Kurt Lewin — Psychological Assistance in Selection and Training of Spies

     The history of psychology provides an instructive example of research psychologists’ selection and training of spies and saboteurs at home for deployment abroad. The field of group dynamics partly developed its “T-group” model for leadership group training during World War II through the training of spies in Britain and the United States by Kurt Lewin and associates.

     Kurt Lewin (1890-1947) is generally acknowledged as the founder of modern social psychology. A social progressive, Lewin was a founder of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues and a pioneer in interracial relations. He had immigrated to the United States in 1933 as a prescient German Jew. His mother died in a Nazi extermination camp in 1944.

     Like military personnel involved in classified work, Lewin was subjected to a background check and some surveillance. Recent Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) access to Lewin’s FBI and CIA files uncovered 30 background interviews with Lewin’s colleagues, neighbors, and employers. The CIA denied a subsequent FOIA appeal to release censored passages and many documents that had been withheld  (Cooke, 2007). Such investigations were not perfunctory. More extensive investigations of Lewin’s leftist colleague, Goodwin Watson, an expert in morale and propaganda, resulted in Goodwin’s termination as director of the Federal Broadcast Monitoring Service of the Federal Communications Commission during World War II and his persecution for alleged communist affiliations during the McCarthy era (Cooke, 2007).

     An account of T-group spy training appears in the “History of the T-Group and Its Early Applications in Management Development” (Highhouse, 2002, p. __):

     More immediate influences on the ideas of the T-group developers were the projects conducted during World War II by the Tavistock Institute in England and the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in the United States. The Tavistock Clinic was formed after World War I as an outpatient clinic for dealing with war-related neuroses. Members of the Tavistock Group, most notably Eric Trist and W. R. Bion, were widely known for their experimentation with group therapy techniques. Bion (1946) theorized about aggression and withdrawal that occurs in groups and developed the leaderless group techniques used for crew selection.... Lewin and [Ron] Lippitt's involvement in OSS spy selection was probably also an influence on the development of T-group methods. Under the primary direction of Henry Murray, Lewin, Lippitt, and others devised methods to identify men and women to serve as agents to conduct destructive operations behind enemy lines, train resistance groups, and "disintegrate" the morale of enemy troops (OSS Assessment Staff, 1948). OSS candidates were taken to a secluded farm house, stripped of their personal belongings, dressed in army fatigues, and instructed to create false identities over a period of 3 days. The candidates participated in assessment activities together, spent leisure time together, and revealed much about their personalities as a result of being isolated as a group. The observed effects of this seclusion likely influenced the decision to create a cultural island for the conduct of T-groups.

     In an interview about her life work, organizational psychologist Kathleen Dannemiller, further reported on contributions by her mentor, Ron Lippett, and his mentor, Kurt Lewin (Cooke, 2006, p. __):

     Ron ... was a YMCA trainer in Iowa when Kurt Lewin put an ad on the bulletin board saying he wanted somebody to work on "team stuff."  Ron had been doing team stuff at the "Y" so he signed up to be part of the project without realizing that Lewin didn't have a clue what team stuff was.

     When Lewin went to MIT, Ron and a group of graduate students followed. They started inventing the theory of group dynamics. They were part of the Office of Strategic Services during the Second World War. The OSS was training spies to be parachuted into occupied countries and transmit information back to the allies. The spies were either getting killed off or turning into double agents!  They asked Lewin and his graduate students if they would figure out how to make it healthier for these spies. Lewin and his group—this is Ron's truth you understand—invented team building. They pulled together a group of spies and worked to get them connected so they all saw and felt the same stuff—bonded so they cared about each other. Then they drop one in Italy and another in Denmark, living totally different lives. These men were able to stay with this terrifying mission because they were connected around the mind and heart.

Ethical Issues

Issue 1:   Scientific ethics is construed as independent of political context. In practice though,  psychologists tend to be more permissive in a war believed to be just than a war believed to be unjust. This case provides an opportunity to consider whether, and how, ethical standards for psychologists in national security settings might be construed as a function of the perceived moral legitimacy of the war. Would group dynamics researchers be equally ethical (or unethical) in training spies and saboteurs in a less popular war or counterinsurgency operation?

Issue 2:  The OSS work of the T-group developers appears to have been part research and part application. With regard to psychological ethics, does it matter whether they were experimenting with the spies/saboteurs or applying well established theory?  Does the operational success of their methods affect the moral assessment of their work?

Issue 3:  Does the mission of the agents in training—whether information collection or sabotage—enter into the moral assessment of the psychologists’ work?

Issue 4:  As psychologists enter into national security settings to assist, they themselves become subjects of security investigations. Because of the risks of unsupervised communications with potential enemies, military and intelligence personnel do not have the freedom of association, travel, and social action accorded to scholars and health professionals in civilian settings. What constraints on personal liberties are consistent with scientific ethics?


Breisch, Roger. (2001, Winter). Interview with Kathleen Dannemiller. Organization Development Journal [on-line journal, Retrieved July 28, 2008].

Cooke, Bill. (2007). The Kurt Lewin – Goodwin Watson FBI/CIA Files: a sixtieth anniversary of there-and-then of the here-and-now. Human Relations, 60 (3): 435-462.

Highhouse, Scott. (2002). A history of the T-Group and its early applications in management development. Group Dynamics Theory, Research, and Practices, 7 (4). [On-line journal,, accessed  July 28, 2008].

Marrow, Alfred J. (1961). The practical theorist:  The life and work of Kurt Lewin. New York:  Basic Books