Gestalt Theory (GT) is a broadly
interdisciplinary general theory which provides a framework for a wide
variety of psychological phenomena, processes, and applications.
The focus of GT is the idea of "grouping",
i.e., characteristics of stimuli cause us to structure or interpret a
visual field or problem in a certain way (Max Wertheimer, 1922). The
primary factors that determine grouping are: (1) proximity
- elements tend to be grouped together according to their nearness, (2)
similarity - items similar in some respect tend to be
grouped together, (3) closure - items are grouped together
if they tend to complete some entity, and (4) simplicity -
items will be organized into simple figures according to symmetry,
regularity, and smoothness. These factors are called the laws of
organization and are explained in the context of perception and
The essence of successful
problem-solving behavior according to Wertheimer is being able to see
the overall structure of the problem: "A certain region in the field
becomes crucial, is focused; but it does not become isolated. A new,
deeper structural view of the situation develops, involving changes in
functional meaning, the grouping, etc. of the items. Directed by what is
required by the structure of a situation for a crucial region, one is
led to a reasonable prediction, which like the other parts of the
structure, calls for verification, direct or indirect. Two directions
are involved: getting a whole consistent picture, and seeing what the
structure of the whole requires for the parts."
beings are viewed as open systems in active interaction with their
environment. According to Wertheimer in 1924 (Über
Gestalttheorie) there are wholes, the behavior 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. It is the hope of GT to determine the nature of such
In other words,
"there are wholes which, instead of being the sum of parts existing
independently, give their parts specific functions or properties that can
only be defined in relation to the whole in question" (Wolfgang Köhler).
GT is especially suited for
the understanding of order and structure in psychological events,
and has its origins in some orientations of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe,
Ernst Mach, and particularly of Christian von Ehrenfels and the research work of Max
Wertheimer, Wolfgang Köhler, Kurt Koffka, and Kurt Lewin, who opposed the
elementistic approach to psychological events, associationism,
behaviorism, and to psychoanalysis. The coming to power of national
socialism substantially interrupted the fruitful scientific development of
Gestalt theory in the German-speaking world; Koffka, Wertheimer, Köhler
and Lewin emigrated, or were forced to flee, to the United States.
Gestalt theory is not limited only to the concept of the Gestalt or the
whole, or to the Gestalt principles of the organization of perception (as
it is presented in many publications), but must be understood as
essentially far broader and more encompassing:
The primacy of the
phenomenal: Recognizing and taking seriously the human world of experience
as the only immediately given reality, and not simply discussing it away,
is a fundamental assertion of GT, the fruitfulness of which
for psychology and psychotherapy has by no means been exhausted.
the interaction of the individual and the situation in the sense of a
dynamic field which determines experience and behavior, and not only
drives (psychoanalysis, ethology) or external stimuli (behaviorism,
Skinner) or static personality traits (classical personality theory).
Connections among psychological contents are more readily and more
permanently created on the basis of substantive concrete relationships
than by sheer repetition and reinforcement.
Thinking and problem solving are characterized by appropriate
substantive organization, restructuring, and centering of the given
('insight') in the direction of the desired solution.
In memory, structures based on associative connections are elaborated
and differentiated according to a tendency for optimal organization.
Cognitions which an individual cannot integrate lead to an experience of
dissonance and to cognitive processes directed at reducing this
In a supra-individual whole such as a group, there is a tendency toward
specific relationships in the interaction of strengths and needs.
The epistemological orientation of GT tends to be a kind of
critical realism. Methodologically, the attempt is to achieve a meaningful
integration of experimental and phenomenological procedures (the
experimental-phenomenological method). Crucial phenomena are examined
without reduction of experimental precision. GT is to be
understood not as a static scientific position, but as a paradigm that is
continuing to develop. Through developments such as the theory of the
self-organization of systems, it attains major significance for many of
the current concerns of psychology.
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