Gestalt Psychology

29.04.2015 |

Episode #6 of the course “Major Schools of Thought in Psychology”

Gestalt psychology was founded in the 20th century, and it laid the foundation for modern studies of perception. Essentially, Gestalt psychology argues that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. That means that one cannot understand the parts of something to understand the thing as whole. The word “Gestalt” is German, and it means the way the thing has been put together. There is no exact English translation, but in psychology it is usually compared with the words “pattern” or “configuration.”

Gestalt theory came from Austria and Germany as an argument against more traditional schools of psychology like Structuralism and Functionalism. Gestalt psychologists, particularly Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, used phenomenology as a part of Gestalt’s initial development. Phenomenology is a method that allows the subject to describe their psychological experience without restriction. Using this tactic allowed them to add a more humanistic spin on psychology, as opposed to the more formalistic methods in other schools of thought.

Gestalt psychology’s founding is usually credited to Max Wertheimer’s publishing a German book discussing the ideas in 1912. The title of the book in English translates to “Experimental Studies of the Perception of Movement.” Early Gestalt studies emphasized visual perception, particularly by using the phenomenon of illusion. One of the first optical illusions studied was a picture where the objects seemed to move downward in rapid succession. Wertheimer termed this occurrence a phi phenomenon. Under old assumptions, this experience was virtually unexplainable, but Gestalt psychology could explain it using the underlying assumptions for the theory—Wertheimer realized that the motion only appeared when the subject considered the picture as a whole. Looking at just one of its parts would not have the same effect. That meant that stimuli presented as a whole changed the entire reaction.

This line of thinking challenged and altered psychological thought at the time, and it specifically called the usefulness of structuralism into question (structuralism argued that if someone could understand the parts, then they could understand the whole). It has been applied in virtually every study of thought, including learning, problem solving, thinking, motivation, social psychology, and personality.


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