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Field theory


Field theory is a psychological theory

(more precisely: Topological and vector
psychology) which examines patterns of
interaction between the individual and the
total field, or environment. The concept
first made its appearance in psychology
with roots to the holistic perspective of
Gestalt theories. It was developed by Kurt
Lewin, a Gestalt psychologist, in the

Lewin's field theory can be expressed by a

formula: B = f(p,e), meaning that behavior
(B) is a function of the person (p) and
his/her environment (e).[1]

Early philosophers believed the body to
have a rational, inner nature that helped
guide our thoughts and bodies. This
intuitive force, our soul, was viewed as
having supreme control over our entire
being. However, this view changed during
the intellectual revolution of the 17th
century.[2] The mind versus the body was a
forever evolving concept that received
great attention from the likes of Descartes,
Locke and Kant. From once believing that
the mind and body interact, to thinking the
mind is completely separate from the
body, rationalist and empirical views were
deeply rooted in the understanding of this
phenomenon. Field Theory emerged when
Lewin considered a person's behavior to
consist of many different interactions. He
believed people to have dynamic thoughts,
forces, and emotions that shifted their
behavior to reflect their present state.

Kurt Lewin's influence

Kurt Lewin was born in Germany in 1890.
He originally wanted to pursue
behaviorism, but later found an interest in
Gestalt psychology while volunteering in
the German army in 1914. His early
experiences substantially influenced the
development of his field theory. Lewin's
field theory emphasized interpersonal
conflict, individual personalities and
situational variables and he proposed that
behavior is the result of the individual and
their environment.[3] In viewing a person's
social environment and its effect on their
dynamic field, Lewin also found that a
person's psychological state influences
their social field.[4]
Wanting to shift the focus of psychology
away from the Aristotle views and more
towards Galileo's approach, he believed
psychology needed to follow physics.
Drawing from both mathematics and
physics, Lewin took the concept of the
field, the focus of one's experiences,
needs, and topography to map spatial
relationships. Lewin created a field theory
rule that says analysis can only start with
the situation represented as a whole, so in
order for change to take place, the entire
situation must be taken into account.
There seems to be a repetition of people
having the same unsuccessful attempts to
grow and develop themselves and field
theory draws the conclusion that this
repetition comes from forces within our
fields. To display this psychological field,
Lewin constructed "topological maps" that
showed inter-related areas and indicated
the directions of people's goals.[5]

Main principles
The life space

The idea that an individual's behavior, at

any time, is manifested only within the
coexisting factors of the current "life
space" or "psychological field" So a life
space is the combination of all the factors
that influences a person's behavior at any
time. Therefore, behavior can be
expressed as a function of the life space
B=ƒ(LS). Furthermore, the interaction of the
person (P), and the environment (E)
produces this life space. In symbolic
expression, B=ƒ(LS)=F(P,E).[6] An example
of a more complex life-space concept is
the idea that two people's experience of a
situation can become one when they
converse together. This does not happen if
the two people do not interact with each
other, such as being in the same room but
not talking to each other. This combined
space can be "built" up as the two people
share more ideas and create a more
complex life-space together.[7]


The environment as demonstrated in the

life space, refers to the objective situation
in which the person perceives and acts.
The life space environment (E) is
completely subjective within each context
as it depends not only on the objective
situation, but also on the characteristics of
the person (P).[6] It is necessary to
consider all aspects of a person's
conscious and unconscious environment
in order to map out the person's life
space.[1] The combined state, influenced
by the environment as well as the person's
perspective, conscious, and unconscious,
must be viewed as a whole. While each
part can be viewed as a separate entity, to
observe the totality of the situation one
must take all inputs into consideration.[1]


Lewin applied the term person in three

different ways.

1. Properties/characteristics of the
individual. (needs, beliefs, values, abilities)
2. A way of representing essentially the
same psychological facts of "life space"
3. "The behaving self".[6]

"The behaving self may be seen as the

individual's perception of his relations to
the environment he perceives."[6]

The development of the person inevitably

affects the life space. As a person
undergoes changes with their body or their
image of themselves changes, this can
cause an instability in the region of life
space. Additionally, an instability in the
psychological environment or life space
can lead to the instability of the person.[8]

Any change within the life space subject to

psychological laws. Accordingly, an action
of the person (P) or a change in the
environment (E) resulting from said action,
can be considered behavior (B).[6] These
behaviors can make large or small
influences on the totality of the life space.
Regardless, they must be taken into
consideration. Field theory holds that
behavior must be derived from a totality of
coexisting facts. These coexisting facts
make up a "dynamic field[9]", which means
that the state of any part of the field
depends on every other part of it. This not
only includes both mental and physical
fields, but also unseen forces such as
magnetism and gravity. This can be
elaborated by imagining the difference
that a force can make by acting from a
distance. When considering something
such as the Moon's influence on the Earth,
it is clear that there is an effect even
though it acts from a large distance
away.[2] Behavior depends on the present
field rather than on the past or the future.

