Introduction to Gestalt Psychology

Gestalt psychology, founded in Germany around 1912 by Max Wertheimer (1888-1943), and his colleagues, K. Koffka (1886-1941) and W. Kohler (1887-1967), is concerned with how people perceive things and how problems are solved. Gestalt psychology presented a strict departure from behaviorism and structuralism and was about seeing things in wholes rather than in parts.

Gestalt is a German word that means something like form, organization, and configuration – there is no exact equivalent in English. Gestalt relied on concepts derived from physics and included field concepts such as the pattern of lines that make up a magnetic field, and is therefore sometimes referred to as field psychology.

The main characteristics of Gestalt psychology are

* opposition to atomism or the theory of wholes

* phenomenology

Opposition to atomism

Atomism refers to the way the beginning science of psychology focused on elements or atoms. Gestaltists were concerned with the nature of facts or atoms that were only held together loosely by association.

The Gestalt psychologists felt that the prevailing psychology’s of the time which were structuralism and behaviorism missed the point by looking for elements such as sensations or conditioned reflexes and felt that these elements could not fully explain the experiences of the human being. Their idea was that experiences are patterns or organizations similar to the magnetic field. In a magnetic field events are influenced by other events within the magnetic field. A series of dots form a pattern, not isolated dots.

This series of dots or pattern can be compared to a kind of drawing in the field of art called stippling. The artist renders an entire drawing by placing dots on the drawing paper. When one sees the drawing, one does not look at the individual dots but sees the drawing as a whole drawing. One might see a tree filled with apples set against a backdrop of a river with ducks swimming on the river and grass beneath the tree and a few apples on the ground and the sky above. The artist can manipulate the dots in order to achieve both lightness and darkness. He will place dots further apart to project light, and closer together to show darkness. When we look at the drawing we will not see dots closer and further apart – we will see the whole drawing as one picture.

This type of pattern can also be compared to pixels on the TV screen or computer screen. We don’t see individual pixels but whole pictures. The dots are organized in such a way as to present a configuration.

Like seeing a series of dots or pixels as one whole unifying picture, Gestalt theorists said that life is not individual experiences but a whole experience.

The entire basis of Gestalt theory rests on wholes. All things perceived are perceived in a whole way. They are not perceived as elements or parts of the whole.

Wertheimer explained this idea by talking of the melody in a musical composition where the melody is played in a different key. It is changed but perceived as the same melody. The Gestalt question would be that even though it is changed it still sounds the same because the melody is the same, so what constitutes the change or what is that thing that makes the composition sound the same even though it has been changed?

Gestalt Psychology was concerned with wholes, not elements. Structuralism and behaviorism were concerned with elements.


Phenomenology refers to a method of natural observation that is applied to human perception. Phenomenology and structuralism used introspection but the difference was that structuralists used trained introspection, whereas .phenomenology was about “naive introspection” or what something looked like to the observer. Gestaltists stated that “new phenomena of experience as reported without elaboration or analysis were legitimate observations.”

Learning and Gestalt

Gestaltists claimed that learning takes place in perceptual processes at a higher level. They were opposed to the trial and error learning process and the stimulus-response learning process and focused attention on problem solving. Kohler studied the mentality of apes and studied their problem-solving abilities. His experiments led to what he termed insight. When a person has insight he finds an immediate or spontaneous answer to a problem. Learning is possible when one restructures or reorganizes his environment in order to discover insight and solve problems.

Wertheimer used the Gestalt principles of learning to identify the creative thinking in humans. Creative thinking is done in wholes. Learning is done in wholes and the teaching must also be done in wholes. Wertheimer said, “the whole problem must dominate the parts.” Learning by rote or repetition was not effective, but learning by wholes produced insight.


Gestalt psychology differs from other forms of psychology by perceiving all things by the whole rather than by individual elements. It is concerned with the whole human being rather than isolated behaviors or sensations of the human being as in structural and behavioral psychology. It is concerned with whole learning as opposed to rote learning. Whole learning brings about insight. Rote learning is not dynamic and does not impact the learner.


Schultz, Duane P., Schultz, Sydney Ellen, A History of Modern Psychology, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Inc., NY, 1992.

Morgan, Clifford T., King, Richard A., Introduction to Psychology, McGraw-Hill Inc., NY, 1971.