Gestalt Psychology: Definition & Principles

Gestalt Psychology: Definition & Principles
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  • 0:00 What Is Gestalt Psychology?
  • 1:10 Laws of Perceptual…
  • 2:13 Proximity and Similarity
  • 4:08 Closure and Figure vs. Ground
  • 5:50 Simplicity
  • 6:40 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Robert Turner
In this lesson, you'll explore the basic concepts and principles of Gestalt psychology. The word 'Gestalt' is a German word that means 'seeing the whole picture all at once.'

What Is Gestalt Psychology?

Gestalt psychology is a school of thought that believes all objects and scenes can be observed in their simplest forms. Sometimes referred to as the 'Law of Simplicity,' the theory proposes that the whole of an object or scene is more important than its individual parts. Observing the whole helps us find order in chaos and unity among outwardly unrelated parts and pieces of information.

Gestalt psychology proposes a unique perspective on human perception. According to Gestalt psychologists, we don't just see the world, we actively interpret what we see, depending on what we are expecting to see. A famous French author, Anaïs Nin, who was not a psychologist, framed that idea in an interesting way: 'We do not see the world as it is; we see it as we are.'

Gestalt psychology encourages people to 'think outside of the box' and look for patterns. In this lesson, we'll explore the basic principles of Gestalt psychology and the laws of perceptual organization using examples.

Laws of Perceptual Organization

One of the laws of perceptual organization is that of apparent motion, through which the whole is more important than the individual parts. When you view an animated cartoon or any kind of film, you'll perceive motion when the individual frames are strung together. You won't see the individual frames; you'll see action and motion that tells a story. For example, in a cartoon, a character may run off the edge of the cliff and, for a moment, tread air until he looks down, sees his situation and then plummets to the floor of a canyon to become a flat coyote, cat or bunny.

In reality, all of this apparent motion is nothing more than a sequence of frames strung together and proof that 'the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.' In watching the cartoon, we perceive the motion, but we do not perceive the individual frames that create the illusion of motion.

Some of the other basic laws of perceptual organization include:

  • Proximity
  • Similarity
  • Closure
  • Figure vs. ground
  • Simplicity

Proximity and Similarity

To illustrate proximity and similarity, take a look at this famous painting by Georges Seurat: A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. Painted in 1884, it later inspired a popular Broadway play, Sunday in the Park with George.

Painting by Georges Seurat
a Sunday afternoon on the island of la grande jatte

According to the principle of proximity, when we see objects grouped together, we tend to perceive that they belong together. Look closely at the painting, especially the group of three people sitting on the shaded grass in the left foreground. Do you think the group and the dog belong together?

At first glance, we might assume all three figures and the dog do belong together, but we could be wrong. Notice that the man slumped on his elbows is casually dressed, while the man and woman are formally dressed, which suggests they're a couple. Now, try and identify some other groups in the painting based on the principle of proximity. How many can you see?

If we apply the principle of similarity, we'll see the slumped figure as a 'loner.' On the other hand, we'll think that the man and woman standing in the right foreground belong together because they're formally dressed and seem to be facing in the same direction. In other words, when objects seem similar, we also tend to perceive that they belong together.

Here's another example: Imagine you are strolling across a city plaza. Around you, traffic hums, horns blare and people are moving about in every direction. On your right, you notice a police officer walking away from you. To your right, you see another police officer heading off in another direction. Straight ahead, you spot a third police officer talking to a man on the other side of the plaza.

Based on the principle of similarity, are you likely to see all three police officers as belonging together? Yes. You would perceive each one belongs in the same category, even though they are separated by space. Now, let's move on to closure.

Closure and Figure vs. Ground

Closure refers to our perception of objects or spaces that are incomplete or not fully enclosed. As a result, we add the missing information ourselves to perceive the whole. For example, on a bright day in May, you approach the intersection of Hill Street and Grissom Lane. You spy a stop sign partly concealed by the leaves of a tree. Will you ignore the signal to stop because the octagonal sign is not entirely visible? Not likely. Under the principle of closure, you perceive the familiar red sign in its entirety.

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