What is Gestalt Psychology?

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Gestalt psychology is a school of thought that looks at the human mind and behavior as a whole. When trying to make sense of the world around us, Gestalt psychology suggests that we do not simply focus on every small component.

Instead, our minds tend to perceive objects as part of a greater whole and as elements of more complex systems. This school of psychology played a major role in the modern development of the study of human sensation and perception.

A Brief History of Gestalt Psychology

Originating in the work of Max Wertheimer, Gestalt psychology formed partially as a response to the structuralism of Wilhelm Wundt.

While Wundt was interested in breaking down psychological matters into their smallest possible part, the Gestalt psychologists were instead interested in looking at the totaling mind and behavior. The guiding principle behind the Gestalt movement was that the whole was greater than the sum of its parts.

The development of this area of psychology was influenced by a number of thinkers, including Immanuel Kant, Ernst Mach, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

The development of Gestalt psychology was influenced in part by Wertheimer's observations one day at a train station. He purchased a toy stroboscope which displayed pictures in a rapid sequence to mimic the appearing movement. He later proposed the concept of the Phi phenomenon in which flashing lights in sequence can lead to what is known as apparent motion.

In other words, we perceive movement where there is none. Movies are one example of apparent motion. Through a sequence of still frames, the illusion of movement is created.

"The fundamental "formula" of Gestalt theory might be expressed in this way,” Max Wertheimer wrote. "There are wholes, the behavior of which is not determined by that of their individual elements, but where the part-processes are themselves determined by the intrinsic nature of the whole.

It is the hope of Gestalt theory to determine the nature of such wholes" (1924).

Major Gestalt Psychologists

Gestalt Laws of Perceptual Organization

Have you ever noticed how a series of flashing lights often appears to be moving, such as neon signs or strands of Christmas lights? According to Gestalt psychology, this apparent movement happens because our minds fill in missing information. This belief that the whole is greater than the sum of the individual parts led to the discovery of several different phenomena that occur during perception.

In order to better understand how human perception works, Gestalt psychologists proposed a number of laws of perceptual organization, including:

  • The Law of Similarity
  • The Law of Pragnanz
  • The Law of Proximity
  • The Law of Continuity
  • The Law of Closure

The law of similarity suggests that similar items tend to be grouped together. If a number of objects in a scene are similar to one another, you will naturally group them together and perceive them as a whole. For example, a series of circles or squares stacked together will be viewed as a series of columns rather than just individual shapes.

The law of proximity suggests that objects near each other tend to be viewed as a group.

If you see a number of people standing close together, you might immediately assume that they are all part of the same social group.

At a restaurant, for example, the host or hostess might assume that people seated next to each other in the waiting area are together and ask if they are ready to be seated. In reality, they may only be sitting near each other because there is little room in the waiting area or because those were the only open seats.

Gestalt psychology also helped introduce the idea that human perception is not just about seeing what is actually present in the world around us. Much of what we perceive is heavily influenced by our motivations and expectations.


Wertheimer, M. (1938). Gestalt theory. In W. D. Ellis (Ed.), A Source Book of Gestalt Psychology. London, England: Routledge & Kegan Paul; 1997.

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