Tamer of Anger. Essay on the biography and scientific activities of Tamara Dembo

The sixth essay in the “Creators” series is ded­i­cat­ed to Tamara Dembo, an out­stand­ing psy­chol­o­gist whose work on the study of “Anger as a dynam­ic prob­lem” and the reha­bil­i­ta­tion of peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties remains sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly rel­e­vant to this day. Dembo was born in Baku, stud­ied with one of the founders of Gestalt psy­chol­o­gy, Kurt Lewin, in the 1920s and worked for many years at American uni­ver­si­ties. In the “Creators” project togeth­er with RASA (Russian-American Science Association) T-invari­ant with the sup­port of Richard Lounsbery Foundation con­tin­ues to pub­lish a series of bio­graph­i­cal essays about peo­ple from the Russian Empire who made sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tions to world sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy, about those to whom we owe our new reality.

In the 1920s, an amaz­ing­ly tal­ent­ed team gath­ered at the Institute of Psychology in Berlin under the lead­er­ship of Kurt Lewin. It also includ­ed young girls, emi­grants from the Russian Empire. They did a whole series of out­stand­ing works on psy­chol­o­gy. And then they dis­persed around the world. One of the stars of this team was Tamara Dembo. She com­plet­ed her most famous work, “Anger as a Dynamic Problem,” when she was a very young researcher. And today psy­chol­o­gists are return­ing to her works and rethink­ing them.

Early years. Baku. Russian Empire

Tamara Vasilievna (Wulfovna) Dembo was born in 1902 in Baku into a wealthy Jewish fam­i­ly. Her moth­er is Sophia Dembo (Volchkina) (1871 - date of death unknown), father - Wulf (Vasily) Dembo (1865 - after 1916).

Wulf Dembo was a co-own­er of the oil refin­ing com­pa­nies “Dembo and Brothers” and “A. Dembo and H. Kagan.” The sec­ond com­pa­ny was found­ed by his grand­fa­ther - Tamara Dembo’s great-grand­fa­ther - Aron Dembo and Chaim Kagan in 1870 and became a large pro­duc­er of kerosene.

In ear­ly child­hood, Tamara Dembo was diag­nosed with heart dis­ease. Recalling his long con­ver­sa­tions with Dembo already in the sec­ond half of the 20th cen­tu­ry, American psy­chol­o­gist James V. Wertsch, Tamara Vasilievna’s col­league at Clark University, wrote:

“One of the key con­structs Professor Dembo used in her ear­li­er writ­ings on psy­cho­log­i­cal fac­tors asso­ci­at­ed with suc­cess­ful reha­bil­i­ta­tion after ill­ness or injury was “asset-mind­ed­ness.” She used this term to refer to the ten­den­cy of some indi­vid­u­als to focus on the assets, or strengths, they still pos­sessed, rather than on the over­whelm­ing prob­lems and dis­abil­i­ties that set them apart from oth­ers and from their ear­li­er selves.”(1).

Wertsch writes that health prob­lems in child­hood large­ly shaped the pro­fes­sion­al approach of the future psychologist:

“As is often the case, Professor Dembo’s pro­fes­sion­al inter­est in this con­cept prob­a­bly has a great deal to do with her own life expe­ri­ence. As a young girl, she was diag­nosed as hav­ing heart trou­ble (prob­a­bly a “heart mur­mur”) and, as a result, she spent many of her ear­ly years con­fined to her home and often to her bed. She was not allowed to play, go to school (she had a pri­vate tutor), or engage in many oth­er activ­i­ties that are usu­al­ly so much a part of chil­dren’s lives.”

Wertsch writes that already in the sec­ond half of the 20th cen­tu­ry, Dembo’s child­hood ill­ness­es “became a top­ic of humor among many of her friends.”

Indeed, Dembo lived an unusu­al­ly long (91 years) life, and not only enjoyed excel­lent health her­self, but also helped reha­bil­i­tate many peo­ple who were seri­ous­ly injured dur­ing World War II.

The asset-mind­ed prin­ci­ple — focus on what you have and try to for­get about what you have lost — was cen­tral to Dembo’s life.

By the age of 18, Tamara Dembo not only became phys­i­cal­ly stronger, but also passed the exams as an exter­nal stu­dent for a course at the Baku men’s gym­na­si­um. In 1920, she entered the electro­mechan­i­cal depart­ment of the Petrograd Polytechnic Institute: she want­ed to become an engi­neer. But there was no time for study­ing any­more. The rev­o­lu­tion and civ­il war in the Russian Empire forced the Dembo fam­i­ly to emi­grate. Wulf Dembo came from Lithuanian Jews. He man­aged to get Lithuanian pass­ports for the fam­i­ly and in 1921 the Dembos left Russia.

While we know a lot about the life of Tamara Vasilyevna Dembo, almost noth­ing is known about the fate of her par­ents. James V. Wertsch writes that most of Dembo’s fam­i­ly died in Germany and the USSR, but does not spec­i­fy what hap­pened to her father and moth­er. It is unlike­ly that their life was easy. This is evi­denced, for exam­ple, by this episode. When in the ear­ly 30s, already in America, Tamara Dembo’s finan­cial sit­u­a­tion was sim­ply des­per­ate, a col­league asked her: could her par­ents help her? And she replied that she had recent­ly sent them every cent. We have not been able to estab­lish what hap­pened to them in Germany after Hitler came to power.

