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Kurt Lewin

Jewish-German Psychologist


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Narrated by Mel Foster

Download mp3 file: A Dynamic Theory of Personality

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The Tendency to Equilibrium:
The Dynamic Firmness of Boundaries and Relative Segregation of Psychical Systems

Psychical processes may often, by the use of certain points of view, be deduced from the tendency to equilibrium (as may biological processes in general, as well as physical, economic, or other processes). The transition from a state of rest to a process, as well as change in a stationary process, may be derived from the fact that the equilibrium at certain points has been disturbed and that then a process in the direction of a new state of equilibrium sets in. In carrying through this line of thought, however, one must pay special attention to certain points. The process moves in the direction of a state of equilibrium only for the system as a whole. Part processes may at the same time go on in opposed directions. It is hence important to take the system whole which is dominant at the moment as basis.

Indeed, the concrete task of research will often consist precisely in the search for this determinative system, its boundaries and its internal structure. From these the particular events may then be directly deduced by means of the above-mentioned general proposition. A state of equilibrium in a system does not mean, further, that the system is without tension. Systems can, on the contrary, also come to equilibrium in a state of tension (for example, a spring under tension or a container with gas under pressure).

The occurrence of this sort of system, however, presupposes a certain firmness of boundaries and actual segregation of the system from its environment (both of these in a functional, not a spatial, sense). If the different parts of the system are insufficiently cohesive to withstand the forces working toward displacement (if the system shows insufficient internal firmness, if it is fluid), or if the system is not segregated from its environment by sufficiently firm walls but is open to its neighboring systems, stationary tensions cannot occur. Instead, there occurs a process in the direction of the forces, which encroaches upon the neighboring regions with diffusion of energy and which goes in the direction of an equilibrium at a lower level of tension in the total region.

The presupposition for the existence of a stationary state of tension is thus a certain firmness of the system in question, whether this be its own inner firmness or the firmness of its walls. We are here using the concept of the firmness of a system solely in a functional-dynamic sense without thereby making any special assertions about the material of the system con- cerned. Naturally, the firm walls of a system may be composed of a surrounding system in a state of tension. In this case the above-described presuppositions hold again for both systems as a whole. The occurrence of such tense systems is very characteristic of psychical processes, at least after infancy. A tendency may readily be observed toward immediate discharge of tension (to a state of equilibrium at the lowest possible state of tension). Such an equilibrium, perhaps through the fulfillment of a wish, is, however, often not immediately possible because of the character of the total situation. It may be that the equilibration can only gradually be established, for example, by means of long-continued effort, or it may be that it is for the time wholly unattainable. Then there arises, at first, a stationary tense system which may, when a very profound disturbance of equilibrium is involved, embrace broad psychical strata. The child to whom an important wish is denied may throw itself upon the ground and remain there in a state of tension, rigid as if transfixed by despair. As a rule, however (or after some time), there results a special tense system. The unfulfilled wish, for example, or the half-finished activity does not cripple the whole motorium or charge the entire mind with tension, but there remains a special tense system which may not appear in experience for a long time and which may influence the course of the other psychical processes only slightly. On appropriate occasion, however, it may assert itself most strongly (for example, by the resumption of the half-finished activity).

In many such tense systems, even when a direct equilibration of tension (for example, by fulfillment of the wish or completion of the activity at a later time) does not occur, a discharge may yet eventually result. It may be that the equilibration of tension results from a substitute completion (compensation); or it may be that the segregation of the system is not so complete as to exclude equilibration with the adjacent systems (somewhat in the nature of diffusion). Very frequently, however, the tensions of such special systems persist over long periods or may be, at most, only reduced. Hence there arc systems of very considerable functional firmness and isolation in the psychical. In the adult, at least, there exists as a rule a great number of relatively separate tense systems which are influenced, to be sure, by a general discharge of the whole person but which can only rarely be actually discharged thereby, and then usually incompletely. They form reservoirs of energy for action, and without their very considerable independence ordered action would be impossible. The experimental investigations of half-finished activities also show impressively that the mind is dynamically by no means a perfectly closed unity. If, for example, in a series of experimental tasks several are interrupted by the experimenter before completion, there only seldom results a general state of tension which increases writh each new unfinished task, and in these few cases only a slight general tension occurs. Instead of a single total state of tension, which pushes toward discharge in any random way (for example, by further work on already finished tasks), there results a number of relatively independent tense systems which demonstrate their separateness in various directions. Only in the case of very strong tensions does the state of tension usually extend itself far over the neighboring regions.

The problem of whether the psychical is a single homogeneous system in which practically everything is related to everything else or whether relatively separate dynamic systems are present, is, incidentally, not identical with the problem of the unity of the self, which becomes acute in the phenomenon of split personality, although the two problems have certain relations to each other. The question thereby raised is extremely difficult and far reaching. Its concrete discussion necessarily presupposes a much more advanced state of the experimental investigation of psychical structure. The following remarks, which are to be regarded merely as a groping beginning, grow out of the effort to avoid certain easy misinterpretations and at the same time to indicate some theoretical possibilities to the discussion of which we are repeatedly brought by the concrete experimental work on our problems. It would be natural from Gestalt theoretical considerations to understand the self in terms of the psychical totality perhaps as its structural individuality. As a matter of fact, some such notion is basic to the concept of character, for the adequate conception of which one must start, not from the presence of certain isolated properties (traits), but from the whole of the person. If from this beginning one comes to the problem of the psychical dynamic systems, the attempt will in all probability be made to identify the self with the whole of the psychical totality.

A number of facts, however, drive one in the opposite direction to the view that a special region, within the psychical totality, must be defined as the self in the narrower sense. Not every psychically existent system would belong to this central self. Not all the things, men, and environmental regions which I know and which may perhaps be very important to me, belong to my self. This self-system would also have in functional respects—this is most important—a certain unique position. Not every tense psychical system would stand in communication with this self. Tensions which have to do with the self would also have functionally a special significance in the total psychical organism, and it is possible that within this region differently directed tensions would tend to equilibrium considerably more strongly and that relatively isolated dynamic systems within it could much less readily occur. One would have recourse to such a hypothesis or to similar ones only when weighty facts of dynamics, for example, in the field of emotion, drive him to it. It is necessary here only to note that the distinction of relatively separate psychical systems leaves open various possibilities for the question of the unity and homogeneity of the self. In summary, the following should at all events be remarked. It is necessary for the investigation of causal relations and dynamic relations to pay especial attention to the psychical tensions and sources of energy. These psychical tensions and energies belong to systems which are in themselves dynamic unities and which show a greater or less degree of abscission. The structure of the dynamic system involved and the presence (in greater or less degree) or the absence of communication with various other psychical systems, as well as every change in boundary conditions, are hence of the greatest significance for the psychical process, for the equilibration of psychical tensions, and for the flow of psychical energy.

In the treatment of problems of the psychical energies and tensions one must therefore never forget that they have a position in definite psychical systems and hence must be treated from those points of view (Gestalt, theoretical) which are valid for such systems.

More information about Kurt Lewin from Wikipedia

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