The Social Gestalt and Social Learning Traditions

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Abstract

In 1921, Fritz Heider, with his recently earned Ph.D., joined Kurt Lewin,1 a newly appointed lecturer, at the Berlin Psychological Institute. The Gestalt psychologists Kohler, Wertheimer, and Koffka were making the Institute the world’s premiere center for advancing a science of an active, organizing mind in opposition to passive associationism and reductionistic behaviorism. That same year, Solomon Asch, newly arrived in America, was beginning his teenage years. Lewin and Heider absorbed Gestalt theory in Berlin but, like so many other psychologists in Germany, were displaced by Nazi oppression in the 1930s (Mandler & Mandler, 1969). Once in America, they and Asch creatively extended the Gestalt perspective into the new arenas of social, personality, and applied psychologies. They transformed a psychology of object perception, as relevant to animals as to humans, into a psychology of person perception and social cognition, focused on humans’ capacity to be knowers and objects of knowing. One version of the hybrid psychology that John Dewey conceived at the turn of the century would be actualized by these three European-born psychologists. (Heider was born in Austria, Asch in Poland, and Lewin in a part of Prussia that is now in Poland.) They are the central figures in the social Gestalt tradition in social cognitive psychology.2 This chapter covers their contributions, which have especially influenced today’s social psychology of knowing and relating to others (Parts II and IV). Lewin was active in the first half of the period covered (1929–1958), while the influence of Asch and Heider was felt near the end as cognitivism began to be reasserted.