In con­trast, the life of Dembo’s com­pan­ions, the Kagan fam­i­ly, turned out dif­fer­ent­ly. Already in the 21st cen­tu­ry, the German writer Verena Dorn wrote a bio­graph­i­cal nov­el about the Kagans (2): “Competing with Nobel and col­lab­o­rat­ing with Rothschild, Chaim Kagan (1850-1916), a native of a Polish-Lithuanian jew­ish town, made his for­tune in the oil fields of Baku. (And he made his for­tune togeth­er with his com­pan­ion, Aron Dembo. - VG) However, the First World War tore the fam­i­ly apart, and the Bolshevik regime destroyed any oppor­tu­ni­ties for devel­op­ment and pros­per­i­ty. During these uncer­tain times, his sev­en chil­dren inher­it­ed his busi­ness. They fled to Berlin, found­ed new com­pa­nies, became glob­al play­ers in the oil busi­ness… They ran chains of gas sta­tions and demon­strat­ed an entre­pre­neur­ial spir­it in an inno­v­a­tive indus­try of strate­gic impor­tance. They were phil­an­thropists, helped refugees… and were com­mit­ted to rebuild­ing a Jewish home­land in Palestine. When the Nazis came to pow­er, the fam­i­ly, which had estab­lished transna­tion­al con­nec­tions, again fled from Berlin to Paris, and from there to Tel Aviv and New York.”

Verena Dorn writes that the Kagans helped refugees. But, appar­ent­ly, Wolf Dembo’s fam­i­ly was not among those they helped.

Berlin. Golden Twenties

When Tamara Dembo arrived in Berlin in 1921, she was 19 years old. It was an excit­ing time and an amaz­ing place. The peri­od of the Weimar Republic (1919 – 1933) was marked by con­stant social and polit­i­cal con­flicts. By the time Hitler came to pow­er in 1933, the gov­ern­ment had changed 21 times. But these same years were lat­er called the “gold­en twen­ties.” It was a peri­od of tech­ni­cal and cul­tur­al inno­va­tion, of which Berlin became the European center.

Scientists, writ­ers, musi­cians and artists from Germany and all over Europe flocked to Berlin. Magnificent orches­tras used to sound here, 120 news­pa­pers were estab­lished, and 40 the­aters used to oper­ate. Among the out­stand­ing writ­ers and sci­en­tists who lived in Berlin are Bertolt Brecht and Robert Musil, Albert Einstein and Max Planck. And this was a short time of “Russian Berlin”.

In the ear­ly 1920s, a large Russian com­mu­ni­ty set­tled in Berlin, albeit briefly, schools opened and news­pa­pers were pub­lished. For exam­ple, the news­pa­per “Rul” was pub­lished here, which was pub­lished by the lead­ers of the Kadet Party Joseph Hessen and Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov. The news­pa­per’s cir­cu­la­tion reached 20 thou­sand. All Russian-speak­ing Europe read it. It was here that the future great writer Vladimir Nabokov made his debut with his poems. In his nov­els “Mashenka” and “The Gift,” he described in detail (albeit rather iron­i­cal­ly) Berlin in the 20s.

Soviet cit­i­zens used to come to Berlin and could freely com­mu­ni­cate with emi­grants. In fact, due to low prices and a rich cul­tur­al life, Berlin for some time became a favorite des­ti­na­tion for vis­i­tors from the USSR. But not every­one was attract­ed only by low prices. Soviet sci­en­tists and math­e­mati­cians, physi­cists, chemists, and psy­chol­o­gists con­stant­ly came to Berlin.

Among the Russian intel­lec­tu­als who vis­it­ed Berlin in the ear­ly 20s were the psy­chol­o­gists Aleksandr Luria, Lev Vygotsky, and Dmitri Uznadze. Berlin allowed young Tamara Dembo not only to join the tur­bu­lent life of the “gold­en twen­ties”, but also to estab­lish strong ties with the sci­en­tif­ic com­mu­ni­ty, includ­ing with American and Soviet colleagues.

Institute of Psychology: Kurt Lewin and his students

Tamara Dembo decides to study at the University of Berlin. The cours­es she chose are not only char­ac­ter­ized by the diver­si­ty of her inter­ests, but also by some con­fu­sion and uncer­tain­ty of choice. She wants to do lit­er­al­ly every­thing: she start­ed with math­e­mat­ics and nat­ur­al sci­ences, then became inter­est­ed in phi­los­o­phy, eco­nom­ics and art his­to­ry. And, final­ly, psy­chol­o­gy, which became her profession.

Dembo first began to study “indus­tri­al psy­chol­o­gy,” specif­i­cal­ly the field we now call ergonom­ics. But after hear­ing about Kurt Lewin’s work from her uni­ver­si­ty friends Maria Ovsiankina and Bluma Zeigarnik, Dembo began attend­ing his classes.

