What Is Gestalt Psychology? Definition And Overview

By: Toni Hoy

Updated July 15, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Lauren Guilbeault

The word Gestalt comes from the German language and doesn't have a direct equivalent in English. It generally translates to the way things are placed or put together as a whole. In the field of psychology, the Gestalt is more accurately described as a pattern or configuration. In this context, Gestalt encompasses the human mind and behavior as a whole.

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The early work of gestalt theory focused on perception with a specific emphasis on a visual perceptual organization which could be explained by a phenomenon called illusion. Gestalt theory has played a role in other areas of psychology that seek to understand the brain and social behavior better. Many of the central concepts of gestalt psychology are difficult to define and evaluate experiments. Despite its criticisms, gestalt psychology has had a major impact in the field of psychology.

What Is the Definition of Gestalt Psychology?

Gestalt psychology is a school of thought that was founded in the 20th century. It provided a framework for the study of perception. The premise of gestalt psychology emphasizes that the whole of anything is greater than its parts and that attributes of the whole can't be deduced by analyzing any of the parts on their own accord.

How Did Gestalt Psychology Develop?

Gestalt theory began in Austria and Germany as a reaction to associationism and structuralism schools of thought. Associationism theory suggests that pairs of thoughts connect based on experience. Structuralism is viewed as one of the first schools of thought in psychology. The premise of structuralism is breaking down mental processes into basic components. Gestalt theory focuses on the study of consciousness, objects of direct experience and the science of phenomena.

Early researchers were unsettled by what was then considered a sterile approach to the scientific study of mental health processes. Gestalt psychology was developed partly to add a humanistic element to the study of perception. Researchers in gestalt psychology brought the qualities of form, meaning, and value into their work, where previous researchers had ignored them.

Who Is the Founder of Gestalt Psychology?

Gestalt psychology has been the subject of study by multiple well-known researchers, so it's impossible to credit just one individual as the founder. We can give credit for the development of gestalt psychology to a host of researchers including Max Wertheimer, Wolfgang Köhler, Kurt Koffka, Kurt Goldstein, and Fritz Perls, dating back to 1912. Later researchers in gestalt psychology were Kurt Lewin, Rudolf Arnheim, and Hans Wallach.

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Max Wertheimer wrote "Experimentelle Studien über das Sehen von Bewegung" which translates "Experimental Studies of the Perception of Movement" in 1912 which became the origin of the Gestalt school of thought. Wertheimer worked in conjunction with psychologists Wolfgang Köhler and Kurt Koffka to develop the theory. Wertheimer also proved how gestalt principles could be used to explore and explain problems in ethics, the nature of truth, and political behavior.

The trio applied the gestalt theory to issues of perception including problem-solving, learning, and thinking. Wertheimer, Köhler, and Koffka had all relocated to the United States by the mid-1930s and become professors.

Later, and primarily by Kurt Lewin, gestalt principles were also applied to motivation, social psychology, personality, aesthetics, and economic behavior.

Who Is the Founder Of Gestalt Therapy?

Fritz Perls, a German psychiatrist, and psychoanalyst went to Frankfurt to become the assistant to Kurt Goldstein at the Institute for Brain Damaged Soldiers. Goldstein was also a researcher in gestalt theory. Perls had become dis-infatuated with certain Freudian theories and methods and sought to develop his system of psychotherapy. There, Perls had the opportunity to come under the tutelage of a great number of psychologists, psychoanalysts, and existential philosophers, who directly or indirectly had roles in gestalt principles and gestalt therapy. It was also at the Institute for Brain Damaged Soldiers that he met his wife, Laura Perls, who was also a student of gestalt therapy.

The goal of gestalt therapy is to help clients become aware of the primary sensations within themselves and their environment so they can respond to situations better. Therapists guide clients to focus on the "here and now" as opposed to focusing on past experiences. Once clients can fully experience the present, they can more easily confront past conflicts, or as Perls called them-incomplete gestalts.

What Is Gestalt Psychology?

