Wolfgang Kohler: Biography & Contributions to Psychology

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  • 0:04 Who Was Wolfgang Kohler?
  • 1:16 Gestalt Psychology
  • 2:01 Insight Learning
  • 3:33 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nathan Kilgore

Nathan has taught college Psychology, Sociology, English, and Communications and has a master's degree in education.

This lesson focuses on Wolfgang Kohler and his contributions to gestalt psychology. We'll also look at his theories developed by experimenting with chimps and the way they learn.

Who Was Wolfgang Kohler?

Imagine staring at the Mona Lisa with your nose touching the canvas. If your eyes were focused on the part of the painting that was just an inch or two away, you probably wouldn't even know what painting you were actually looking at!

Did you ever feel like some people don't see the whole picture? We often use this sort of language to describe those focused on the details or individual aspects of a problem. On the other hand, there are those who do look at the problem as a whole without getting distracted by details. Wolfgang Kohler was one of them. He focused on the big picture. Let me explain.

Wolfgang Kohler was a German psychologist born in Revel, Estonia on January 21, 1887. Kohler taught at the University of Frankfurt, and among his many accomplishments was his work published in the The Mentality of Apes, 1917. In 1909, Kohler earned his Ph.D. and worked at the Psychological Institute in Frankfort-am-Main where he was introduced to Max Wertheimer and Kurt Koffka. Together, these three men would lay the foundation for gestalt psychology. In 1921, Kohler became the director of the psychological institute and professor of philosophy at the University of Berlin.

Gestalt Psychology

Later, in 1929, Kohler published gestalt psychology. Gestalt psychology is a method of understanding the mind by emphasizing the whole of something instead of examining its parts. The word ''gestalt'' means the ''unified or meaningful whole.'' For example, when we see a movie in the theater, although things appear to be in motion, we are in fact seeing numerous still frames put together. Gestalt psychology would focus on how our mind perceives the motion on the screen (this is called apparent motion).

Another idea in gestalt psychology is known as the law of pregnanz. Consider a letter that is drawn with only dashes, incompletely filled in.

Image A

When examining the whole of the image, you can make out what it should be. The law of pregnanz suggests that our mind completes the image the way it should be.

Insight Learning

Insight learning is perhaps the greatest contribution Wolfgang Kohler made to psychology. Building off the influence of gestalt psychology, Kohler discovered that learning can occur when we gain insight into an entire situation, as opposed to focusing only on an individual part. For example, it's like when you solve a riddle by realizing the answer is obvious if you step back and consider the problem as a whole instead of focusing on the details of the riddle.

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