At the Institute of Psychology, Levin assem­bled a group of tal­ent­ed young researchers - male and female. The core of this group were Jewish women, emi­grants from the Russian Empire. At first they stud­ied with Levin, and then con­duct­ed inde­pen­dent research under his lead­er­ship. Like Dembo, Gita Birenbaum, Maria Ovsiankina and Bluma Zeigarnik pub­lished the results of their research in the jour­nal ‘Psychologische Forschung’, which was found­ed in 1921 by lead­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tives of Gestalt psy­chol­o­gy: Kurt Lewin, Kurt Goldstein, Hans Walter Gruhle, Wolfgang Köhler, Kurt Koffka, and Max Wertheimer(3).

The works of young researchers were pub­lished in the jour­nal as part of a long series of pub­li­ca­tions under the head­ing “Studies in the Psychology of Action and Affect” under the gen­er­al edi­tor­ship of Kurt Lewin.

Kurt Danziger, in his mono­graph “Constructing the sub­ject: Historical ori­gins of psy­cho­log­i­cal research” (4), writes that the cos­mopoli­tan nature of Kurt Lewin’s group made its mem­bers more ful­ly aware of the inclu­sion of the indi­vid­ual in the social con­text. They under­stood bet­ter than oth­er psy­chol­o­gists that a person’s behav­ior is deter­mined not only by the man­i­fes­ta­tion of his per­son­al qual­i­ties, but also nec­es­sar­i­ly reflects the social sit­u­a­tion. They stud­ied man not in iso­la­tion, but in a cer­tain psy­cho­log­i­cal field (as Kurt Lewin him­self pro­posed). Accepting this point of view implied a new view of the role of the exper­i­menter and his rela­tion­ship with the sub­jects. In short, the exper­i­menter entered into a fair­ly close rela­tion­ship with the sub­ject (some­times quite tense, as in Dembo’s experiments).

Kurt Lewin. Wikipedia
Both Dembo’s train­ing and research took place in the cos­mopoli­tan, tru­ly inter­na­tion­al atmos­phere of Berlin and the Berlin school of Gestalt psy­chol­o­gy. The Berlin Institute of Psychology, more than oth­er German research insti­tutes, served as a meet­ing place for psy­chol­o­gists from all over the world (includ­ing the USSR). American psy­chol­o­gist J.F. Brown, for exam­ple, assist­ed Dembo in con­duct­ing sev­er­al of her exper­i­ments. Alexsandr Luria also took part in one of Dembo’s exper­i­ments as a test sub­ject. (She said lat­er that it was a dif­fi­cult case). The cos­mopoli­tan atmos­phere of the insti­tute may have facil­i­tat­ed Dembo’s adap­ta­tion to Berlin and undoubt­ed­ly pre­pared her for future emi­gra­tion to the United States.

After com­plet­ing her stud­ies, Dembo began research under the guid­ance of Lewin and Wolfgang Köhler. From 1925 to 1928, she con­duct­ed a series of exper­i­ments that even­tu­al­ly became the empir­i­cal basis of her dis­ser­ta­tion. In this dis­ser­ta­tion she men­tions Köhler, Lewin, Hans Rupp and Wertheimer as her most impor­tant teach­ers in psy­chol­o­gy. But main­ly it relied on the prin­ci­ples of Lewin’s topo­log­i­cal or field psy­chol­o­gy: the design of exper­i­ments, the analy­sis of results, and the­o­ret­i­cal under­stand­ing reflect­ed Lewin’s dynam­ic approach of that time.

Before we look in more detail at Dembo’s most famous work, called “Anger as a Dynamic Problem,” let’s briefly talk about the work of her friends: Maria Ovsiankina and Bluma Zeigarnik. These works left a sig­nif­i­cant mark on world psy­cho­log­i­cal sci­ence, and both are asso­ci­at­ed with Lewin’s ideas, in par­tic­u­lar, with the manda­to­ry active inter­ac­tion of the sub­ject with the exper­i­menter. In these cas­es (as well as Dembo’s exper­i­ments), the exper­i­menter him­self seems to play the role of the social con­text and there are no oth­er influ­ences, that is, in this way a social mod­el is created.

Bluma Zeigarnik’s work is relat­ed to the descrip­tion of the so-called “Zeigarnik effect”. The sub­ject was offered a cer­tain kind of prob­lem, and (s)he began to solve it. In some cas­es, the exper­i­menter sud­den­ly announced to the sub­ject that (s)he was in a hur­ry and inter­rupt­ed the deci­sion. In oth­er cas­es, the sub­ject calm­ly brought the deci­sion to com­ple­tion. After some time, the exper­i­menter asked the sub­ject to remem­ber the prob­lems (s)he solved. In the over­whelm­ing major­i­ty of cas­es, the sub­ject per­fect­ly remem­bered pre­cise­ly those tasks that (s)he was not giv­en the oppor­tu­ni­ty to solve. Zeigarnik showed that unsolved prob­lems remain in the mem­o­ry, and in some cas­es this is quite painful.

