Consumer Psychology

Social Psychology Need-to-Knows for Social Media – 1. Kurt Lewin on the Power of Discovery


Q. How do you make social media work for your business?

A. Use classic insights from social psychology, the scientific study of how people think about, influence, and relate to one another.

Without insight, the commercial use of social media (and more generally social technology) may be little more than a resource-depleting time-bandit or a mere symptom of shiny new object syndrome.

So here’s the first of ten quick posts on classic insights from social psychology that we believe are relevant to social media; today from one of the discipline’s founding fathers Kurt Lewin (1890-1947), German-American psychologist at Cornell, the University of Iowa and MIT.

As a founding father of social psychology, Lewin proposed perhaps the most famous formula in our field: B = f(P, E) – that simply states that behaviour is a function of the person and the situation (E stands for Environment; until Lewin, psychology had focused pretty much exclusively on the person – their personality, their past, their individual thoughts and predispositions).  For example, whether someone will shop using social technology has as much to do with the shopping situation itself as the individual. Are they with others? Are they thinking of others? Do they believe their behaviour will be rewarded or punished? Etc. Lewin’s situationist lesson for social media is that we need understand the situation, not just the user, and that we’ll succeed when we deploy social media to facilitate ‘demand characteristics’ (helpful and hindering forces) of the (shopping) situation.

Lewin’s ‘thing’ was that smart solutions lie at the intersection of theory and practice.  He maintained that “there is nothing as practical as a good theory”, but also that you can only understand something by trying to break it. Perhaps the most relevant example here to social media is Lewin’s unfreeze-change-freeze model of changing behaviour. For instance, if you want to use social media to break the pattern of past purchases and get people to buy your product for the first time, you should use social media to help ‘unfreeze’ their existing beliefs and practices, by making them realise that change is necessary. This works best not by telling them, but by helping them to discover the need themselves. Then you have to manage the change, again not by instruction, but by letting people discover and accept the new behaviour for themselves. Finally, you have to freeze the behaviour (get them to buy again) by helping them discover that the new behaviour is rewarding and rewarded. Unfreeze-change-freeze.

So when the US Department of Agriculture asked Lewin to help them convince housewives to cook with offal during the second world war, he organised group discussions on the food shortage problem and helped the participants discover for themselves that the problem could eased if women like themselves could be convinced to take part in a programme of using secondary cuts of meat such as livers, kidneys, and hearts.  He benchmarked this against housewives who were simply ‘sold’ (lectured – repeatedly) the idea that eating offal was nutritionally beneficial to them and their families.  Those who felt they participated in the discovery of a solution were far more likely to ‘unfreeze’ their ideas and behaviours. Once unfrozen, Lewin provided the women with information they could read and discover for themselves about the good taste, nutritional value and social acceptability of offal. Then to freeze ‘in’ the new behaviour, Lewin suggested allowing the housewives discover for themselves via trial and error and feedback from their families about the wisdom of cooking with offal.

The practical implication for insight-led social media is elementary but profound; use social media to manage change – not by telling people but by empowering them – your customers, employees and investors – to discover with social media that what they are doing right now is not great, that there is a better solution available, and that is is rewarding.


Chartered psychologist specialising in consumer behaviour, wellbeing and technology. Certified CX professional experienced in Design Thinking. A researcher, writer and speaker, Paul is head of Digital Insight at SYZYGY.

3 Comments Add New Comment

  1. Nice article Paul. I think companies with an internal culture of discussion are more likely to see the value of Lewin’s approach and to capitalise on it. But that can mean cultural change needs to take place first.

    1. Thanks Stuart, I agree wholeheartedly – discovery happens when there is discussion – Steve Jobs promoted cross-functional discussion within Apple, by stipulating that restrooms be placed in a way that maximised the chances of bumping into someone unexpected!

  2. Very interesting article, I applaud your reaching out to fundamental behavioral science and applying it to social media. We run a social commerce platform and I’m trying to think about various ways in which the unfreeze-change-freeze method could be applied to the very idea of social commerce. Would it work for example to tell potential users more about the advantages of the platform (and the process of shopping socially, on facebook or elsewhere) instead of advertising just products? Or am I oversimplifying, going in the wrong direction?

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