Tamara Dembo (1902–1993)
by Sandra Hodgson, York University*
Biography of Tamara Dembo
Dr. Tamara Dembo contributed significantly to both experimental and applied psychology. Over the course of her career, she took information derived from her early experimental and theoretical work and applied that knowledge to the rehabilitation needs of physically disfigured World War Two veterans, and to child sufferers of cerebral palsy. In her final article, published posthumously, Dembo left future researchers with a roadmap for qualitative studies and emphasized the importance of intuition, or in her words — “hunches and half-baked ideas” — in the development of research agendas (Dembo, 1993, p. 18).
Dembo was born in Baku, Russia on May 28, 1902 to Jewish parents Sophia (née Volchkina) and Wulf Dembo. She reportedly suffered from a childhood illness that restricted her activities for many of her earliest years (Wertch, 1993). As a young child, her resulting frustration perhaps led to her lifelong interest in the socio-psychological factors influencing the individual. Following her high school graduation in Russia, she pursued additional studies at the University of Berlin.
When Dembo arrived at the University of Berlin in 1921, she joined a young group of experimental scientists who would have a profound impact on psychology. Along with Kurt Lewin and colleagues Bluma Zeigarnik, Maria Ovsiankina, and Vera Mahler, Tamara Dembo participated in the development of theory and experimental processes that now permeate social psychology. She conducted her dissertation research with Kurt Lewin, and her thesis, published in 1931 as Der Anger als Dynamisches Problem (The Dynamics of Anger), became the foundation for much of her later work. Dembo devised an experimental task intended to create frustration, and in turn, anger her participants. In so doing, she was more than a mere observer in her study. She engaged her 64 participants in a lengthy interaction where she encouraged, and then insisted, that subjects complete their assigned tasks. Dembo observed that the intensity of the need to succeed at the task has a significant effect on the resulting tension and thus, the action of the participant. The emotional reactions of the participants as they failed to meet the goals set for them gave strong evidence in support of Lewin’s theories that behavior was a function of the total situation.
After completing her Ph.D., Dembo was invited to assume a position as a research associate with Kurt Koffka at Smith College in the United States. During her time at Smith, the political situation in Germany was changing and many of her former associates were leaving or being forced to leave the country. Dembo’s decision to remain in the United States far from her family is understandable in this context. Following her work with Koffka, she took a position as a research associate at Worcester State Hospital. When Kurt Lewin immigrated to the United States and received an appointment at Cornell University, Dembo reunited with her mentor with whom she worked for the next ten years. Throughout her years as a collaborator with Lewin, she produced some of her most enduring work. Her studies in frustration and regression with Lewin and Roger Barker (1941), and level of aspiration with Lewin, Pauline Sears, and Leon Festinger (1944) stand as frequently-cited classics in the field, and provide the foundation for valuable social psychological research still being conducted today.
This association however was not always enough to allow her to experience the fullness of her vocation. In spite of Dembo’s status amongst her peers, she was subject to the same limitations that the majority of career women encountered during this era. In providing an unofficial explanation to Dembo for her refusal of a summer teaching position a letter relayed the unfortunate message that, “the director (unnamed) of the extension session wrote back and said that they needed a man” (Leeper, 1940). Dembo did not let this kind of short-sightedness deter her. When Kurt Lewin left the University of Iowa during 1943, she struck out on her own. In the aftermath of the Second World War she became involved in the relocation efforts of many Jewish intellectuals, and she redirected her formidable drive towards the application of the research findings she had established earlier in her career.
Along with psychologists Gloria Ladieu-Leviton and Beatrice Wright, with whom she worked at Worcester State Hospital and the University of Iowa respectively, Dembo devised a research project aimed at understanding adjustment to physical challenges from the perspective of the participant. She believed that it was important that those who had actually lost limbs or suffered with other visible physical disfigurements were active in the project. She and her colleagues were interested in participants’ subjective interactions with experimenters and other members of the study. The study was approved and funds were granted before the researchers managed to find a home for the project (Dembo 1944). Stanford University eventually agreed to provide the required support and overhead that allowed for the execution of the study through the years 1945-1948. Their pioneering research, which resulted in Adjustment to Misfortune (1956), was conducted within a social-psychological framework and can be regarded as one of the earliest studies in the emergent field of rehabilitation psychology.
Dembo continued to work in the area of rehabilitation psychology for the remainder of her career. She joined Clark University as an associate professor during 1953 and from 1954 to 1961 was the Director of Psychological Development in the Cerebral Palsy Project. The study was designed to assist families of children with cerebral palsy in keeping their children engaged with their surroundings. During these years she also worked to establish the field of rehabilitation psychology through the formation of Division 22 of the American Psychological Association. Dembo served as president of the division during the 1968-1969 term. In 1980, she was honored for her pioneering work in the field, receiving the Distinguished Service Award from Division 22. In 1981, she received the Kurt Lewin Memorial Award, sponsored by Division 9 - the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues.
Tamara Dembo continued to lead an active and productive life following her official retirement from Clark, even leading a seminar during the 1992 winter term (Wertch, 1993). Following a short illness, she passed away in Worcester, Massachusetts in October of 1993. She left no immediate family. Instead, she left a legacy of humility, dedication to her field, and a network of friends and colleagues who valued her and her work immensely.
Barker, R., Dembo, T., & Lewin, K. (1941). Frustration and regression: An experiment with young children. University of Iowa Studies in Child Welfare.
Dembo, T. (1931). Der anger als dynamisches problem. Psychologische Forschung, 15, 1-144.
Dembo, T. (1944). Letter to Roger Barker (Dembo papers). Worcester, MA: Clark University Archives.
Dembo, T., Leviton, G., & Wright, B.A. (1956). Adjustment to misfortune: A problem of social psychological rehabilitation. Artificial Limbs, 3, 4-62.
Dembo, T. (1993). Thoughts on qualitative determinants in psychology: A methodological study. Journal of Russian and East-European Psychology, 31, 15-70.
Leeper, D. (1940, January 7) Letter to Tamara Dembo (Dembo papers). Worcester, MA: Clark University Archives.
Lewin, K., Dembo, T., Festinger, L., & Sears, P. (1944). Level of Aspiration. In J. M. Hunt (Ed.). Personality and the behavior disorders (pp 333-378). Oxford: Ronald Press.
Wertch, J.V. (1993). In memoriam. Journal of Russian and East-European Psychology, 31, 3-4.
* Originally published in The Feminist Psychologist, Newsletter of the Society for the Psychology of Women, Division 35 of the American Psychological Association, Volume 31, Number 4, Fall, 2004. Appearing with permission of the author.