In simple terms, gestalt psychology is based on the concept that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

To form a better illustration of how human perception works, gestalt researchers proposed the laws of perceptual organization which include the laws of similarity, Pragnanz, proximity, inclusiveness, continuity, and closure. These laws explain how our brains try to group things to help us interpret the world around us.

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The law of similarity refers to grouping like things together to make a pattern of things that belong together. Proximity means grouping things together according to how spatially close together they are. Continuity is a way of grouping things together based on patterns to create a whole figure. Inclusiveness suggests that we see all elements of an image before we see various parts of it. Closure refers to seeing part of an image and being able to mentally fill in the gaps of what we assume should be there. Finally, Pragnanz is referenced by fullness or completeness which means that we keep thinking about something until it feels complete.

What Are Examples Of Gestalt Psychology?

Finding examples of gestalt psychology in our everyday lives is easy.

In 1912, Wertheimer discovered the "phi phenomenon." Have you ever had a flipbook of animated drawings where when you flip the pages of a small book through your fingers? Each drawing is a separate drawing, but when we flip them in rapid succession, we have the illusion that the subject is moving. This is an example of the phi phenomenon which became the basis for motion pictures.

If you drew a circle on a piece of paper and then erased half the circle and view it again, your mind will still attempt to see the circle as a whole. This is an example of continuity.

If you've ever looked closely at an oil or acrylic painting of a landscape, you may notice that the painting is made up of varying brush strokes or effects from a palette knife that doesn't seem to make sense close up. However, if you back away from the painting, you perceive the brushstrokes as grass, trees, and solid ground. This is an example of similarity. We perceive the brushstrokes as similar to sights that we see in nature.

When you go into a restaurant, and a group of people is standing in the lobby together, a host or hostess may assume that the entire group is together, because spatially, there is a group of people standing very closely together. This is an example of proximity.

What About Gestalt Psychology Today?

Today, there are just over 60 gestalt therapy institutions of learning around the world, and the number is growing. Nearly all large cities within the United States have a minimum of one Gestalt Institute. To date, there is no national organization devoted to gestalt psychology. There are no standards for the institutes to follow and no standards for trainers or trainees. Each institution develops its curriculum and has various criteria for selecting students. As things stand today, there are no exact standards for gestalt therapy. For potential clients seeking to benefit from gestalt therapy, each person has to come to their conclusion about the qualifications of gestalt therapists and whether this type of therapy or something else is the best protocol for treatment.

What Is Gestalt Therapy Like And What Can I Expect?

Gestalt therapy takes a holistic approach to life by stressing your responsibility and awareness of your current psychological and physical needs. A gestalt therapist will consider such issues as freedom and responsibility, the immediacy of experience and your role in creating meaning in your life. This area of psychology aims to resolve conflicts and ambiguities that stem from the inability to integrate various features of your personality.

In therapy, you will be urged to discuss your memories and concerns using the present tense. The therapist may use dramatization of conflicts to help you make better sense of your problems. For example, a therapist may ask you to act out situations to bring out thoughts and perceptions that you may have repressed.

Individuals that benefit best from gestalt therapy are those who are committed to pursuing improved health and who desire to maximize their mental health potential.

Is Gestalt Therapy Right For Me?

Gestalt psychology is a complex area of psychology that has many complex parts. The research that's been done to date has been instrumental in explaining human thought processes and behavior which has been of huge benefit in other areas of psychology. We still have much to learn about gestalt psychology and how clinicians can use parts of it to help people achieve a healthier mental state. The qualified therapists at BetterHelp can connect you with a licensed therapist who will be able to tell you more about gestalt psychology and whether the principles of it will help you in resolving issues in your life.


What is Gestalt theory in psychology?

Gestalt theory was developed beginning in 1912. The word Gestalt means a unified and meaningful whole. The main tenet of Gestalt theory is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Gestalt psychologists theorized that, based on the way we perceive objects, the whole is greater than the mere addition of its parts. This theory applies to visual perception, but Gestalt psychologists recognized that it also applies to the way we think. Thus, the Gestalt movement encompassed studies on both visual perception and perception of all life experiences.

What is Gestalt psychology example?