Development also plays a major role in life

space behavior. From the beginning of
one's life behavior is molded in all respects
to his or her social situation. This of
course brings up the sociological
discussion of nature versus nurture.
Experimental psychology studies have
shown the formation of aspiration, the
driving factor of actions and expressions
(behavior), is directly influenced by the
presence or absence of certain individuals
within one's life space.[8] A child's
development naturally leads to an opening
up of new unknown life space regions.
Transitional periods such as adolescence
are characterized by a greater effect of
these new regions. Therefore, an
adolescent entering a new social group or
life space can be seen psychologically as
entering a cognitively unstructured field.
This new field makes it difficult for the
individual to know what behavior is
appropriate within the field. This is
believed to be a possibility for changes in
child and adolescent behavior.[8]

Theory and experimental


Field Theory Image 1

Field Theory Image 2

According to field theory, a person's life is

made up of multiple distinct spaces.
Image 1 is an example of the total field, or
environment. Image 2 is showing a person,
and a goal they have. This image shows
that there are forces pushing a person
toward their goal. The dotted line is
everything one must go through to reach
their goal, and how one must go through
many different spaces. Individuals may
have the same goal, but the field to get
there may be different. One's field may be
adjusted in order to gain the most in life.
Some fields may be deleted, and some
added, all depending on certain events
that occur in a persons lifetime.[1]

Field theory also includes the idea that

every person holds a different experience
for a situation. This is not to say that two
people's experience of an event will not be
similar, but that there will be some
difference. This leads to the idea that no
two experiences are the same for a person
either, as the dynamic field is constantly
changing.[7] This is to say that the dynamic
field is like a stream, constantly flowing
while changing slightly. Another piece of
field theory is the idea that no part of a
person's field can be viewed as being
pointless. Every part of a total field must
be viewed as having possible meaning and
importance. This must be done regardless
of how pointless or non-important the part
of the field may seem, it should still be
accounted for.[7] The totality of an
individual's field seems to have no bounds,
as research has shown that even an
infant's experience of World War II could
possibly affect life later on, due to the
change in field.[7] This is a good example
of how broad field theory can span, as a
person's preconciousness may be altered
due to field changes that occurred before
any major development.

Reception and implications

Field theory is a rather obscure aspect of
Gestalt theory, a doctrine that includes
many important methods and discoveries.
It is a crucial building block to the
foundation of Gestalt psychologists'
concepts and applications. There is some
confusion as to the basics of field theory,
causing misconceptions of how it should
be used in Gestalt therapy.[7]

See also
Force-field analysis
Humanistic psychology

Major publications
Lewin, K. (1935). A dynamic theory of
personality. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Lewin, K. (1936). Principles of
topological psychology. New York:
Lewin, K. (1938). The conceptual
representation and measurement of
psychological forces. Durham, NC: Duke
University Press.
Lewin, K. (1951). Field theory in social
science. New York: Harper.

1. Burnes, Bernard; Cooke, Bill (2013). "Kurt

Lewin's Field Theory: A Review and Re-
evaluation". International Journal of
Management Reviews, 15(4), 408-425.
2. Rummel, R.J. "Psychological Field
Theories" . Retrieved 2014-10-13.
3. Cherry, Kendra. "Kurt Lewin Biography
(1890-1974)" . About Education. Retrieved
4. Neill, James. "Field Theory- Kurt Lewin" .
Wilderdom. Retrieved 2014-10-25.
5. Neumann, Jean. "Kurt Lewin-Field Theory
Rule" . Tavistock. Retrieved 2014-10-25.
6. Deutsch, Morton (1954). "Field Theory in
Social Psychology" (PDF). In Lindzey, G.;
Aronson, E. The Handbook of Social
Psychology, Vol. 1 (2nd ed.). pp. 412–487.
7. Parlet, Malcolm (1991). "Reflections on
Field Theory". The British Gestalt Journal 1:
68-91. Retrieved 31 October 2014
8. Lewin, Kurt (May 1939). "Field Theory
and Experiment in Social Psychology".
American Journal of Sociology. 44 (6):
868–896. doi:10.1086/218177 .
JSTOR 2769418 .
9. Martin, John Levi (July 2003). "What Is
Field Theory?". American Journal of
Sociology. 109 (1): 1–49.
doi:10.1086/375201 .


Sundberg, Norman (2001). Clinical

Psychology: Evolving Theory, Practice,
and Research. Englewood Cliffs:
Prentice Hall. ISBN 0-13-087119-2.

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