Gestalt Theory: What is it, characteristics, its laws and main applications

What is Gestalt Theory? Discover here one of the most important trends in psychology. We will tell you about their characteristics, main authors, contributions, and applications. Also a bonus on how these contribute in a personal level.

Gestalt Theory
Gestalt Theory: The Whole is Other than the Sum of the Parts

What is the Gestalt Theory?

Gestalt is a decisive trend in psychology history. It was born in Germany at the beginning of the 20th century. It was Christian von Ehrenfels, an Austrian philosopher, who gave this movement its name in The Attributes of Form, his most important work. There is no perfect English translation of the term “gestalt”. But we can interpret it as “totality”,”figure”,”structure”,”configuration” or “organized unity”.

“The whole is more than the sum of its parts” is its maximum. The main authors of Gestalt proposed alternatives to the dominant psychological paradigms and made great contributions to cognitive psychology.

This particular focus was a breath of fresh air and allowed people who did not feel represented by the main currents of psychology to find an alternative.

Gestalt Theory: What is it, characteristics, its laws and main applications

Gestalt Theory: Characteristics

  • Its main predecessors of gestalt theory are philosophers: Thinkers such as Kant, Descartes or Husserl developed the theoretic basis on which this school developed. The psychologists belonging to this current were able to take their ideas to the laboratory and obtain amazing results.
  • We must treat people as a whole: We cannot explore the different dimensions that shape us in isolation. A holistic approach is needed when speaking about mental health. The complexity of the human mind cannot be reduced. Gestalt theory explores the dynamic relationships that connect the various elements of reality. Gestalt theory does not conceive separating processes such as learning from memory.
  • We are active in understanding reality: We do not all perceive reality, in the same way, we have our own vision. Each one structures the information they receive according to their previous experiences. Our mental representations do not correspond completely with those that exist in reality, we construct them ourselves. We are also able to adapt our mental processes and contents as new situations arise.
  • They opposed the predominant schools in their time: Gestalt theory psychologists did not agree with approaches such as behaviorism, which limits human behavior to associations between stigmas and responses. This perspective leaves mental processes aside and does not contemplate the potential of human intelligence. On the other hand, they did not adhere to psychoanalysts either, seeing people as passive agents without willpower.
  • Gestalt theory’s main study area is perception: Gestalt theorist focused especially on seeking simple and natural explanations that could be adapted to our natural way of perceiving reality. Through perception, we are able to acquire knowledge of the world, interact with it and connect with others.

Our senses and mental processes interact to allow us to perform tasks as varied as removing the hand from a burning surface or notice that the person speaking to us is upset by their frowning. Gestalt theory focuses on visual perception. However, their ideas have been adapted to fields such as music.

Gestalt Theory: Main contributions

Gestalt psychologists are known for their contributions to the study of the learning process and problem-solving. However, their most relevant contribution, which was stated by Wertheimer, is the elaboration of some basic laws that govern our perception.

Gestalt Theory Laws

We can see a host of examples of these principles around us. In addition, they are fully applicable to our daily life.

1. Law of Prägnanz

Perception tends to organize the elements in the simplest possible way. Our brain prefers harmonious compositions. Mental processes are not infinite, we cannot dedicate time and resources to everything around us. Therefore, we simplify what we perceive and prefer simplicity. In this picture, we don’t need any more data to know that we are looking at a cup.

2. Figure-ground law

We have all seen Rubin’s glass at one time or another, it is the best-known example of this phenomenon. We will have realized that it is impossible to perceive the faces and the cup at the same time.

Gestalt Theory
Gestalt Theory

3. Law of proximity

The elements closest to each other tend to form a group as if they were one set. If you look at three piles of candy, you’ll notice three groups instead of seeing all the candy separately. In this example, we perceive the objects in each box as a single block.

Gestalt Theory-Proximity
Gestalt Theory-Proximity

4. Law of similarity

Similar figures seem to have the same shape. Their similarity may be due to the fact that they have a similar color, shape or any other characteristic that allows us to draw a parallel between them. We know that each tree has its own characteristics; not all trees have exactly the same height and color. However, from this point of view, they seem to us to be practically the same because of their similarity.

5. Common Fate law

Elements that seem to move together towards a certain orientation are perceived as a whole. If we see some children running to an ice cream stand, we will look at them as a whole. However, we can also look at them one by one if we are interested. In this case, we perceive the group in a homogeneous way.

6: Law of Closure

We tend to mentally close the contours to simplify reality. If we see a slightly curved curve that is practically closed, we will notice a circumference. It is also possible to apply this law to verbal messages.

For example, advertisers release suggestive phrases for their audience to complete. This technique requires a little effort on the part of the public to be effective. However, it maintains its interest and can achieve greater involvement.

This photograph leads us to imagine a closed line that unites all people. We see that they are separate, but our brain reduces the information.

7. Law of Good Continuity

We prefer to ignore the abrupt changes in an image we are seeing. Generally speaking, we pay more attention to the characteristics of a stimulus that allow us to perceive a smooth continuity.

One example is that if we are walking around and notice on a poster an A covered in half by a street lamp, we will continue to know that the letter is A and read the text without difficulties. In this example, we can see the continuity of the branches.

Gestalt Theory-Good continuity
Gestalt Theory-Good continuity

Gestalt Theory: Applications

Basic research

The study of basic psychological processes such as attention or perception has been influenced by Gestalt theory. Their research is fundamental for other authors to apply their discoveries to practice.

