Introduction to Gestalt Psychology

“The Whole is Greater Than the Sum of its Parts” – this saying has become the motto for Gestalt psychology. As Behaviorism and Introspection (other Psychological Schools of Thought) seemed to focus on analyzing basic parts, Gestalt psychology is more concerned with the big picture. Gestalt, which is a German word that means unified or meaningful whole, was created as an alternative view to these theories. Although the founding of Gestalt can be attributed to many philosophers and psychologists, Max Wertheimer is often noted as being the founder.

Gestalt psychology is based on the idea that we often experience things that are not a part of our simple sensations. When Max Wertheimer looked into the toy stroboscope he bought at the Frankfurt train station, he witnessed a series of individual sensory events, which being shown in rapid succession, appeared to be in motion. He saw the same effect when he experimented in his laboratory with individual lights, flashing a sequence of them one after another. People may often witness this illusion during the holidays when Christmas lights appear to encircle the tree or during a trip to Las Vegas where the numerous neon signs appear to move. The idea that we perceive motion when it is nothing but individual parts stringed closely together is called the phi phenomenon, and it is also the basic principle behind animated cartoons and motion pictures. In these instances, the theory “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” is true, as we are more concerned with the overall effect rather than the individual components that create it.

The Gestalt Laws of Organization

The phi phenomenon is just one of the few principles of organization that apply to Gestalt psychology. The most general law is the “Law of Pragnanz.” Pragnanz, being the German word for pregnant, does not have the implication of pregnant with child, but rather pregnant with meaning. Basically this law implies that as people, we innately perceive and experience things in a regular, orderly, simple, symmetrical way.

“The Law of Closure” implies that if there is something missing in an otherwise complete image, we will automatically add it. For example, if there was a set of dots outlining the shape of a star, we will still perceive the figure as being a star, rather than a set of dots.

“The Law of Similarity” says that we naturally group objects that are similar to one another together when they are mixed with other objects in a larger formation. As a result we often group similar shapes, patterns, and colors together just looking at them.

“The Law of Proximity” states that objects that are close together, belong together. For instance, if there is a sequence of objects, we tend to perceive it as being a line, instead of individual objects that are set side by side.

“The Law of Symmetry” causes us to view images that appear to be the reverse of one another as together as well.

“The Law of Continuity” makes us view an image of two lines intersecting on another as being two continuous lines rather than a series of angles that begin and end at certain points.

The “Figure-ground law” is another Gestalt psychology principle that says we have an innate tendency to see one aspect of an image to be the figure or fore-ground while the other as the ground of back-ground. This principle is shown with the classic black and white image that can be seen as either a black vase or two white faces looking at one another, depending on nothing but changing out attitude.

The Way We Learn

Gestalt psychology also theorized that learning is more effective when students learn generalizations and principles that can be applied to a variety of situations rather than simply rote memorization, which is more of a conditioned response than actual learning. This idea can not only be seen in humans, but in animals as well. While observing Sultan, a caged chimpanzee, Wolfgang Kohler, was amazed to see the chimp using sticks that he just discovered as a means to retrieve fruit that was out of reach. In another experiment, Kohler observed chickens that were trained to peck at a grey board. However, when the grey board was removed as and two new boards, a black and a white one, was replaced, the chickens instinctively began to peck at the white one. This shows that the chickens understood the relationship between the lighter board and the reward, corn. This generalization of knowledge and our ability to apply it to different circumstances is known as transposition.

Unfortunately, Gestalt psychology lost influence due to the Nazis coming into power in Germany while its founders and most influential psychologists were scattered across the globe. The fact that Behaviorism in the United States was too strong for Gestalt psychology to overcome ultimately led to its inactivity. However, the basic principles that this theory lived by continue to be valid and many psychologist today see the founders of Gestalt to be pioneers in their field.