What Is Gestalt Psychology?

Gestalt psychology is a school of thought that looks at the human mind and behavior as a whole. When trying to make sense of the world around us, Gestalt psychology suggests that we do not simply focus on every small component. Instead, our minds tend to perceive objects as part of a greater whole and as elements of more complex systems.

This school of psychology played a major role in the modern development of the study of human sensation and perception.

gestalt psychology
Verywell / Emily Roberts

What Does Gestalt Mean?

Gestalt is a German word that roughly means "configuration," or the way things are put together to form a whole object. A core belief in Gestalt psychology is holism, or that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

How the Gestalt Approach Formed

Originating in the work of Max Wertheimer, Gestalt psychology formed in part as a response to the structuralism of Wilhelm Wundt.

While followers of structuralism were interested in breaking down psychological matters into their smallest possible parts, the Gestalt psychologists wanted instead to look at the totality of the mind and behavior. Guided by the principle of holism, Wertheimer and his followers identified instances where our perception was based on seeing things as a complete whole, not as separate components.

A number of thinkers influenced the development of Gestalt psychology, including Immanuel Kant, Ernst Mach, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Wertheimer developed Gestalt psychology after observing what he called the phi phenomenon while watching alternating lights on a railway signal. The phi phenomenon is an optical illusion where two stationary objects seem to move if they are shown appearing and disappearing in rapid succession. In other words, we perceive movement where there is none.

Based on his observations of the phi phenomenon, Wertheimer concluded that we perceive things by seeing the whole perception, not by understanding individual parts. In the example of blinking lights at a train station, the whole we perceive is that one light appears to move quickly between two points; the reality is that two separate lights are blinking rapidly without moving at all.

Gestalt Psychologists

Wertheimer's observations of the phi phenomenon are widely credited as the beginning of Gestalt psychology, and he went on to publicize the core principles of the field. Other psychologists also had an influence on the field.

Wolfgang Köhler: Köhler connected Gestalt psychology to the natural sciences, arguing that organic phenomena are examples of holism at work. He also studied hearing and looked at problem-solving abilities in chimpanzees.

Kurt Koffka: Together with Wertheimer and Wolfgang Köhler, Koffka is considered a founder of the field. He applied the concept of Gestalt to child psychology, arguing that infants first understand things holistically before they learn to differentiate things into parts, and he played a key role in bringing Gestalt principles to the United States.

Important Principles

Gestalt psychology helped introduce the idea that human perception is not just about seeing what is actually present in the world around us; it is heavily influenced by our motivations and expectations.

Wertheimer created principles to explain how Gestalt perception functions. Some of the most important principles of Gestalt theory are:

  • Prägnanz: This foundational principle states that you will naturally perceive things in their simplest form or organization.
  • Similarity: This principle suggests that we naturally group similar items together based on elements like color, size, or orientation.
  • Proximity: The principle of proximity states that objects near each other tend to be viewed as a group.
  • Continuity: According to this principle, we will perceive elements arranged on a line or curve as related to each other, while elements that are not on the line or curve are seen as separate.
  • Closure: This suggests that elements that form a closed object will be perceived as a group. We will even fill in missing information to create closure and make sense of an object.
  • Common region: This principle states that we tend to group objects together if they're located in the same bounded area. (For example, objects inside a box tend to be considered a group.)

Applications

Gestalt Therapy

Gestalt therapy is based on the idea that our overall perception depends on the interaction between many factors, including our past experiences, current environment, thoughts, feelings, and needs. Research suggests Gestalt therapy is effective at treating symptoms of depression and anxiety, and it may help people gain confidence and increase feelings of self-efficacy and self-kindness. It is often a helpful way to structure group therapy.

Gestalt therapy focuses on the present; while past context is important for viewing yourself as a whole, a Gestalt therapist will encourage you to keep your focus on your present experience.

The therapeutic process is also very reliant on the relationship between the client and therapist. As a client, you must feel comfortable enough to develop a close partnership with your therapist, and they must be able to create an unbiased environment where you can discuss your thoughts and experiences.

Design

Beginning in the 1920s, designers began incorporating Gestalt principles in their work. Gestalt psychology led designers to believe that we all share certain characteristics in the way we perceive visual objects and that we all have a natural ability to see "good" design.

Designers embraced Gestalt concepts, using our perception of things like contrast, color, symmetry, repetition, and proportion to create their work. Gestalt psychology influenced other design concepts, like:

  • Figure-ground relationship: This describes the contrast between a focal object (like a word, phrase, or image) and the negative space around it. Designers often use this to create impact.
  • Visual hierarchy: Designers use the way we perceive and group visual objects to establish a visual hierarchy, ensuring that their most important word or image attracts our attention first.
  • Associativity: This concept involves the principle of proximity. Designers often use this to determine where they place important objects, including text elements like headlines, captions, and lists.

Development

Product designers also use Gestalt psychology to inform their decisions during the development process, as we tend to like products that follow Gestalt principles.

This influence can be seen in the appearance of the products themselves and in their packaging and advertising. We can also see Gestalt principles at work in apps and digital products; concepts like proximity, similarity, and continuity have become standard to our expected user experience.

Contributions to Psychology

Gestalt psychology has largely been subsumed by other types of psychology, but it had an enormous influence on the field. Researchers like Kurt Lewin and Kurt Goldstein were influenced by Gestalt concepts before going on to make important contributions to psychology.

The idea that the whole is different than its parts has influenced our understanding of the brain and social behavior. Gestalt theory still impacts how we understand vision and the ways that context, visual illusions, and information processing impact our perception.

A Word From Verywell

Gestalt therapy continues to influence many areas of our lives. Its emphasis on a holistic approach plays an important role in cognitive psychology, perception, and social psychology, among other fields.

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