What Is Gestalt Psychology? Definition And Overview

By Toni Hoy|Updated September 1, 2022

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

Do You Have Questions About Gestalt Psychology?

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

What Is the Definition of Gestalt Psychology?

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

How Did Gestalt Psychology Develop?

Gestalt theory began in Austria and Germany as a reaction to associationist and structuralist 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 opposite: looking at wholes as transcending their parts. The “wholes” in Gestalt psychology included the study of consciousness, the objects of direct experience, and the science of phenomena.

Early researchers were unsettled by what seemed to be 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?

Max Wertheimer founded the Gestalt movement and became the first Gestalt psychologist. Additional credit can be given for the development of Gestalt psychology to psychologists including 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.

Max Wertheimer wrote "Experimentelle Studien über das Sehen von Bewegung" (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 explain problems in ethics, the nature of truth, and political behavior.

The trio then applied 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?

In 1926, 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 disenchanted with certain Freudian theories and methods and sought to develop a new system of psychotherapy. In Frankfurt, Perls came under the tutelage of a great number of psychologists, psychoanalysts, and existential philosophers, all of whom had direct or indirect roles in Gestalt principles and therapy. It was at the Institute for Brain Damaged Soldiers that Perls met his wife, Laura, who was also a student of Gestalt therapy.

The goal of Gestalt therapy is to help clients become aware of their primary sensations as well as their environment so they can respond more effectively in the present moment. Therapists guide clients to focus on the "here and now" as opposed to 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 better illustrate how human perception works, Gestalt researchers proposed the laws of perceptual organization, including the laws of similarity, proximity, continuity, inclusiveness, closure, and connectedness. These laws explain how our brains group things to help us interpret the world around us.

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 close together in space they are. Continuity means 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, connectedness means that when we see objects moving in the same direction and at the same rate, we tend to perceive them as a single object .

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 you run the pages of a small book through your fingers? Each page 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 draw a circle on a piece of paper and then erase 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 don't 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 are standing by the bar in close proximity, you may assume that they are a group of friends because they are close 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 its own 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 is the best treatment for them.

What Is Gestalt Therapy Like And What Can I Expect?

Gestalt therapy stresses your own responsibility for 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. Gestalt therapy is a holistic approach that aims to resolve conflicts and ambiguities stemming from the inability to integrate various features of your personality.

Do You Have Questions About Gestalt Psychology?

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 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.

Is Gestalt Therapy Right For Me?

Gestalt is a complex area of psychology. The research in this area has been instrumental in explaining human thought processes and behavior. 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 its principles can help you resolve issues in your life.


What is Gestalt theory in psychology?

Gestalt theory was developed starting in 1912. The word Gestalt means a unified and meaningful whole. The main tenet of Gestalt is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This theory is known for addressing the visual perception of objects, but it also applies to how we think. Thus, the Gestalt movement encompassed studies on both visual perception and perception of all life experiences.

What is an example of Gestalt psychology?

An 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 themselves are stationary, we perceive motion. This is the same principle used to create motion pictures. This illusion of movement is a perceptual phenomenon that neither accurate nor a hallucination. Rather, it is a way of perceiving the world that is natural and healthy.

What are the Five Gestalt principles?

Gestalt psychologists recognized five principles that relate to the way we perceive objects visually. Their principles of Gestalt were born from observing how we perceive objects together, both as the sum of their parts and as something more than that.

The five principles of Gestalt psychology are:

The law of proximity

The law of similarity

The law of continuity

The law of closure

The law of connectedness

The law of proximity asserts that when objects or shapes are close together, we tend to perceive them as a group. The individual parts tend to be grouped together in our minds. And because of the law of proximity, we see these parts as 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 entity.

The law of continuity says we tend to perceive a line as continuing in the same direction as 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 identified another feature of visual perception they called figure-ground. Figure-ground refers to the ability to recognize the difference between the primary design and the background of an image. Often you will see pictures that you can perceive in one of two ways, with either one part of the picture or another as the background. One figure-ground example is an image that looks like a candlestick one way and two faces the other way. The picture doesn't change, but the way you focus on it is different. The figure-ground roles change depending on how you perceive the picture.

