There are many theories that attempt to explain human behavior, each with a different and unique approach. From developmental and humanist theories, to behavioral and cognitive, psychological theories have allowed society to better understand human thought and behavior, as well as allowed mental health professionals a variety of approaches in which they can provide effective therapeutic interventions to assist clients in improving areas of their lives. Many psychological theories are comprised of a variety of related, but different theories, which lead to an expanded view of human behavior. The theorists that have contributed to the field of psychology have assisted in a allowing for a multitude of methods in which the actions, behaviors, attitudes, and illness are perceived, experienced, and treated.
Cognitive psychology and cognitive theory focus on the various mental processes which include how an individual thinks, perceives their environment, remembers and recalls old information and learns new information. Cognitive theory posits that humans are logical beings, and as such will make decisions based on what will benefit them the most (Burley & Freier, 2004). Through understanding the thought pattern of an individual, it is possible to change the unhealthy thoughts and exchange them for more positive ones that can help the individual to function in a more healthy fashion. Cognitive theory is similar to behaviorism in that the response or behavior exhibited is in response to a stimulus, however, cognitive theory takes into consideration the “inner workings” of the brain, rather than relying on the outside physical stimulus that is a hallmark of behaviorism (Moore, 2011).
Contributions of Max Wertheimer to Cognitive Theory
Wertheimer, a Czechoslovakian psychologist, is considered to be one of the major contributors to the field of cognitive theory. Through his involvement in a variety of academic pursuits and fields of study, which included psychophysics, philosophy, and experimental psychology, Wertheimer was able to bring a fresh approach to understanding how the human mind works (King, Wertheimer, Keller, & Crochetiere, 1994). Wertheimer introduced Gestalt theory, which aims at understanding the mind on a holistic level, which he considered to be Weltanschauung, or an all-encompassing approach. Since the whole is more than just the sum of the parts, according to Gestalt theory, the mind or behavior should be studies as a whole, rather than separate elements, in order to understand how each part interacts with the others (According to Wertheimer, “The core of it [Gestalt psychology] was a faith that the world is a sensible, coherent whole, that reality is organized into meaningful parts, and that natural units have their own structure” (King, Wertheimer, Keller, & Crochetiere, 1994, p. 910).
One of the phenomena introduced by Wertheimer, known as the Phi Phenomenon, occurs when two lights flash at a certain speed, and instead of the lights being perceived as two distinct objects, they are perceived as a singular light that oscillates back and forth (Gerrig & Zimbardo, 2002). The perceived motion is called apparent motion, has helped to further research in cognitive science, physics, and psychology (Sharps & Wertheimer, 2000). The phi phenomenon was one of the first discoveries that led to the belief that the human mind (and nervous system) was capable of generating an image that does not exactly match the stimuli, and as such suggests that the reality that is perceived by an individual may be an inaccurate representation of the actual reality present (Sharps & Wertheimer, 2000). Such a finding also brought to light the fact that perception is more than a recording of stimuli, which is prone to cognitive distortions.
Another contribution to the field of cognitive research made by Wertheimer is productive thinking, which posits that there is a difference between reproductive and productive thinking, with the former being associated with repetition, conditioning, and rote memory; whereas the latter utilizes insight-based reasoning in problem solving (Wertheimer, 1996). Wertheimer suggested that only through insightful reasoning, conceptual problems and the relationships associated with such problems could be understood and solved (Wertheimer, 1996). Thinking using logic, combined with creativity are the hallmarks of productive thinking, as learning through rote memorization does not lead to an understanding of the problem, but rather a regurgitation of data and facts.
Modern-Day Relevance of the Phi Phenomenon
While scientists do not fully understand why the phi phenomenon occurs, the effect can be seen in a variety of modern advancements. One application can be seen in movie theaters: as film crosses over the light source, the pictures appear to seamlessly dance across the screen, when in reality, they are still photographs, without any movement of their own. Films utilizing the phi phenomenon also support Wertheimer’s proposal that the whole is more than the sum of its parts: an individual section of a film does not reveal the plot, genre, or story; watching the entire movie with the different sections spliced together is the only way to truly understand the film and the director’s vision.
Burley, T., & Freier, M. C. (2004). Character structure: A Gestalt-Cognitive theory.Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 41(3), 321-331. doi:10.1037/0033-3220.127.116.111
Gerrig, R. J., & Zimbardo, P. G. (2002). Psychology and life (16th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
King, D. B., Wertheimer, M., Keller, H., & Crochetiere, K. (1994). The legacy of Max Wertheimer and Gestalt psychology. Social Research, 61(4), 907-935.
Moore, J. (2011). Behaviorism. The Psychological Record, 61(3), 449-463.
Sharps, M. J., & Wertheimer, M. (2000). Gestalt perspectives on cognitive science and on experimental psychology. Reveiw of General Psychology, 4(4), 315-336. doi:10.1037/1089-2618.104.22.1685
Wertheimer, M. (1996). A contemporary perspective on the psychology of productive thinking. American Psychological Association.