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Gestalt Psychology

The school of psychology that emphasizes the study of experience and behavior as wholes rather than independently functioning, disparate parts.

The Gestaltists were at odds with the popular school of psychology of the day, known as structuralism, whose proponents believed that the mind consists of units or elements and could be understood by mapping and studying them in combination. The Gestalt psychologists believed that mental experience was dependent not on a simple combination of elements but on the organization and patterning of experience and of one's perceptions. Thus, they held that behavior must be studied in all its complexity rather than separated into discrete components, and that perception, learning, and other cognitive functions should be seen as structured wholes.

The Gestalt school of psychology was founded in the early twentieth century by the German psychologist Max Wertheimer and his younger colleagues, Kurt Koffka and Wolfgang Köhler. The association between the three men began in 1910 with early studies of perception that ultimately led to the wide-ranging Gestalt view of the whole as more than the sum of its parts. Investigating the phenomenon of "apparent perception"— on which motion pictures are based—they discovered that when two lights were flashed in succession under specific conditions, an illusion of continuous motion was produced. The subject perceived a single light which appeared to move from the position of the first light to the position of the second light. This and other experiments led the Gestaltists to conclude that the mind imposes its own patterns of organization on the stimuli it receives rather than merely recording them, and that the significance of the mental "wholes" thus formed transcends that of their component parts. In a series of lectures in 1913, Wertheimer outlined a new psychological approach based on the belief that mental operations consist mainly of these organic "wholes" rather than the chains of associated sensations and impressions emphasized by Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920) and other psychological researchers of the day.

In the same year Köhler began six years of experimental animal research on the Canary Islands during which he made many discoveries that applied Gestalt theories to animal learning and perception. One of his most famous experiments was with chickens which he trained to peck grains from either the lighter or darker of two sheets of paper. When the chickens trained to prefer the light color were presented with a choice between that color and a new sheet that was still lighter, a majority switched to the new sheet. Similarly, chickens trained to prefer the darker color, when presented with a parallel choice, chose a new, darker color. These results, Köhler maintained, proved that what the chickens had learned was an association with a relationship, rather than with a specific color. This finding, which contradicted contemporary behaviorist theories, became known as the Gestalt law of transposition, because the test subjects had transposed their original experience to a new set of circumstances.

Although its founders conceived of Gestalt theory as a way to understand motivation, learning, and other cognitive processes, much early Gestalt research was concentrated in the area of perception. In the dozen years following the first studies in apparent motion, additional rules of perception were discovered. Among the most well-known are laws involving proximity (objects that are closer together are more likely to be seen as belonging together); similarity (similar elements are perceived as belonging together); continuity (sensations that seem to create a continuous form are perceived as belonging together); closure (the tendency that makes people mentally fill in missing areas to create a whole); texture (the tendency to group together items with a similar texture); simplicity (grouping items together in the simplest way possible); and common fate (grouping together sets of objects moving in the same direction at the same speed).

Another well-known Gestalt concept illustrating the significance of the whole involves the interdependence of figure and ground. The Gestaltists introduced the idea that perception occurs in "fields" consisting of a figure (which receives most of the viewer's attention) and a ground (the background). Neither figure nor ground can exist without the contrast they provide for each other: thus, they form an inseparable whole that can only be understood as part of a dynamic process greater than the sum of its individual parts. (The phenomenon of figure and ground is most often illustrated by the Rubin vase, which can be perceived as either two dark profiles on a white background, or a white vase on a dark background.) Köhler's work with primates during this period yielded important findings—transferable to humans—on learning and problem solving that contributed further to the body of Gestalt theory. His experiments emphasized "insight learning," through which the test subject finds a solution to a problem by suddenly "seeing it whole" rather than through random trial and error attempts, or reward-driven conditioning. Hence, Köhler offered a basis for viewing learning as the result of higher-level thinking involving the creative reorganization of data to produce new ways of envisioning a problem.

In 1921, Köhler was appointed to the most prestigious position in German psychology—directorship of the Psychological Institute at the University of Berlin. Under his leadership, it became a center for Gestalt studies, which remained a major force in German psychology until the mid-1930s, when Nazi pressure led to Köhler's resignation and emigration to the United States. Articles and books published in English by Kurt Koffka had also popularized Gestalt psychology in the United States beginning in 1922, and both Koffka and Köhler received invitations to lecture in America throughout the 1920s. By the early 1930s, however, the Gestalt school had become subordinated to the reigning enthusiasm for behaviorism, a movement antithetical to its principles.

While the Gestaltists were at odds with many popular psychological views of their time, including those held in introspective psychology, they did maintain the value of an unstructured form of introspection known as "phenomenology." Phenomenological investigation explored questions regarding personal perception of motion, size, and color and provided additional feedback regarding perception and its importance in psychological experiences. This information influenced later perception-centered theories involving problem solving, memory, and learning.

Further Reading

Köhler, Wolfgang. The Task of Gestalt Psychology. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1972.

McConville, Mark. Adolescence: Psychotherapy and the Emergent Self. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1995.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaBranches of Psychology