What Is the Gestalt Approach In Psychology? (2024)

Gestalt psychology is aschool of thoughtthat 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 elements of more complex systems.

What Is the Gestalt Approach In Psychology? (1)

A core belief in Gestalt psychology is holism, or that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This school of psychology has played a major role in the modern development of the study of human sensation and perception.

Gestalt Meaning

Gestalt is a German word that roughly means "configuration" or the way things are put together to form a whole object.

History of Gestalt Psychology

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

While followers of structuralism were interested in breaking down psychological matters into their smallest possible parts, Gestalt psychologists wanted instead to look at the totality of the mind and behavior. Guided by the principle of holism, Wertheimer and his followers identified instances where perception was based on seeing things as a complete whole, not as separate components.

A number of thinkers influenced the development of Gestalt psychology, including Immanuel Kant, Ernst Mach, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Wertheimer developed Gestalt psychology after observing what he called the phi phenomenon while watching alternating lights on a railway signal. The phi phenomenon is an optical illusion where two stationary objects seem to move if they are shown appearing and disappearing in rapid succession. In other words, we perceive movement where there is none.

Based on his observations of the phi phenomenon, Wertheimer concluded that we perceive things by seeing the whole perception, not by understanding individual parts. In the example of blinking lights at a train station, the whole we perceive is that one light appears to move quickly between two points. The reality is that two separate lights are blinking rapidly without moving at all.

Influential Gestalt Psychologists

Wertheimer's observations of the phi phenomenon are widely credited as the beginning of Gestalt psychology and he went on to publicize the core principles of the field. Other psychologists also had an influence on this school of psychology.

Wolfgang Köhler: Köhler connected Gestalt psychology to the natural sciences, arguing that organic phenomena are examples of holism at work. He also studied hearing and looked at problem-solving abilities in chimpanzees.

Kurt Koffka: Together with Wertheimer and Köhler, Koffka is considered a founder of the field. He applied the concept of Gestalt to child psychology, arguing that infants first understand things holistically before learning to differentiate them into parts. Koffka played a key role in bringing Gestalt principles to the United States.

Principles of Gestalt Psychology

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

Wertheimer created principles to explain how Gestalt perception functions. Some of the most important principles of Gestalt theory are:

  • Prägnanz: This foundational principle states that we naturally perceive things in their simplest form or organization.
  • Similarity: This Gestalt principle suggests that we naturally group similar items together based on elements like color, size, and orientation. An example would be grouping dogs based on whether they are small or large, or if they are big or small.
  • Proximity: The principle of proximity states that objects near each other tend to be viewed as a group.
  • Continuity: According to this Gestalt principle, we perceive elements arranged on a line or curve as related to each other, while elements that are not on the line or curve are seen as separate.
  • Closure: This suggests that elements that form a closed object will be perceived as a group. We will even fill in missing information to create closure and make sense of an object. An example of this Gestalt psychology principle is using negative space to give the illusion that a particular shape exists when it doesn't.
  • Common region: This Gestalt psychology principle states that we tend to group objects together if they're located in the same bounded area. (For example, objects inside a box tend to be considered a group.)

Gestalt Laws of Perception

Uses for Gestalt Psychology

There are several uses for Gestalt psychology today, some of which include those related to therapy, design, product development, and learning.

Gestalt Therapy

Gestalt therapy is based on the idea that overall perception depends on the interaction between many factors. Among these factors are our past experiences, current environment, thoughts, feelings, and needs. Gestalt therapy involves key concepts such as awareness, unfinished business, and personal responsibility.

The main goal of Gestalt therapy is to help us focus on the present. While past context is important for viewing yourself as a whole, a Gestalt therapist will encourage you to keep your focus on your present experience.

Research suggests that Gestalt therapy is effective at treating symptoms of depression and anxiety, and it may help people gain confidence and increase feelings of self-efficacy and self-kindness. It is often a helpful way to structure group therapy.

The therapeutic process is reliant on the relationship between the client and therapist. As a client, you must feel comfortable enough to develop a close partnership with your therapist, and they must be able to create an unbiased environment where you can discuss your thoughts and experiences.

What Is Therapeutic Rapport?


Beginning in the 1920s, designers began incorporating Gestalt principles in their work. Gestalt psychology led these designers to believe that we all share certain characteristics in the way we perceive visual objects and that we all have a natural ability to see "good" design.

Designers embraced Gestalt concepts, using our perception of contrast, color, symmetry, repetition, and proportion to create their work. Gestalt psychology influenced other design concepts, such as:

  • Figure-ground relationship: This describes the contrast between a focal object (like a word, phrase, or image) and the negative space around it. Designers often use this to create impact.
  • Visual hierarchy: Designers use the way we perceive and group visual objects to establish a visual hierarchy, ensuring that the most important word or image attracts our attention first.
  • Associativity: This concept involves the principle of proximity. Designers often use this to determine where to place important objects, including text elements such as headlines, captions, and lists.

Figure-Ground Perception in Psychology

Product Development

Product designers use Gestalt psychology to inform their decisions during the development process. Consumers tend to like products that follow Gestalt principles.

This influence can be seen in the appearance of the products themselves and in their packaging and advertising. We can also see Gestalt principles at work in apps and digital products. Concepts like proximity, similarity, and continuity have become standards of our expected user experience.

Learning and Education

The Gestalt Theory of Learning relies on the law of simplicity. In simple terms, it states that each learning stimulus is perceived in its simplest form.

The psychology behind this learning theory states that we use our senses and previous experiences to gain knowledge about the world around us. It also suggests that we learn from the methods by which we are taught, in addition to being impacted by classroom environments and the academic culture.

Impact of Gestalt Psychology

Gestalt psychology has largely been subsumed by other types of psychology, but it had an enormous influence on the field. Researchers like Kurt Lewin and Kurt Goldstein were influenced by Gestalt concepts before going on to make important contributions to psychology.

Gestalt theory is also important in that the idea of the whole being different than its parts has influenced our understanding of the brain and social behavior. Gestalt theory still impacts how we understand vision and the ways that context, visual illusions, and information processing impact our perception.

A Word From Verywell

Gestalt therapy continues to influence many areas of our lives. Its emphasis on a holistic approach plays an important role in cognitive psychology, perception, and social psychology, among other fields.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Who founded Gestalt psychology?

    Gestalt psychology was founded by Max Wertheimer, a Czechoslovakian psychologist who also developed a lie detection device to objectively study courtroom testimony. ]Wolfgang Köhler and Kurt Koffka are also considered co-founders of the Gestalt theory.

  • What are the principles of Gestalt psychology?

    Most of the foundational principles of Gestalt psychology explain how we group things, such as by similarity, proximity, continuity, closure, and common reason. Prägnanz is another Gestalt principle and says that we tend to perceive complex things in their most simple form. Prägnanz is sometimes referred to as the law of simplicity, a concept that was first presented in 1914.

  • Why is Gestalt psychology important?

    Gestalt psychology has influenced how we study perception and sensation. It also increases our understanding of how our cognitive processes influence the way we behave socially.

  • How is Gestalt psychology used today?

    Some therapists use Gestalt psychology to help patients focus on the present over the past. Designers and product developers also use Gestalt theory to make their creations more appealing or to draw focus to certain elements over others. Educators may also use Gestalt principles to help their students learn.

What Is the Gestalt Approach In Psychology? (2024)


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