For example, advances in the field of perception make it possible for us to carry out programmes to improve road signs and avoid accidents. Their ideas continue to be reviewed and modified by experts to help us better understand how we work.

Problem solving

Gestalt psychologists believed that the circumstances are composed of several components that interact with each other. If we want to solve a problem we have to reorganize its components to discover a new solution. This idea can be extrapolated to all areas of our life. What do we have to do every day to solve a problem?

Wertheimer proposed the difference between productive thinking, which consists in carrying out creative reorganizations of the elements of the problems in order to solve them, and reproductive thinking, which is limited to applying the previous knowledge in a mechanical way.

Gestalt theory insists on using productive thinking, which will help us to reach insight. This term refers to the eureka moment, which takes place when we suddenly realize what the answer to our difficulties is.


Students should be more than just data recorders and learn to look for ways to solve their difficulties on their own. Practically all the contributions of the Gestalt can be integrated into the field of education. From their insights into mental processes to their ideas about therapy, they enable students to progress both academically and personally.


People linked to the world of communication and creativity, such as artists, designers or publicists, must know Gestalt Theory very well in order to attract the attention of their audience. Knowing how we interpret images is essential for them to be able to create works that allow them to transmit their messages and establish an effective dialogue with their audience.

When we see a poster saturated with visual elements and plagued with different typographies on a billboard, we are likely to ignore it directly. These laws allow us to understand that “less is more”.

If we want to compose memorable images that come directly to our recipients, we must select what? is the most important part of our message. We have to put it as clearly as possible. All the attention must be focused on the essentials without irrelevant distractions.

Gestalt Theory: Therapy

This therapy is approached from a humanistic approach, which considers people active beings and independent. It analyzes the human mind from its most transcendental side, explores its functioning from a holistic point of view and focuses on the positive aspects of life.

Gestalt theory therapy adopts the Kantian idea that we cannot know how things are in reality, but if we experience them. Each person presents his/her own thoughts, experiences, desires and other complexities. Our variability involves that each individual is considered individually. This therapy also has similarities with Buddhism, as it focuses on developing attention and awareness.

Gestalt theory therapy began to be developed by Fritz Perls in the 1940’s. For this author, each one of us has their own truth and he focused on the creative potential of each person. Perls emphasized that perception is the key to reality and we are responsible for changing it. He composed a sentence summarizing his thoughts:

I do what I do and you do what you do. I am not in this world to meet your expectations, nor are you in this world to meet my expectations. You are you, and I am I, and if by chance we meet, it will be wonderful. If not, nothing can be done – Fritz Perls

Gestalt therapy wants us to live “here and now” without pretending to be something that we are not. The intention is for us to grow personally and have a clear identity. Therapist and patient collaborate in this process without establishing hierarchies, they are two people with a common objective.

What can Gestalt Theory give us?

We can apply everything we have read in this article to our daily life. The great advantages of Gestalt’s theory are its application to everyday fields and the simplicity of its approaches.

Your ideas help us to better understand how we process and interpret reality. For example, they explain some optical illusions or our behavior when we go down the street and group the various elements together instead of paying attention to each one.

In addition, Gestalt can help us in daily challenges as common as problem-solving, encouraging us to be more creative and organized. On the other hand, we can follow some of the indications of Gestalt therapy to promote our personal growth.

Criticism of Gestalt Theory

Their ideas are still successful, but they are not spared from critics. Some experts consider their perceptual organizational approaches to be vague and ambiguous. In addition, other professionals claim that their experiments were not scientific enough.

On the other hand, Gestalt therapy is blamed for its individualism. They propose that each person finds his or her own path in isolation rather than deepening his or her social side. This can lead to selfish behavior. However, its followers claim that we need to discover ourselves first in order to connect with others afterward.

There are different approaches to psychology and we cannot determine who is right. Even so, it is possible to combine different perspectives in order to elaborate more complete and integrative explanations.

Gestalt Theory: Fundamental Authors

These psychologists were the most important representatives of Gestalt Theory. Their ideas continue to be revised and inspire new theories today.

1. Wolfgang Köhler

Founded this movement with Koffka and Wertheimer. His main contribution was learning by discovery and maintains that this process is active and dynamic.

He showed that chimpanzees try to solve problems by trial and error. After several failures in tasks such as reaching for food, the primates with whom he experimented seemed to reflect on the solution until they found it. In fact, they were then able to extrapolate it to similar new situations.

2. Max Wertheimer

The phenomena phi or apparent movement is its most revolutionary discovery. It consists in the perceiving movement from the succession of different fragmented images. For example, it happens when we perceive the succession of film frames as if it were a real movement.

3. Kurt Koffka

His contributions were elementary in several fields. He studied memory, learning, perception and also applied Gestalt to fields such as child psychology.

It emphasized the need to consider mental processes from a holistic point of view. He also helped Wertheimer in his research on the apparent movement by becoming involved as a subject.

4. Kurt Lewin

He was not one of the founders of Gestalt Theory. However, he was a prominent social psychologist who brought the ideas of Gestalt to this area. His study was more focused on motivation and psychosocial intervention using Gestalt.

These four psychologists were forced to emigrate to the United States after feeling threatened by Nazism.

Thank you so much for reading this article. We hope that the Gestalt Theory has been inspiring to you. If you have any questions or would like to make a contribution, please do not hesitate to comment.

This post is originally in Spanish written by Ainhoa Arranz, translated by Alejandra Salazar. 

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