Ovsiankina’s biog­ra­phers described the effect named after her as fol­lows: “During the next exper­i­ment, the sub­ject received tasks that were ele­men­tary in com­plex­i­ty, for exam­ple, (s)he was required to put togeth­er a fig­ure from divid­ed parts, draw an object, or solve a puz­zle. Approximately halfway through the task, the sub­ject was inter­rupt­ed and asked to per­form anoth­er action with the words “Please do this.” While the sub­ject was fin­ish­ing the sec­ond task, the exper­i­menter was delib­er­ate­ly dis­tract­ed by some­thing, for exam­ple, writ­ing, look­ing for papers on the table, or leaf­ing through a book. Having com­plet­ed the sec­ond task, 86% of the sub­jects returned “to the pre­vi­ous, inter­rupt­ed action, want­i­ng to com­plete it, although accord­ing to the instruc­tions this was no longer required.” Maria came to the con­clu­sion that an inter­rup­tion in the imple­men­ta­tion of a per­son­al­ly impor­tant act leaves a feel­ing of incom­plete­ness, ten­sion, which prompts a per­son to resume actions at the next oppor­tu­ni­ty, that is, an inter­rupt­ed task, even with­out stim­u­lat­ing val­ue, caus­es a “qua­si-need.” Thus, the work of M. Rickers-Ovsiankina rep­re­sent­ed a log­i­cal addi­tion and dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion of the prob­lems of the famous work of Bluma Wulfovna Zeigarnik (the Zeigarnik effect about more durable mem­o­riza­tion of inter­rupt­ed actions than com­plet­ed ones).” (Female names in psy­chol­o­gy: Maria Rickers-Ovsiankina. D. V. Zharova, A. R. Batyrshina. Vestnik of Minin University. 2018. Volume 6. No 1)

The Zeigarnik effect and the Ovsiankina effect became the source of a kind of meme: “unclosed gestalt” and many jokes about it.
Unfortunately, few peo­ple today remem­ber the name of the won­der­ful psy­chol­o­gist Maria Ovsiankina (we plan to devote a sep­a­rate essay to her in the “Creators” series).

The fates of Zeigarnik and Ovsyankina turned out dif­fer­ent­ly. In the ear­ly 30s, Bluma Zeigarnik returned to the Soviet Union. She suc­cess­ful­ly worked with Lev Vygotsky and Alexsandr Luria. But in 1939, her hus­band was arrest­ed and sen­tenced to 10 years in the camps for espi­onage. He did not return from the camp. The date of death indi­cat­ed on the death cer­tifi­cate received by the fam­i­ly already in 1990: April 20, 1942. After the arrest of her hus­band Blum, Zeigarnik was left with two small children.

Maria Ovsiankina emi­grat­ed to the USA.

Anger as a dynamic problem

Dembo began her dis­ser­ta­tion by out­lin­ing her the­o­ret­i­cal world­view in a brief intro­duc­to­ry chap­ter. She explained that she want­ed to study the ori­gin and devel­op­ment of anger (annoy­ance, irritation).(5) She argued that the psy­chol­o­gy of feel­ings and emo­tions is under­de­vel­oped because it is dom­i­nat­ed by sim­ple clas­si­fi­ca­tions. She explained this short­com­ing based on the approach estab­lished in psy­chol­o­gy. A char­ac­ter­is­tic of this approach was that researchers observed many peo­ple and then attempt­ed to con­struct an “aver­age sub­ject” based on sta­tis­ti­cal analy­sis of asso­ci­a­tions between spe­cif­ic empir­i­cal measures.

Following Lewin, Dembo empha­sizes some­thing else: it is nec­es­sary to study spe­cif­ic indi­vid­ual cas­es and their indi­vid­ual devel­op­ment. According to Dembo, instead of “tak­ing an abstract aver­age of as many cas­es as pos­si­ble,” researchers should try to repro­duce a pure phe­nom­e­non under exper­i­men­tal, mod­el conditions.

In this approach, Dembo decides to induce anger in pure lab­o­ra­to­ry con­di­tions. To do this, Dembo pro­posed con­fronting sub­jects with prob­lems that are either impos­si­ble or very dif­fi­cult to solve, and the exper­i­menter not only records the process, but some­times active­ly inter­feres with the solu­tion of the problem.

During the process of solv­ing prob­lems, the sub­jects were observed by the exper­i­menter and her assis­tant. They kept a detailed tran­script. After this, the sub­jects were asked about their feel­ings dur­ing the exper­i­ment. Dembo writes that it would be ide­al to film the exper­i­ments with a movie cam­era, but tests have shown that this method is still tech­ni­cal­ly too com­plex and too expensive.

A total of 64 exper­i­ments were car­ried out on 27 sub­jects (each exper­i­ment last­ed about one to two hours) over four years (1925-1928). The sub­jects did not know that anger was the top­ic of the study.

Dembo used two tasks: “ring throw­ing” and “flower grasp­ing.” In an exper­i­ment with ring throw­ing, the sub­ject was asked to throw ten rings in a row onto a bot­tle from a dis­tance of 3.5 m. Most peo­ple were unable to do this. In addi­tion, the exper­i­menter some­times active­ly inter­fered with the com­ple­tion of the task by catch­ing rings thrown by the subject.

