Ninth Edition CoverGraziano & Raulin
Research Methods (9th edition)

Max Wertheimer (1880-1943), along with his two assistants, Kurt Koffka (1886-1941) and Wolfgang Kohler (1887-1967), founded Gestalt psychology. By 1933, while they still worked in Germany, they established the research programs that constituted Gestalt psychology. However, all three men eventually emigrated to the United States to escape the Nazi tyranny of the 1930s and 1940s. With their new base in the United States, they continued their research into Gestalt principles. 

Gestalt psychology was an alternative to Wundt’s experimental psychology. Wertheimer, Kaffka, and Kohler believed that seeking the elements of the structure of consciousness, still the prevailing psychology in pre-World-War-I Germany, distorted the nature of psychological experience. Their research demonstrated that such psychological experience as learning, thinking, problem solving, emotions, and perception involved the formation and use of whole units. Essentially, they argued, the structuralists were losing the whole, by focusing on the parts, and the whole is not the mere sum of its parts. They would make the same criticisms later of the molecular and mechanistic approaches of behaviorism in the United States.

In 1910, Wertheimer, Koffka, and Kohler carried out research on the perception of apparent movement, which Wertheimer named the “phi phenomenon.” Two points of light that are alternated fast enough will appear to be a single light moving back and forth. It is a powerful illusion of motion. Gestalt psychologists effectively refuted such previous explanations of the phi phenomenon as an unconscious inference or the viewer’s eye movements back and forth provided minute sensory stimuli that create the perception of movement. Wertheimer and his assistants concluded that the phi phenomenon was a complete perception, and it was not constructed of many small elements, such as those arising from minute sensory stimulation. Perception of the whole unit is the critical psychological phenomenon. They published their early results in Germany at the time that Watson (1912) was proclaiming the new behaviorism in the United States. 

The Gestalt psychologists developed principles of perceptual organization--how visual phenomena are organized into meaningful whole figures (Koffka, 1922). They developed such concepts as perceptual constancy, figure-ground relationships, and closure, which continue to be applied in psychology today. For example, the look and feel of the Windows computer operating system is based on Gestalt principles. On a very crowded screen, with several windows visible, the eye immediately finds the active window, because the screen graphics were designed to take advantage of the strengths of the human visual perception system. 

Gestalt principles have been applied to thinking, learning, education, creativity, problem solving, and even to psychotherapy. Their research and demonstrations were often startling and very creative. Some of the most influential books in the field are Kohler’s Gestalt Psychology (1929) and The Mentality of Apes (1927), Wertheimer’s Productive Thinking (1945, posthumously), in which he discussed the education of children and their learning processes, and Koffka’s Growth of the Mind (1921) and Principles of Gestalt Psychology (1935). 

Gestalt psychology was an early cognitive psychology and had some roots in the early 19th Century romantic philosophies. It stimulated later psychologists, such as E. C. Tolman, and influenced the development of field theorists, such as Kurt Lewin.

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