This article provides a practical explanation of Gestalt psychology by Max Wertheimer, Kurt Koffka and Wolfgang Köhler. After reading, you’ll understand the basics of this powerful psychology tool.
What is Gestalt Psychology?
The word gestalt originates from German and is being used to talk about the way something is put together, often translated into English as the “form”, “shape” or unified whole. Gestalt psychology can be defined as a school of thought that emerged in the early twenties and believes that the whole of an object or a scene is greater and more important than its components. Through Gestalt psychology, we are encouraged to see and treat the mind and behavior as a whole. This approach creates clarity in chaos by helping to unify separate parts of information and to look for patterns.
Gestalt Psychology also contributed to the study of sensation and perception. The aim was to understand how humans give meaning to the world they live in and how they identify the order in disorder. According to Gestalt Psychology, how humans interpret what they see in the world depends on what they expect to see and will try to find a pattern in what they see and experience.
Who is the founder of Gestalt Psychology?
Gestalt Psychology was founded in Germany during the early twenty century by psychologist Max Wertheimer and co-founders Kurt Koffka and Wolfgang Köhler. They all met at the Psychological Institute of Frankfurt University, where Wertheimer was working as a professor while Koffka and Köhler were assisting him in his work. The University is also where they formed the school of thought, Gestalt Psychology.
Wertheimer is known for a concept called the Phi phenomenon. During his traveling, he noticed how at a train station, two separate lights going on and off created the illusion of movement. Wertheimer then became interested in the study of perception, which formed the beginning of his research on Gestalt Psychology. With his research, he responded to structuralism and the approach by psychologist Wilhelm Wundt who was known for breaking down psychological events into separate parts. Wertheimer, on the other hand, found that the parts were related and believed in looking at the human mind and behavior as a whole.
An experiment, similar to Wertheimer his experience with the two flashing lights at the train station, formed the beginning of research on Gestalt Psychology. For this experiment Wertheimer and his colleagues, Koffka and Köhler focused on the concept of “apparent perception”. What they discovered was that when two lights flash right after one another, it will create an illusion of uninterrupted motion. Instead of seeing two separate lights, the person would perceive one light to be moving from the point of the first light to the spot where the second light was standing. This was another result that added to the Gestaltists belief that the human mind has its way of organizing and that it’s based on perceiving things as a whole rather than individual parts.
What are the main principles of Gestalt Psychology?
After Gestalt Psychology was founded, co-founder Kurt Koffka published “Principles of Gestalt Psychology,” in which he presented the Gestalt theory and its principles. The following principles from Gestalt psychology describe the way human perception works and how we give meaning to objects and events.
This principle states that when the human eye sees elements that are placed close to each other that we perceive them to be a set or a group. An example is the way we read a text. When letters are put together, our perception is that they form a word.
Another way humans tend to group elements in their visual fields is by looking for similarities. Elements that look alike will automatically be grouped together. For example, during a sports event, people who wear the same color shirt are perceived to be on the same team.
Also, part of Gestalt Psychology is the continuation principle, which states that the human eye prefers to see a continuous line or movement rather than separate elements. When, for example, we see a sign on a building of which a tree partly covers a letter X, our mind will still perceive it to be the letter X and we’ll read the sign without any problem. We can see the continuity of the lines.
This principle explains how humans prefer to see complete elements. When seeing incomplete elements, we can fill in missing information to still perceive it as complete. This principle is often used for advertisements. Advertisers come up with indicative phrases for the public to complete. This approach is believed to trigger interest and greater involvement from the audience.
The principle of figure and ground explains how humans in their visual field make a distinction between figure and ground. The figure is the object or person that’s central in our visual field, while the ground is less present and is perceived as the background. This explains how a human’s perception of an object or situation can be different from someone else’s perception, which depends on what is perceived as the figure and the ground. This principle was used by Danish psychologist Edgar Rubin, who experimented with optical illusion.
Another principle of Gestalt Psychology is the principle of common fate. When the human eye sees elements moving together in a certain direction they are usually perceived as a group. An example of a common fate is when we see children heading to the playground, which can make us perceive them as a whole. It is possible to look at the elements separately when done intentionally.
