the turn of the twentieth century.
Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Langleys came over here before the American Revolution (which still makes us immigrants), but my professional genealogy traces directly to an immigrant escaping horrors hard to imagine.

"I now believe there is no other choice for me but to emigrate, even though it will tear my life apart," said Kurt Lewin, the founder of social psychology (Benjamin, 1993, p. 158). In 1933, facing the Nazis' treatment of Jews and psychologists, Lewin came to the United States. So he was not in Germany when his mother, sister, and so many others were murdered in the Nazi concentration camps. Had the U.S. sent him back to Germany, the world would be different in ways most people never realize. He is known as the founder of social psychology and is the person who proposed the interactionist perspective as an alternative to the black-and-white nature vs. nurture argument. (He said they both interact to make us who we are.) Imagine if the U.S. had sent him back to Nazi Germany.

Kurt Lewin was the doctoral advisor to Leon Festinger, who gave the world social comparison theory (Festinger, 1954) and cognitive dissonance theory (Festinger, 1957).

Festinger mentored Judson Mills, who developed a theory of interpersonal relationships and conducted some of the groundbreaking research on cognitive dissonance.

Judson Mills mentored Edgar C. O'Neal, known for his research on the halo effect, media, and human aggression.

Ed O'Neal mentored me. I write and edit books using media examples to teach psychology, for whatever that's worth.

That is my professional genealogy. My point in sharing this is simply to point out that even if you do not know that your family genealogy includes refugees (even though ultimately everyone's does), your life's genealogy somehow does. Some key part of your life, many to be frank, would not exist if some particular refugee had been turned away. One refugee and another and many others set in motion critical influences that made you who you are. The you that you now know would not exist without them.

A final note to take this back to the founder of social psychology, to whom I am forever grateful: Tragedies took their toll on Kurt Lewin. Shortly after World War II, he died of a heart attack at age 56.

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons


Benjamin, L. T., Jr. (1993). A history of psychology in letters. Dubuque, IA: Brown & Benchmark.

Festinger, L. (1954). A theory of social comparison processes. Human Relations, 7, 117–140.

Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

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