Gestalt Theory

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Gestalt Theory (GT) is a broad interdisciplinary general theory which provides a framework for a wide variety of psychological phenomena, processes, and applications.

The essence of successful problem-solving behavior according to Wertheimer is: to be 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.

In other words, Gestalt theory holds "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).

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 of grouping

  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.
  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 problem-solving.

Human 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 wholes.

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, into 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 (such as it is presented in many publications), but it must be seen 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.

  • It is 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 towards cognitive processes directed at reducing this dissonance.

  • 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 Gestalt Theory tends to be a kind of critical realism. Methodologically, it tries to achieve a meaningful integration of experimental and phenomenological procedures (the experimental-phenomenological method). Crucial phenomena are examined without reduction of experimental precision. GT should not be understood 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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