One example of the visual aspect of Gestalt psychology can be found in marquee lights. As the lightbulbs flash in succession, the light appears to move around the marquee. Although the bulbs are stationary, we perceive this as motion. This is the same principle used to create motion pictures. This illusion of movement is a perceptual phenomenon, but it is not a hallucination. Instead, it is a way of perceiving the world that is natural and healthy.

What are the 5 Gestalt principles?

In developing their theory, Gestalt psychologists recognized five principles that relate to the way we perceive objects visually. Gestalt psychologists formed their principles of Gestalt based on their observations of the way we perceive objects together, each as the sum of its parts and as something more than that.

The five principles of Gestalt psychology are:

  1. The law of proximity
  2. The law of similarity
  3. The law of continuity
  4. The law of closure
  5. The law of connectedness

The law of proximity says that when objects or shapes are close together, we tend to perceive them as a group. The individual parts in this scene tend to be grouped together in our minds. And because of the law of proximity, we see this as a one picture rather than several.

The law of similarity states that we tend to perceive objects that are similar as part of a whole. The individual elements are seen as one thing.

The law of continuity says we tend to perceive a line continuing in the same direction as it was already established.

The law of closure states that the mind tends to see a picture as complete, even if it is incomplete.

The law of connectedness also called the law of common fate, says that when we see objects moving in the same direction and at the same rate, we tend to perceive them as a single object.

However, these are only the main Gestalt laws. There are other principles of Gestalt as well, including the concept of figure ground.

What do Gestalt psychologists mean by "figure ground?"

Wertheimer and other Gestalt psychologists also identified another feature of visual perception they called "figure ground." Figure ground refers to your ability to recognize the difference between the background and the primary design of an image. Often, you will see pictures in which you can see it two ways – either with one part of the picture or the other as the background. One figure ground example is an image that looks like a candlestick one way or two faces the other way. The picture doesn't change, but only the way you focus on it is different. The figure ground roles reverse depending on your attitude towards the picture.

Who introduced Gestalt psychology?

Max Wertheimer founded the Gestalt movement and became the first Gestalt psychologist in the history of Gestalt psychology. Before Wertheimer began his work, other psychologists had come up with a variety of explanations for the way we perceive objects as well as psychological theories about the way we think, learn, and behave. The subjects in his first studies of visual perception were Wolfgang Kohler and Kurt Kofka, who later became his partners as Gestalt psychologists. These three were the primary founders of Gestalt psychology.

Gestalt theory was also a response to the earlier theories of Wilhelm Wundt and others who held the view of structuralism. Wilhelm Wundt had a view of psychology based on three theories: atomism, associationism, and sensationalism. Atomism is the view that Gestalt theorists had the most problem with accepting. The theory of atomism states that all knowledge is built from simple elements. Max Wertheimer and other Gestalt psychologists believed that just the opposite was true. They believed that the best way to study psychology was to look at psychological phenomena as organized, well-structured wholes. The behavior that followed did not arise from individual factors, but that thought processes are themselves determined by complex perceptions.

Who introduced Gestalt therapy?

Frederick S. Perls developed Gestalt therapy in the 1940s. Perls sought to improve therapy by going beyond Freudian psychoanalysis to develop a new type of therapy. Wertheimer’s perceptual theories about principles such as figure ground intrigued him, and he appreciated that they could give new perspectives on experience.

Great thinkers like Immanuel Kant and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe had already explored many of the ideas Perls drew on to develop his Gestalt therapy. He combined existentialism, Gestalt theory, psychoanalysis, and humanist psychology to create his own unique type of therapy.

Psychology news spreads fast, and many theories that start out as separate ideas end up going together to create or enhance other schools of thought. Later in the history of modern psychology, Gestalt principles were incorporated into other theories yet continued to be studied and practiced by Gestalt psychologists.

What is the phi phenomenon?

The phi phenomenon was Wertheimer's discovery that started the Gestalt movement. It all started during his vacation from his studies at the University of Frankfurt's Psychological Institute. Wertheimer stopped at a train station to buy a toy stroboscope, which was a spinning drum that had slots in it where you could see pictures flashing by. It was similar to a flipbook in which you flip through slightly different images to see a "moving" picture. Once Max Wertheimer got back to the university, he began to study the effect. The phi phenomenon, also called the law of apparent motion or persistence of vision, was the basis for Wertheimer's assertion that the segmented approach that had been used earlier in the history of psychology was inadequate. His idea was that the whole was greater than the sum of its parts.

