Through the years of psychology, many philosophies and theories have come forth to build better understandings of learning, thoughts, memories and much more. Psychology has further developed through various theories such as cognitive, developmental, behavioral, and many more. Although there are many theories to follow, the Gestalt theory, also known as the school of thought came about through three lifelong colleagues. Max Wertheimer, Kurt Koffka, and Wolfgang Kohler were all interested in the study of perception while at the University of Frankfurt’s Psychological Institute. Wertheimer is best known for his contribution to the development of the underlying principles of the Gestalt psychology and Gestalt laws of perceptual organization.
The Gestalt school drew inspiration from multiple logical, epistemological and psychological sources, not least because the concept of mental organization is a separate natural process that is distinct from integration/association of individual sensations goes back to Immanuel Kant. As the core of the German trio that comprised the Gestalt school, Max Wertheimer’s theory is an outcome of detailed investigations that led them to believe that priori mental processes contributed to improved perceptual tasks, relying on rationalism to get meaningful empirical observations and methods. Other important influences included Max Planck (a quantum physicist) and Albert Einstein.
Wertheimer experimented on phi phenomenon, which is a visual illusion that makes an observer see movement in non-moving static objects e.g. electronic marquees. While the existent theories at the time held that eyes provided kinesthetic feedback to brain in their motion to follow light, and thus the brain perceived stationary objects as movement, Wertheimer asserted that the stimuli were one as against comprising multiple discrete stimuli. Wertheimer argued that an observer did not perceive the discrete sensations, but whole forms that were in motion. The perceptual objects and field assume the most impressive and simplest structure possible in the given circumstances and ways in which humans tend to organize perceptions according to similarity, proximity, past experience, closure effect, common fate, and good continuation. Wertheimer extended Christian von Ehrenfels’s ideas on how wholes were different from the sums of the constituent parts, asserting that specifiable functional relations existed that shaped the behavior of the whole as well as that of the parts.
Wertheimer’s findings proved critical to perception and psychology, providing an excellent scientific analogy and impetus for other scientists (including Köhler) to develop Gestalt psychology. Driven by the conviction that social sciences overly imitated physical sciences in their use of empirical methodologies, when, in fact, they should lean more towards qualitative approaches. Thought proceeded from the whole, which dominated the constituent parts, and a synthesis approach is more productive than an analytical one. In this way, he countered reductionism. He believed that productive thought resulted from, the re-organization of a situation’s aspects, holistic functioning, avoiding chance occurrences, and employing structural truth in creating sensible assumptions and expectations. The Gestalt theory/model states that there are integrated “wholes”, whose behavior is not determined by their component elements, but where the part-processes are dependent, on the whole, ’s intrinsic nature.
The Prägnanz principle is easily one of the most influential in cognitive psychology, referring processes, percepts, points of discontinuity and/or multidimensional attributes, as well as the tendency towards the simple, symmetric and regular. The perceptual field is essentially a system of interacting forces, whose equilibrium can be changed by any new object entering the system. This principle underlies among others, trace theory of learning, which provides that neurological connections (or traces) occur in the brain, representing relationships between ideas, thoughts, images, and concepts, as individuals encounter different environmental stimuli. Uniqueness and repetition reinforce traces, but knowledge referred to the integrated traces or the equilibrium of all forces that act on an individual throughout their lives. Other important contributions to cognitive psychology include the concepts of isomorphism, field theory, and auto-organization. For instance, the tendency of psychological organization towards simplicity and selectiveness
Operant behaviors happen consciously and under the person’s control. The consequences involved with this types of behavior is what weighs out to be the most important factor influences if that particular behavior will happen again in the future. Both types of behaviors produce learning, however, the environment in which one learns in, is also important. Similarly, Gestalt theory lends more meaning to Kurt Lewin’s field theory of motivation, and as well as multiple cognitive development theories. For instance, Piaget’s cognitive developmental theory conceives learning/growth as a process of qualitative transformations in perception, thought and reason throughout the maturation process. Cognition is dependent on the conceptualization and representation of environmental stimuli in an individual’s mental schema and influenced by their stage of development as well as a willingness to learn. These principles, as well as those in the emergent theories, have led to the development of exploration learning (especially in STEM subjects) and marketing campaigns. Pricing models use psychological trickery with prices such as $14.99 or include unpleasant information in small print because the audience’s minds often tend towards simplicity. For the same reason, evocative images (appeal to base emotions such as sexual desire) are used to draw attention to adverts, which in turn influence the whole in decision-making.
The Gestalt school of thought (and Max Wertheimer) has made a continuing and lasting contribution to modern psychological theory and practice. Important theoretical ideas include field theory, isomorphism, and auto-organization. Even most importantly, this theory also lends greater meaning to the behaviorist and other theories, whose methodology, it originally attacked. The original theory, as well as the theories that have spun off it, and those that it improved, e.g. Piaget’s cognitive development theory, remain immensely relevant today, in areas as diverse as education, marketing and psychoanalysis.
Benson, N., & Ginsburg, J. (2012). The Psychology Book, (1st ed.). New York, NY: DK Publishing.
Olson, M. H., & Hergenhahn, B. R. (2013). An introduction to theories of learning (9th ed.). Pearson: Upper Saddle River, NJ.
Reichert, T., & Lambiase, J. (2014). Sex in Advertising: Perspectives on the Erotic Appeal. New York: Routledge.
Wagemans, J. (2015). Oxford Handbook of Perceptual Organization. Oxford : Oxford University Press.
Wood, D. (1998). How Children Think and Learn (2nd edition). Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
Cognitive development (including the development of perceptual, information processing, and language skills, as well as conceptual resources) occurs throughout an individual’s life, during which an individual gains independence and complex thought.