Law of Pragnänz
It’s impossible to spend time and energy on everything around us. Therefore, we tend to organize the elements we see in the simplest way possible. The human mind prefers simplicity and that is why we try to simplify what we perceive. This way, when we see a car, we don’t need any additional information to know what we are looking at. This is called the law of Pragnänz. Pragnänz is a german word, meaning conciseness in English.
In addition to the principles mentioned above that help us to understand how human perception works, Gestalt theorists recognize that the way we see the world is also influenced by other factors such as personality, expectations, and experiences.
Example of Gestalt Psychology
One of the examples used to explain Gestalt Psychology is the following:
When there is no movement humans can have the perception that there is, which was also the case with the two flashing lights that led to the Phi phenomenon. A film, for example, is a series of individual images, but by rapidly showing the images we perceive them as a continuous motion while in reality there is none. According to Gestalt psychologists, this is the result of our minds filling in missing information. In this example, the missing information is the gaps between the images. This shows that the “whole” plays a more significant role in human minds than the sum of individual parts.
Application of Gestalt Psychology
Basic psychological processes, such as perception and attention, are greatly influenced by Gestalt psychology. These basic psychological processes are fundamental and applied to practical matters. For example, the development in the study of perception contributes to programs that are carried out to avoid accidents by improving road signs. This can only be done through the knowledge we have on perception.
Gestalt Psychology and Communication
To be able to trigger the attention of the audience, people working in the field of communication and creativity, use Gestalt Psychology. For people working as artists, publicists, or designers, it is of importance to understand how the human mind interprets images. This knowledge can help them to produce work that communicates to their audience in the way they intended it to do.
Gestalt Psychology and Problem-solving
To solve a problem, it’s essential to understand the problem you are working with. In Gestalt psychology, it is believed that a problem consists of components that are related and interact with one another. To solve the problem you need to reorganize these components to be able to discover a new solution. This creative reorganization of the components of a problem is called productive thinking. Gestalt psychologists recommend using productive thinking to reach inside into different issues.
Gestalt psychology and Education
In education, Gestalt Psychology is applied to perception and problem-solving. The application of Gestalt psychology to education implies that teachers should encourage students to solve a problem by discovering the different elements of the problem and how they are related.
Therapy based on Gestalt Psychology is a humanistic approach in which people are considered to be powerful and independent beings. It looks at the functioning of the human mind from a holistic point of view, with each person having his or her own thoughts, experiences, and reality.
The development of Gestalt therapy started in the 1940s with author Fritz Perls. He argued that each person has his or her own reality, which is determined by our perception and that it’s our own responsibility to change our perception. This way of thinking is also central in Gestalt Therapy, whereby personal growth and identity-building are the focus points.
The Gestalt Institute of Cleveland
The Gestalt Institute of Cleveland attracts people from around the world. At the institute, workshops and training programs are being organized based on Gestalt principles and methodologies. The design of the workshops and training programs focuses on transformation from the individual level to organizational levels.
Gestalt Psychology in daily life
Gestalt Psychology can also be applied to our daily life. As mentioned in this article, Gestalt Psychology can be used for problem-solving and encourage more creativity. Also, being aware of the Gestalt principles can help us to understand how we perceive the world, explain optical illusions, and help to understand our behavior.
Now it’s your turn
What do you think? Do you recognize the explanation about Gestalt Psychology? Do you recognize the principles in the way you perceive things? Do you recognize Gestalt Psychology in the way people around you perceive the world? Is there a way in which you could apply Gestalt Psychology to your work or studies? Are there situations in which you don’t perceive objects or events as a whole? Do you have any tips or additional comments?
Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.
- Behrens, R. R. (1998). Art, design and gestalt theory. Leonardo, 31(4), 299-303.
- Köhler, W. (1967). Gestalt psychology. Psychologische Forschung. 31(1), XVIII-XXX.
- Köhler, W. (2015). The task of Gestalt psychology. Princeton University Press.
- Wertheimer, M. (1968). A Source Book of Gestalt Psychology. Psyccritiques, 13(8).
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