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Wolfgang Köhler

German psychologist and principal figure in the development of Gestalt psychology.

Wolfgang Köhler was born in Revel, Estonia, and grew up in Wolfenbüttel, Germany. He studied at the universities of Bonn and Tübingen, and at the Friedrich Wilhelm University of Berlin, where he received his Ph.D. in 1909, writing a dissertation on psychoacoustics under the direction of Carl Stumpf (1848-1936). In 1910, Köhler began a long professional association with Max Wertheimer (1880-1943) when he and Kurt Koffka (1886-1941), both assistants to Friedrich Schumann at the University of Frankfurt, served as research subjects for an experiment of Wertheimer's involving perception of moving pictures. Within the next ten years, the three men were to found the Gestalt movement in psychology. In reaction to the prevailing behavioristic methods of Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920) and others, the Gestalt psychologists held that behavior must be studied in all its complexity rather than separated into discrete components. Köhler's early work convinced him that perception, learning, and other cognitive functions should be seen as structured wholes.

Unlike Koffka and Wertheimer, Köhler concentrated on animal research. Beginning in 1913, he spent more than six years as director of the anthropoid research facility of the Prussian Academy of Sciences on the island of Tenerife, where he made many discoveries applying Gestalt theories to animal learning and perception. His observations and conclusions from this period contributed to a radical revision of learning theory. One of his most famous experiments centered on chickens which he trained to peck grains from either the lighter or darker of two sheets of paper. When the chickens who had been 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, showed that what the chickens had learned was an association with a relationship, rather than with a specific color. This finding, which flew in the face of behaviorist theories deemphasizing the importance of relationships, became known as the Gestalt law of transposition, because the test subjects had transposed their original experience to a new set of circumstances.

Köhler also conducted a series of experiments in which chimpanzees were confronted with the problem of obtaining bananas that were hung just out of reach by using "tools"—bamboo poles and stacked boxes. The chimpanzees varied in their ability to arrive at the correct combination of actions needed to solve the problem. Often, a test subject would suddenly find a solution at a seemingly random point. This research led Köhler to the concept of learning by a sudden leap of the imagination,

Wolfgang Köhler (Archives of the History of American Psychology. Reproduced with permission.)

or "insight," in which a relationship that had not been seen before was suddenly perceived, a formulation in conflict with the trial-and-error theory of learning resulting from Edward Thorndike's puzzle box experiments. Based on this work, Köhler published The Mentality of Apes in 1917, demonstrating that Gestalt theory could be applied to animal behavior.

Köhler returned to Germany after World War I, and in 1921 was appointed to the most prestigious position in German psychology, director of the Psychological Institute at the University of Berlin. For the next 14 years he made the Institute a center for Gestalt studies and was a noted spokesman for the movement. In 1935, however, Köhler resigned due to conflicts with the Nazis, and emigrated to the United States, where he served on the faculties of Swarthmore and Dartmouth Colleges. In 1959, he was appointed president of the American Psychological Association. There has been some speculation that he was a spy during World War I, a thesis explored by his biographer, Ronald Ley. Köhler's books include Gestalt Psychology (1929), The Place of Value in a World of Facts (1938), and Dynamics in Psychology (1940).

Further Reading

Ley, Ronald. A Whisper of Espionage. Garden City Park, NY: Avery Publishing Group, 1990.

Petermann, Bruno. The Gestalt Theory and the Problem of Configuration. London: K. Paul, 1932.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaFamous Psychologists & Scientists