Gestalt psychology developed from the work of Max Wertheimer (1880-1943) on a phenomenon he called ‘phi movement’ which is where the human mind perceives ‘apparent motion’ (another term for the phenomenon) between two lights when there is a small interval between the illumination of one and then the other. Wertheimer moved to the Frankfurt Psychological Institute in 1910 to research phi movement and was joined by colleagues Kurt Koffka (1886-1941) and Wolfgang Köhler (1887-1967) in officially creating Gestalt psychology. Phi movement was not a new discovery but it Wertheimer’s explanation of it that was revolutionary and the three psychologists soon began building and applying Gestalt theories to the fields of perception, learning, and problem solving (Benjamin, 2014).
What made Gestalt psychology so different was that it was phenomenological and opposed reducing an experience to studying a ‘part-processes’ as was advocated by behaviourism - the dominant paradigm in the United States (Benjamin, 2014). They argued that there are form qualities that are only apparent in the study of the whole experience and that these are lost when studying just parts of it (Wertheimer, 1997).
“There are wholes, the behaviour of which is not determined by that of their individual elements, but where the part-processes are themselves determined by the intrinsic nature of the whole” (Wertheimer, 1997a:2).
The Gestaltists argued that innate cognitive processes that assist humans organising the world into units of meaning (whole phenomena) and work in accordance to the needs and environmental pressures of the organism as a whole (Köhler, 1997). This was most famously applied to perception where a series of ‘Laws of Organisation in Perceptual Forms’ were detailed based on factors such as proximity or similarity (Wertheimer, 1997b), assimilation of colours (Fuchs, 1997) or repetition (Gottschaldt, 1997).
Gestalt psychology was also experimental and not limited to human experience. Köhler discovered that chickens would form cognitive models when required to discriminate between different colour shades. The chickens were presented with two different shades of grey and tapping on dark card would reward the chicken with grain. When the light card was changed out for an even darker shade the chicken pecked this new darker card rather than the one that had previously provided reward (Benjamin, 2014). Köhler argued (1929) that this demonstrated the chicken was learning discrimination process and not being conditioned to a specific card as the behaviorists would argue.
Beyond perception and learning Bluma Zeigarnik (1900-1988) discovered the cognitive process, called Zeignarnik effect, whereby people are better able to remember tasks that are incomplete versus those that have been completed (Zeigarnik, 1997).
Unfortunately for Gestalt psychology, Hitler came to power in 1933 and this forced most influential Gestaltists to leave Germany. Wertheimer, Köhler, and Koffka emigrated to the United States but they found psychology dominated by behaviorism and could not get the prestigious posts they had in Germany. Specifically, this led to a lack of a new generation of Gestalt psychologists being indoctrinated and behaviorism remained the dominant approach in post war America (Kardas, 2014). Nevertheless, Gestalt had a lasting impact on psychology and their findings - especially on perception - are present in today's psychology.
Benjamin, L. T. Jr. (2014) A Brief History of Modern Psychology (2nd Edition). Wiley: New Jersey
Fuchs, W. (1997) The Influence of form on the Assimilation of colours. In W. D. Ellis (Ed), A source book of Gestalt psychology (pages 1-11). The Gestalt Journal Press Inc.: Gouldsboro
Gottschaldt, K. (1997) Gestalt Factors and Repetition. In W. D. Ellis (Ed), A source book of Gestalt psychology (pages 1-11). The Gestalt Journal Press Inc.: Gouldsboro
Kardas, E. P. (2014) History of Psychology: The Making of a Science. Wadsworth: London.
Köhler, W (1929) Gestalt Psychology. Horace Liveright: New York
Köhler, W (1997) Some Gestalt Problems. In W. D. Ellis (Ed), A source book of Gestalt psychology (pages 55-70). The Gestalt Journal Press Inc.: Gouldsboro
Wertheimer, M. (1997a) Gestalt Theory. In W. D. Ellis (Ed), A source book of Gestalt psychology (pages 1-11). The Gestalt Journal Press Inc.: Gouldsboro
Wertheimer, M. (1997b) Laws of Organisation in Perceptual Forms. In W. D. Ellis (Ed), A source book of Gestalt psychology (pages 71-88). K The Gestalt Journal Press Inc.: Gouldsboro
Zeigarnik, B. (1997) On finished and unfinished tasks. In W. D. Ellis (Ed), A source book of Gestalt psychology (pages 300-314). The Gestalt Journal Press Inc.: Gouldsboro