Gestalt Psychology Challenges Behaviorism



Founded by Max Wertheimer (1880-1943), Gestalt psychology surfaced as a

theoretical school in Germany early in the 20th century.Gestalt psychology

was based on the belief that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts

(Gestalt is German for"form" or "shape"). An example of this fundamental

principle is provided by the phi phenomenon, first described by Wertheimer

(1912) . The phi phenomenon is the illusion of movement created by

presenting visual stimuli in rapid succession. For example, movies and TV

consist of separate still pictures projected rapidly one after the other.

Although we see smooth motion, in reality the "moving" objects merely take

a slightly different position in successive frames. The same principle is

illustrated by electric signs, such as those on movie marquees or at road

construction sites (see the adjacent photo). The bulbs going on and off in

turn, with the appropriate timing, give the impression of motion. Of

course, nothing in the sign really moves. The elements (the bulbs) are

stationary. Working as a whole, however, they have a property (motion) that

isn't evident in any of the parts. Some of the other perceptual phenomena

identified by the Gestalt psychologists are described in Chapter 4.


Gestalt psychology's emergence in 1912 was in part a reaction against

structuralism, an influential school of thought in Germany at the time.

Obviously, the structuralists' interest in breaking conscious experience

into its component parts seemed ill advised in light of the Gestalt

theorists' demonstration that the whole can be much greater than the sum of

its parts. Nazi persecutions in Germany eventually forced the leading

Gestalt theorists; Wertheimer, Kurt Koffka, and Wolfgang Kohler; to move to

the United States, where they attacked the theoretical edifice of

behaviorism. They took issue with the behaviorists on two counts.

First,they saw the behaviorists' attempt to analyze behavior into

stimulus-response bonds as another ill-fated effort to carve the whole into

its parts. Second,they felt that psychology should continue to study

conscious experience rather than shift its focus to observable behavior.


Like structuralism and functionalism (to which it is compared in Table

1.1), Gestalt psychology had a limited life span. At its peak, it was an

active combatant in psychology's theoretical wars and was responsible for

some major advances in the study of perception, problem solving, and social

behavior. However, after its relocation in North America, the Gestalt

movement was unable to attract a large second generation of loyalists

(Ash,1985). Thus, it gradually faded as an important school of thought.

However, the Gestalt school left its mark on the field, as it contributed

to the eventual emergence of two contemporary theoretical perspectives in

psychology: humanism and cognitive psychology. We'll discuss these

perspectives later, after we look at the highly influential ideas of

Sigmund Freud and B. F. Skinner.



Overview of Three Early Theoretical Perspectives in Psychology


  1. Perspective: Structuralism

        o Its Influential Period: (1875-1930s)

        o Principal Contributors: Wilhelm Wundt Edward Titchener

        o Subject Matter: Structure of consciousness

        o Basic Premise: The content of conscious experience can be

          analyzed into its basic elements.

  2. Perspective: Functionalism

        o Its Influential Period: (1890-1930s)

        o Principal Contributors: William James G. Stanley Hall James

          McKeen Cattell

        o Subject Matter: Functions of consciousness

        o Basic Premise: The adaptive purposes of conscious experience are

          more important than its structure.

  3. Perspective: Gestalt psychology

        o Its Influential Period: (1912-1940s)

        o Principal Contributors: Max Wertheimer Kurt Koffka Wolfgang


        o Subject Matter: Organization of consciousness

        o Basic Premise: Conscious experiences and perceptions are more

          than the sum of their parts.


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