Gestalt Laws of Perceptual Organization

Developed by German psychologists, the Gestalt laws describe how we interpret the complex world around us. They explain why a series of flashing lights appear to be moving. And why we read a sentence like this, notli ket his ort hat. These are just a few real-lie examples of the Gestalt laws.

gestalt laws of perceptual organization

Verywell / JR Bee

History of the Gestalt Laws

Have you noticed how alternately flashing lights, such as neon signs or strands of lights, can look like a single light that was moving back and forth? This optical illusion is known as the phi phenomenon. Discovered by German psychologist Max Wertheimer, this illusion of movement became a basis for Gestalt psychology.

According to Gestalt psychology, this apparent movement happens because our minds fill in missing information. Motion pictures are based on this principle, with a series of still images appearing in rapid succession to form a seamless visual experience.

Gestalt psychology focuses on how our minds organize and interpret visual data. It emphasizes that the whole of anything is greater than its parts.

Based upon this belief, Wertheimer along with Gestalt psychologists Wolfgang Köhler and Kurt Koffka, developed a set of rules to explain how we group smaller objects to form larger ones (perceptual organization). They called these rules the Gestalt Laws.

It's important to note that while Gestalt psychologists call these phenomena "laws," a more accurate term would be "principles." These principles are much like heuristics, which are mental shortcuts for solving problems.

Law of Similarity

The law of similarity states that similar things tend to appear grouped together. Grouping can occur in both visual and auditory stimuli.

In the image at the top of this page, for example, you probably see two separate groupings of colored circles as rows rather than just a collection of dots.

Law of Prägnanz

The law of prägnanz is sometimes referred to as the law of good figure or the law of simplicity. This law holds that when you're presented with a set of ambiguous or complex objects, your brain will make them appear as simple as possible. For example, when presented with the Olympic logo, you see overlapping circles rather than an assortment of curved, connected lines.

The word prägnanz is a German term meaning "good figure."

Law of Proximity

According to the law of proximity, things that are close together seem more related than things that are spaced farther apart.

In the image at the top of the page, the circles on the left appear to be part of one grouping while those on the right appear to be part of another. Because the objects are close to each other, we group them together.

Law of Continuity

The law of continuity holds that points that are connected by straight or curving lines are seen in a way that follows the smoothest path. In other words, elements in a line or curve seem more related to one another than those positioned randomly.

Law of Closure

According to the law of closure, we perceive elements as belonging to the same group if they seem to complete some entity. Our brains often ignore contradictory information and fill in gaps in information.

In the image at the top of the page, you probably see the shape of a diamond because your brain fills in the missing gaps in order to create a meaningful image.

The Law of Common Region

The Gestalt law of common region says that when elements are located in the same closed region, we perceive them as belonging to the same group.

Look at the last image at the top of the page. The circles are right next to each other so that the dot at the end of one circle is actually closer to the dot at the end of the neighboring circle. But despite how close those two dots are, we see the dots inside the circles as belonging together.

Creating a clearly defined boundary can overpower other Gestalt laws such as the law of proximity.

A Word From Verywell

The Gestalt laws of perceptual organization present a set of principles for understanding some of the ways in which perception works. Research continues to offer insights into perception and how we see the world. These principles of organization play a role in perception, but it is also important to remember that they can sometimes lead to incorrect perceptions of the world.

It is important to remember that while these principles are referred to as laws of perceptual organization, they are actually heuristics or shortcuts. Heuristics are usually designed for speed, which is why our perceptual systems sometimes make mistakes and we experience perceptual inaccuracies.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Wagemans J, Elder JH, Kubovy M, et al. A century of Gestalt psychology in visual perception: I. Perceptual grouping and figure-ground organization. Psychol Bull. 2012;138(6):1172–1217. doi:10.1037/a0029333

  2. Vezzani, S, Marino, BF, Giora, E. An early history of the Gestalt factors of organization. Perception. 2012;41(2):148-67. doi:10.1068/p7122

  3. Dresp-Langley B. Principles of perceptual grouping: Implications for image-guided surgery. Front Psychol. 2015;6:1565. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01565

  4. Ali N, Peebles D. The effect of Gestalt laws of perceptual organization on the comprehension of three-variable bar and line graphs. Hum Factors. 2013;55(1):183-203. doi:10.1177/0018720812452592

Additional Reading
  • Goldstein EB, Brockmole JR. Sensation and Perception. 10th ed. Cengage Learning; 2017.

  • Goldstein EB. Cognitive Psychology: Connecting Mind, Research and Everyday Experience. Cengage Learning; 2014.

  • Nevid JS. Essentials of Psychology: Concepts and Applications. 5th ed. Cengage Learning; 2018.