In the flower grasp­ing exper­i­ment, the task was to reach the flower with the hand with­out leav­ing a lim­it­ed area. Moreover, there were two obvi­ous solu­tions: kneel down so that your feet remain in the per­mit­ted zone and reach the flower, or lean on a chair stand­ing out­side the zone and thus reach the flower. But the exper­i­menter insist­ed on find­ing a third solu­tion, although there was no such solu­tion, and all pro­pos­als from the sub­jects were reject­ed as vio­lat­ing the rules of the experiment.

The sub­jects were engaged in solv­ing prob­lems for an hour or two. They were real­ly tired. And this was also part of the experiment.

Dembo hypoth­e­sized that sub­jects’ repeat­ed fail­ures and provoca­tive behav­ior by the exper­i­menter (such as ridicule after fail­ure) could lead to anger and irritation.

According to Dembo, ana­lyz­ing exper­i­men­tal sit­u­a­tions, one could assume that the behav­ior of the sub­jects is reg­u­lar, that is, state A always caus­es state B. But exper­i­ments have shown that this is not so. The sub­jec­t’s con­di­tion has a clear­ly defined accu­mu­la­tive nature depend­ing on the grow­ing stress. If at the begin­ning of the exper­i­ment the sub­ject could sim­ply smile in response to the experimenter’s ridicule, then towards the end he could curse or even throw the ring not at the bot­tle, but at the experimenter.
Dembo views the sit­u­a­tion accord­ing to Kurt Lewin’s topo­log­i­cal and vec­tor the­o­ries. Several forces (vec­tors) act on the sub­ject. Moreover, the inten­si­ty of these impacts changes.

Diagram of Tamara Dembo’s exper­i­ment. Image source: René van der Veer

What are these forces?
First, this is the goal A. For sub­jects who accept­ed the exper­i­men­tal con­di­tions, A acquires a sharply pos­i­tive valence, i.e., the sub­jects real­ly want to achieve this goal.
Their attempts are thwart­ed by an inter­nal bar­ri­er B, which has a neg­a­tive valence. When the neg­a­tive valence of the inter­nal bar­ri­er exceeds the pos­i­tive valence of the goal A, sub­jects feel the desire to leave the exper­i­ment. However, they almost nev­er do this.
Quitting means, among oth­er things, admit­ting com­plete fail­ure. The fact that sub­jects almost nev­er stop the exper­i­ment (i.e., do not leave the room) sug­gests that there is also an exter­nal bar­ri­er in the sit­u­a­tion - C. (In the fig­ure this is an oval sur­round­ing the exper­i­men­tal field).

The sub­ject in the exper­i­ment is squeezed by var­i­ous forces and bar­ri­ers. As fail­ures accu­mu­late, ten­sion increas­es. The sub­ject may begin to “sway”: (s)he oscil­lates between the desire for a goal and the desire to leave.

Forces are fick­le: the sub­ject will feel a stronger attrac­tion to a goal if he decides that the chances of achiev­ing it have some­how become higher.

Much of Dembo’s the­sis con­sist­ed of detailed descrip­tions of what sub­jects do when psy­cho­log­i­cal stress increas­es. For exam­ple, after repeat­ed fail­ures, sub­jects begin to pro­pose either unre­al­is­tic solu­tions or ersatz solu­tions. An unre­al­is­tic solu­tion: hyp­no­tize a flower so that it flies out of the pot and falls into the hands of the sub­ject. An ersatz solu­tion is, for exam­ple, to throw the ring on some oth­er object in the room, and not on the bottle.

Dembo describes a sit­u­a­tion where sub­jects “leave” an exper­i­ment with­out actu­al­ly leav­ing the room. Unable to solve the prob­lem and feel­ing unable to leave the room, some sub­jects, for exam­ple, begin to read the news­pa­per or day­dream. Others try to phys­i­cal­ly escape the sit­u­a­tion, sud­den­ly remem­ber­ing urgent phone calls they need to make. The exper­i­menter’s harsh posi­tion (for exam­ple, “We must con­tin­ue the exper­i­ment,” “There is anoth­er solu­tion”) ulti­mate­ly forces almost all sub­jects to renew their efforts.

For the subject’s self-esteem, it is vital to hide his feel­ings, to pre­tend that he is actu­al­ly calm and does not care too much about the process of solv­ing the prob­lem. In Dembo’s terms, sub­jects encap­su­late their state, cre­at­ing a bar­ri­er between the inter­nal men­tal sys­tem and the exter­nal Umwelt (that is, the envi­ron­ment direct­ly inter­act­ing with the subject).

But the grow­ing ten­sion also puts pres­sure on this inter­nal bar­ri­er, and, in the end, only a small push from the exper­i­menter is enough (for exam­ple, ridicule when the subject’s next attempt to solve a prob­lem fails) for the sub­ject to break: the bar­ri­er between the inter­nal sys­tem and the out­side world dis­in­te­grates , the sub­ject becomes extreme­ly emo­tion­al and rude, he begins to talk about his per­son­al affairs and become com­plete­ly childish.

We can say that Dembo in her work ana­lyzed the behav­ior of the sub­jects from the point of view of a com­plex dynam­ic sys­tem of field forces and barriers.

The inten­si­ty of these forces and the resis­tance of the bar­ri­ers change over time, so state­ments like “envi­ron­men­tal stim­u­lus A will always be fol­lowed by response B” are sim­ply not true.