Who introduced Gestalt psychology?

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

Gestalt theory was also a response to the earlier theories of Wilhelm Wundt and others who believed in structuralism, which aimed to break mental processes down to its core elements. Wilhelm Wundt’s view of psychology was based on three theories: atomism, associationism, and sensationalism. Atomism (which is similar to structuralism) is the view that Gestalt theorists struggled most to accept. This theory states that all knowledge is built from simple elements. Max Wertheimer and other Gestalt psychologists believed that just the opposite was true. They thought that the best way to look at psychological phenomena was as organized, well-structured wholes. Thus, behavior did not arise from individual factors; rather, thought processes were themselves determined by complex perceptions.

Who introduced Gestalt therapy?

Frederick “Fritz” S. Perls developed Gestalt therapy in the 1940s. Perls sought to transcend 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 offer new perspectives on experience.

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

Many psychological theories start out as separate ideas and end up coming together to create or enhance other schools of thought. Over time, Gestalt principles were incorporated into other theories, yet continued to be practiced by Gestalt psychologists.

What is the phi phenomenon?

The phi phenomenon was Wertheimer's discovery that started the Gestalt movement. During a vacation from his studies at the University of Frankfurt's Psychological Institute, Wertheimer stopped at a train station to buy a toy stroboscope, a spinning drum that has slots through which you can see pictures flashing by. It was similar to a flipbook in which you flip through still 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 or mechanical 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 and Gestalt psychology. Among them are Abraham Maslow, Solomon Asch, and George Katona.

How is Gestalt psychology used today?

Gestalt psychologists have changed their approach as modern psychology has progressed. Some of the fields in which Gestalt principles are used include:

Gestalt therapy

Social psychology


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. Gestalt researchers study Gestalt phenomena that relate to principles such as the law of proximity or figure-ground. Gestalt researchers may also study the outcomes of Gestalt therapy.

Gestalt therapists use a holistic approach to help their clients live happier, fuller lives. They use the concepts of Gestalt, along with humanistic psychology, existentialism, and psychoanalysis, to help clients 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 clients.

What is the main goal of Gestalt therapy?

Gestalt therapists view therapy as a means to help clients understand themselves better. They want 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 your 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 thought processes. Gestalt psychologists who are engaged in research study various aspects of Gestalt theory—including such principles as the law of proximity and the concept of figure-ground—in structured experiments. Their goal is to explore subjects such as memory, learning, and behavior.

Psychologists who specialize in Gestalt therapy have a different goal. They focus on helping clients understand their thought processes, make better decisions, and change their behavior. As clients see how the whole is greater than the combination of the parts, their thinking processes become clearer. With a new perspective, they can progress toward achieving life goals.

What is Gestalt therapy used for?

Gestalt therapists use Gestalt theory to help clients with physical and mental health problems including:




Relationship problems


Ulcerative colitis

Back pain

Unresolved anger


Other negative feelings

How does Gestalt therapy work?

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

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

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

The Effectiveness of Gestalt Therapy

Gestalt therapy was found effective in treating clinical disorders including schizophrenia, personality disorders, affective disorders, anxiety, substance dependency, and psychosomatic disorders in meta-analyses including data from approximately 3,000 patients treated with Gestalt therapy, Not only did patients significantly improve in personality dysfunction, self-concept, and interpersonal relationships, but patients perceived the therapy as very helpful. The largest effect sizes were found when Gestalt therapy was used to treat symptoms of depression, anxiety, and phobias.

The Benefits of Online Therapy

As discussed above, Gestalt therapy is a uniquely effective way to treat many psychological disorders. But when you’re struggling with symptoms of depression or anxiety, it can be hard to find the motivation to leave home. This is where online therapy can help. You can access BetterHelp’s platform from the comfort and privacy of your own home. In addition, online therapy offers lower pricing than in-person therapy because online therapists don’t have to pay for costs like renting an office. BetterHelp’s licensed therapists have helped people with clinical disorders such as anxiety, depression, and personality disorders. Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp therapists from people experiencing similar issues.

Counselor Reviews

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