Lewin’s equation

I don’t know if this ever happens to you, but sometimes I find myself wandering the corridors of the internet and arriving in a room where I never realised I wanted to be. That is a joy of our age that arises out of the ease with which we can no follow interesting people and interesting conversations.

In this case, I started with a Quillette article about gender which I would probably never have clicked on if it had not been for my previous post on boys’ educational underachievement. The Quillette piece drew heavily on a 2018 academic essay by Professor Alice Eagly. The essay makes the case that researchers should at least be open to the idea that differences between men and women may have both biological and environmental components.

To support her point, Eagly draws on an equation set out by Kurt Lewin in 1936 in his Principles of Topological Psychology:


This represents the almost trivially simple idea that behaviour is a function of both the person and the environment. Or, as Lewin puts it, “Every psychological event depends upon the state of the person and at the same time on the environment, although their relative importance is different in different cases.”

“Tell me something new!” you might well exclaim. And yet bias, whether it is of the common kind or of the ideological kind that concerns Eagly, can cause us to focus on one to the exclusion of the other.

In Eagly’s case, her concern is that ideology causes feminist psychologists to neglect the role of the person. However, I would suggest that in education, we are equally inclined to reject the role of environment. We may, at one extreme, suggest a child has a learning disability or a behavioural disorder, or at the other extreme suggest a child is inherently lazy or malevolent, when in reality, the single most effective thing we could do is modify the environment that child is in. I would argue that an environment involving structure, routine, a clear and consistent approach to poor behaviour and explicit teaching can mitigate many of the issues that we may otherwise ascribe to the person. You may have other ideas.

Nevertheless, Lewin’s equation represents a useful heuristic we may deploy when we catch ourselves going to far in one direction when attributing cause.


2 thoughts on “Lewin’s equation

  1. I just read an article titled,”The Height of Your Potential is Predicted by the People Who Surround You”.It is amazing that I read your blog yesterday, then I “happen” upon this article and then read your next posting. I agree with your argument. .

  2. “the single most effective thing we could do is modify the environment”

    This is the only thing anyone can ever do, short of genetic engineering. What you need to have a sense of is how much effect you can have for a given amount of effort. For some students you barely need to do anything and they will learn in leaps and bounds, for others enormous efforts make minimal difference – and there is always an opportunity cost

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