By cre­at­ing ade­quate con­di­tions, manip­u­lat­ing and pro­vok­ing sub­jects, Dembo
was able to expose the psy­cho­log­i­cal mech­a­nism of the devel­op­ment of anger. She argued that the ideas she gained from the exper­i­ment were applic­a­ble in real-life situations.

René van der Veer, out­lin­ing Dembo’s exper­i­ment, notes that the analy­sis of the exper­i­men­tal sit­u­a­tion and the behav­ior of the sub­jects in Dembo’s work was car­ried out in the tra­di­tion of Lewin’s vec­tor psy­chol­o­gy. When she began her pilot exper­i­ments in the sum­mer of 1925, this con­cep­tu­al appa­ra­tus did not yet exist, but when ana­lyz­ing the results, five years lat­er, she could already use vec­tor the­o­ry. It is pos­si­ble that her exper­i­ment, which she dis­cussed many times with her super­vi­sor, also influ­enced the devel­op­ment of the con­cepts of this Lewin theory.

While Dembo was prepar­ing her dis­ser­ta­tion with Kurt Lewin, she also man­aged to work in the Netherlands, where she con­duct­ed exper­i­ments on rats with Professor Frederik J. J. Buytendijk. She writes to Buytendijk: “Mr. Professor, you were not entire­ly mis­tak­en when you sus­pect­ed that I was sick. In fact, I have a fever, and this fever will con­tin­ue for anoth­er 7 weeks… until the exam­i­na­tion.” (6) With these words, writ­ten on May 31, 1930, Dembo jok­ing­ly spoke about the defense of her dis­ser­ta­tion, which was sched­uled for July 25 of the same year.

Dembo suc­cess­ful­ly defend­ed her dis­ser­ta­tion. Kurt Lewin praised it as “valde laud­abile” (very com­mend­able). Although this is not the high­est rat­ing (the high­est is “exim­i­um” - “excel­lent”), Dembo was not upset. Two days lat­er, she hap­pi­ly report­ed the defense to Buytendijk: “A few days ago I suc­cess­ful­ly defend­ed my dis­ser­ta­tion and I feel like a big weight has been lift­ed off my shoul­ders. I hate exams and hope that I nev­er have to take them again in my life. But all’s well that ends well. It’s also nice that after the exam I will imme­di­ate­ly be very busy. In 6 weeks I’m going to see Professor Koffke in Northampton, and before that I need to pre­pare an essay for pub­li­ca­tion, I need to “restore” my English, see some­thing in Berlin and pre­pare every­thing for the trip. I’ll go via Hoek van Holland, London, Liverpool… and hope to be in New York on September 22nd; From there it’s only 4 hours to Smith College” (7)

The sit­u­a­tion in Germany became increas­ing­ly tense. Berlin in 1931 was very dif­fer­ent from Berlin in 1921, where Dembo arrived from Russia. But mov­ing to the United States was not an escape from immi­nent dan­ger, from the pow­er of the Nazis (judg­ing by Dembo’s let­ters, she did not feel any­thing like that). On the con­trary, Dembo saw work­ing in the United States as an excel­lent chance to fur­ther her career.

USA. Academic Nomad

Thus end­ed the European peri­od of Tamara Dembo. She vis­it­ed Europe from time to time, but con­tin­ued her aca­d­e­m­ic career in the United States, first at Smith College with Kurt Koffka, then at Worcester State Hospital (1932 – 1934). But life was not easy.

Koffka writes to Molly Harrower, who worked in London in 1933-1934:

“My beloved [refer­ring to Molly Harrower, age 27, lec­tur­ing at London University in 1933 – 34], Friday night after a very spir­it­ed sem­i­nar in which I talked a great deal, I drove home with Dembo by way of my garage. I inquired about her prospects & found
they are absolute­ly trag­ic. Some weeks ago she & Hanfmann (8) had been told that they would be able to con­tin­ue for anoth­er year on the same terms as this. Since then two patients of the hos­pi­tal have com­mit­ted sui­cide & one has mur­dered an atten­dant which brought the ter­ri­ble sit­u­a­tion of an under­staffed insti­tu­tion to the author­i­ties. They had direct­ed some of their funds for research work, but now this mon­ey will be, quite legit­i­mate­ly, returned to the fund for atten­dants. So the best that can hap­pen to the two girls is that they are kept on for board & lodg­ing with­out a cent of salary. When I asked Dembo whether she would get some mon­ey from her par­ents she answered with­out embar­rass­ment that not only was this out of the ques­tion, but that dur­ing this year she had to send every pen­ny she could spare to them. So she has not a cent saved! And then, you know, she has no prospect of her posi­tion ever improv­ing, since she is here on a student’s visa & there­fore unable to accept any paid posi­tion even if she could get one. She never
com­plains but shows the most admirable courage. But I feel that some­thing should be done to help her. Do you think she could get any­thing in England, say in a pri­vate school as teacher of Germany with the chance of earn­ing some extra mon­ey by giv­ing pri­vate Russian lessons?
I thought you might know of some­thing. And you are always will­ing to help oth­er peo­ple. So you will for­give me for ask­ing a new favor from you. (pp. 169, 173)” (9)

But the sit­u­a­tion improved thanks to Koffka’s care, and because Dembo’s teacher, Kurt Lewin, emi­grat­ed to the United States. He left almost imme­di­ate­ly after Hitler came to pow­er. Dembo sub­se­quent­ly worked with Lewin at the University of Iowa and Cornell University (1934 – 1936). He and his wife treat­ed Dembo like a daughter.