Which psychologists were influenced by Max Wertheimer and his work?

Some of the greatest Gestalt psychologists, as well as psychologists in other schools of thought have been influenced by the work of Max Wertheimer. Others have been influenced by Gestalt psychology, which developed partly from the concepts of Gestalt psychology. Among them were Abraham Maslow, Solomon Asch, and George Katona.

How is Gestalt psychology used today?

Gestalt psychologists have changed their approach as modern psychology has progressed. Because our perceptions are determined by the intrinsic features combined with the way we see them, gestalt psychologists can use this theory for many tasks. Some of the fields where some or all of Gestalt principles are used include:

  • Gestalt therapy
  • Social psychology
  • Neurology
  • Quantum cognitive modeling
  • Cognitive psychology
  • Perceptual psychology
  • Visual arts and design

What is a Gestalt psychologist?

A Gestalt psychologist can be either a researcher or a therapist. The first type of psychologist studies Gestalt phenomena that relate to principles such as the law of proximity or figure ground. Gestalt psychologists may also do research on the outcomes of Gestalt therapy.

The second is a therapist, using a holistic approach to help their clients live happier, fuller lives.Gestalt therapists use the concepts of gestalt, along with humanistic psychology, existentialism, and psychoanalysis, to help their clients increase their awareness and make sense of their world.

What is Gestalt explained simply?

A Gestalt is a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Gestalt psychologists and therapists often refer to Gestalts, both in their studies and in counseling with their clients.

What is the main goal of Gestalt therapy?

A Gestalt psychologist approaches therapy as a means to help their clients understand themselves better. They want their clients to understand how their choices impact both their own lives and the lives of those around them. Self-awareness, then, is the primary goal.

Other goals of Gestalt therapy include:

  • Becoming more fully alive
  • Getting past blocks
  • Dealing with unfinished business
  • Understanding things as they are, rather than as they could or should be
  • Practicing mindfulness
  • Recognizing the intrinsic nature of situations and how your perceptions reflect or distort that
  • Learning to take individual responsibility for your actions
  • Taking care of your mental and physical needs
  • Improving communication skills
  • Being able to tolerate negative emotions
  • Improving your self-control
  • Improving ability to regulate mental states

What is the difference between Gestalt psychology and Gestalt therapy?

Gestalt psychology is about understanding the Gestalt laws, how they relate to visual perception, and how they apply to thought processes. Gestalt psychologists who are engaged in research study various aspects of the theory, such as principles of Gestalt psychology like the law of proximity and the concept of figure ground, in structured experiments to find out more about subjects like memory, learning, and behavior.

Gestalt psychologists who specialize in Gestalt therapy have a different goal. They are focused on helping their clients understand their thought processes better, make different decisions, and change their behavior. As their clients see how the whole is greater than the combination of each part, processes in their thinking become clearer and more understandable. With a new perspective, they can work to achieve their greatest goals.

What is Gestalt therapy used for?

In therapy, Gestalt therapists can use these laws to help you deal with physical and mental health problems, like:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Self-esteem
  • Relationship problems
  • Migraines
  • Ulcerative colitis
  • Back pain
  • Unresolved anger
  • Resentment
  • Other negative feelings

How does Gestalt therapy work?

Early in the development of the theory, Fritz Perls explained that humans should be viewed as a whole person with a body, mind, and soul, and the best perspective from which to view that whole was from the person themselves. This idea gives you some clues about how Gestalt therapy works.

To increase your self-awareness, your Gestalt therapist helps you learn how to express your thoughts and emotions from a present moment perspective. They ask you to set aside any conclusions about your experiences and simply describe them. They also suggest that you treat each part of the events or objects described as if they are equally significant.

Therapists often use specific techniques to help you understand yourself better. Examples include the empty chair technique and the role-playing technique.

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