Postcard in German dat­ed January 25, 1936, signed by Alexsandr Luria, Gita Birenbaum and Bluma Zeigarnik. It is addressed to Kurt Lewin, Tamara Dembo and Maria Ovsiankina. The post­card was sent from Moscow to the USA to Lewin’s uni­ver­si­ty address (Kurt Lewin Archive) on January 25, 1936. Luria, Birenbaum and Zeigarnik pro­pose to hold the next “Topological Meeting” (a con­fer­ence on Kurt Lewin’s topo­log­i­cal psy­chol­o­gy) in their lab­o­ra­to­ry in Moscow. The idea ini­tial­ly seemed almost like a joke, but on February 20, 1936, Luria sent anoth­er let­ter to Levin, which empha­sized that per­son­al­i­ty research con­duct­ed in Moscow in the spir­it of Levin’s “dynam­ic the­o­ry” was devel­op­ing every year. Luria men­tioned the clin­i­cal work of Birenbaum and Zeigarnik and their upcom­ing major study on cog­ni­tion and affect. Then Luria pro­posed hold­ing a large con­fer­ence - the Levin Symposium - not in Moscow, but in Kharkov in June 1936. But the Iron Curtain was quick­ly falling, and these plans were not des­tined to come true.(10)

TheTopological Group in 1935. Archive of the History of American Psychology. Tamara Dembo is (pre­sum­ably) stand­ing fourth from left in the front row. (11)

Dembo worked at Stanford University (1945-1948), where she worked on the reha­bil­i­ta­tion of mil­i­tary per­son­nel who were seri­ous­ly injured dur­ing World War II. Then there was Harvard University (1951 – 1953), where Dembo con­duct­ed research on American Jewish com­mu­ni­ties. Of course, these are very pres­ti­gious uni­ver­si­ties, but Dembo had short tem­po­rary posi­tions everywhere.

Until she found her uni­ver­si­ty: Clark University in Massachusetts in Worcester. She seemed to describe a twen­ty-year cir­cle around America and returned to her har­bor in 1953. She received a per­ma­nent posi­tion at Clark University, although not imme­di­ate­ly, but only in 1959.

She con­tin­ued her research. Books and large arti­cles were pub­lished, for exam­ple, “Adjustment to mis­for­tune - A prob­lem of social psy­cho­log­i­cal reha­bil­i­ta­tion,” in which she and her col­leagues sum­ma­rized their expe­ri­ence in the reha­bil­i­ta­tion of mil­i­tary invalids. (12)

A depart­ment pho­to­graph shows Tamara Dembo, Seymour Wapner, John Bell, two uniden­ti­fied men, and Heinz Werner in the 1950s. Courtesy of Clark University Archives. (13)

Dembo worked at Clark University until her retire­ment in 1972, but after that she remained an Emeritus Professor and lived on the uni­ver­si­ty cam­pus. She main­tained the clos­est pro­fes­sion­al and friend­ly con­nec­tions with uni­ver­si­ty psychologists.

Tamara Dembo lived a great life. And almost half of this life was spent in Worcester. Little did she think in 1952, when she arrived to take up her next tem­po­rary posi­tion, that she would remain at Clark University forever.

Testament of a Gestalt psychologist

When Tamara Dembo passed away, her col­leagues said good­bye to her with dig­ni­ty. In the Journal of Russian & East European Psychology (it was found­ed back in 1962 and is still pub­lished) pub­lished Dembo’s large work “Thoughts on Qualitative Determinants in Psychology”. Psychologists Alberto Rosa and James V. Wertsch wrote a lengthy review of this work. And James V. Wertsch pub­lished In Memoriam (we began our essay with quotes from this arti­cle). (14)

Alberto Rosa and James V. Wertsch writes: “In Dembo’s view, the pos­si­bil­i­ties for study­ing human expe­ri­ence using the sci­en­tif­ic meth­ods typ­i­cal­ly employed in psy­chol­o­gy are very lim­it­ed at best. Instead of rely­ing on “objec­tive obser­va­tions by out­siders,” she argues that it is essen­tial to shift to expe­ri­en­tial obser­va­tions avail­able only to the bear­er of the expe­ri­ence. Among oth­er things, this sug­gests trans­for­ma­tion of the rela­tion­ship between psy­chol­o­gist and sub­ject, and this is one of the most inter­est­ing and far-reach­ing impli­ca­tions of Dembo’s article…
The ori­gins of this line of rea­son­ing can be found in Dembo’s 193 1 arti­cle on anger, in which, as an exper­i­menter, she engaged sub­jects in intense social inter­ac­tion rather than view­ing them from the out­side; but the kind of rela­tion­ship of equal­i­ty she envi­sions in her present arti­cle goes beyond that. It involves a tran­si­tion from a rela­tion­ship between an exper­i­menter as sub­ject (i.e., “sub­ject” in a dif­fer­ent sense than nor­mal­ly encoun­tered in psy­chol­o­gy) and an object (the “sub­ject” in psy­cho­log­i­cal research) to a rela­tion­ship between two gen­uine sub­jects. In cer­tain intrigu­ing respects, this is sim­i­lar to the inno­va­tion Bakhtin… saw Dostoevsky pro­duc­ing in nov­el­is­tic dis­course. In both cas­es a tran­si­tion from a kind of I-she/he rela­tion­ship to an I-I rela­tion­ship is involved. This, of course, con­sti­tutes a rad­i­cal depar­ture from busi­ness as usu­al in research psy­chol­o­gy. In addi­tion to its impli­ca­tions for the meth­ods of research psy­chol­o­gy, this has impli­ca­tions for under­stand­ing psy­chol­o­gy as a polit­i­cal activ­i­ty. Dembo’s pro­pos­als are pro­pos­als for inject­ing new pol­i­tics into the process of doing psy­cho­log­i­cal research. Specifically, this is new pol­i­tics in which the dif­fer­ences in pow­er and author­i­ty between exper­i­menter and “sub­ject” are reduced, if not elim­i­nat­ed. This bold step reflects a wis­dom accu­mu­lat­ed through near­ly a cen­tu­ry of per­son­al and pro­fes­sion­al expe­ri­ence. It is worth lis­ten­ing to.” (15)

The research is ongo­ing. Gestalt is open.

Monument at the grave of Tamara Dembo

Tamara Dembo had nei­ther a fam­i­ly nor children.

She passed away on October 17, 1993. The New York Times pub­lished (16) a short obit­u­ary not­ing Tamara Dembo’s work in reha­bil­i­tat­ing wound­ed World War II veterans.

Tamara Dembo is buried in B’nai B’rith Jewish Cemetery, Worcester, Massachusetts.
Her mon­u­ment is inscribed with her name in Hebrew and English and the dates of her life. “Tamara Dembo is the daugh­ter of Vasily and Sophia Dembo. A stu­dent of Dora Levitan, who was killed by the Nazis.” Who Dora Levitan is and what role she played in the life of the out­stand­ing Gestalt psy­chol­o­gist could not be established.


(1) James V. Wertsch (1993) In Memoriam, Journal of Russian & East European Psychology, 31:6, 3-4. To link to this article:

(2) Verena Dohrn. “Die Kahans aus Baku: Eine Familienbiographie”.

(3) The jour­nal is still pub­lished today, although in English under the name Psychological Research.

4) Danziger, K. (1990). Constructing the sub­ject: Historical ori­gins of psy­cho­log­i­cal research. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge, University Press. (1990)

(5) In pre­sent­ing the work of Tamara Dembo, we will fol­low the arti­cle by René van der Veer. Tamara Dembo’s European years: work­ing with lewin and Buytendijk. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences: Vol. 36(2), 109 – 126. Spring 2000. Tamara Dembo’s dis­ser­ta­tion was pub­lished in the jour­nal and almost imme­di­ate­ly came out as a mono­graph: Der Ärger als dynamis­ches Problem. Psychologische Forschung, 15, 1 – 144. Der Ärger als dynamis­ches Problem. Berlin: Julius Springer.

(6) René van der Veer.

(7) René van der Veer.

(8) Eugenia Hanfmann (1905-1983) - psy­chol­o­gist, emi­grant from Russia. She and Dembo both worked togeth­er and shared a room in Worcester

(9) Quote. by William R. Woodward. Russian women emi­grées in psy­chol­o­gy: Informal Jewish Networks. History of Psychology 2010, Vol. 13, No. 2, 111 – 137. University of New Hampshire.

(10) Revisionist Revolution in Vygotsky Studies. Edited by Anton Yasnitsky and René van der Veer. First pub­lished 2016. Routledge is an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group. London and New York, NY 10017, p. 211

(11) William R. Woodward.

(12) See Dembo, T., Leviton, G. L., & Wright, B. A. (1956). Adjustment to mis­for­tune — A prob­lem of social psy­cho­log­i­cal reha­bil­i­ta­tion. Artificial Limbs, 3, 4 – 62.

(13) William R. Woodward.

(14) Thoughts on Qualitative Determinants in Psychology. Tamara Dembo
To cite this arti­cle: Tamara Dembo (1993) Thoughts on Qualitative Determinants in
Psychology, Journal of Russian & East European Psychology, 31:6, 15-70
Tamara Dembo and Her Work. Alberto Rosa, James V. Wertsch. To cite this arti­cle: Alberto Rosa & James V. Wertsch (1993) Tamara Dembo and Her Work, Journal of Russian & East European Psychology, 31:6, 5-13 http://dx.doi.org/10.2753/RPO1061-040531065</ a>
Journal of Russian and East European Psychology, In Memoriam. James V. Wertsch
To cite this arti­cle: James V. Wertsch (1993) In Memoriam, Journal of Russian & East European. Psychology, 31:6, 3-4.

(15) Tamara Dembo and Her Work. Alberto Rosa & James V. Wertsch.

(16) Tamara Dembo, 91, Gestalt Psychologist Who Studied Anger. New York Times, 1993.10.19.


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