5.6 Gestalt Principles of Perception - Psychology 2e | OpenStax (2024)

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Explain the figure-ground relationship
  • Define Gestalt principles of grouping
  • Describe how perceptual set is influenced by an individual’s characteristics and mental state

In the early part of the 20th century, Max Wertheimer published a paper demonstrating that individuals perceived motion in rapidly flickering static images—an insight that came to him as he used a child’s toy tachistoscope. Wertheimer, and his assistants Wolfgang Köhler and Kurt Koffka, who later became his partners, believed that perception involved more than simply combining sensory stimuli. This belief led to a new movement within the field of psychology known as Gestalt psychology. The word gestalt literally means form or pattern, but its use reflects the idea that the whole is different from the sum of its parts. In other words, the brain creates a perception that is more than simply the sum of available sensory inputs, and it does so in predictable ways. Gestalt psychologists translated these predictable ways into principles by which we organize sensory information. As a result, Gestalt psychology has been extremely influential in the area of sensation and perception (Rock & Palmer, 1990).

One Gestalt principle is the figure-ground relationship. According to this principle, we tend to segment our visual world into figure and ground. Figure is the object or person that is the focus of the visual field, while the ground is the background. As Figure 5.25 shows, our perception can vary tremendously, depending on what is perceived as figure and what is perceived as ground. Presumably, our ability to interpret sensory information depends on what we label as figure and what we label as ground in any particular case, although this assumption has been called into question (Peterson & Gibson, 1994; Vecera & O’Reilly, 1998).

5.6 Gestalt Principles of Perception - Psychology 2e | OpenStax (1)

Figure 5.25 The concept of figure-ground relationship explains why this image can be perceived either as a vase or as a pair of faces.

Another Gestalt principle for organizing sensory stimuli into meaningful perception is proximity. This principle asserts that things that are close to one another tend to be grouped together, as Figure 5.26 illustrates.

5.6 Gestalt Principles of Perception - Psychology 2e | OpenStax (2)

Figure 5.26 The Gestalt principle of proximity suggests that you see (a) one block of dots on the left side and (b) three columns on the right side.

How we read something provides another illustration of the proximity concept. For example, we read this sentence like this, notl iket hiso rt hat. We group the letters of a given word together because there are no spaces between the letters, and we perceive words because there are spaces between each word. Here are some more examples: Cany oum akes enseo ft hiss entence? What doth es e wor dsmea n?

We might also use the principle of similarity to group things in our visual fields. According to this principle, things that are alike tend to be grouped together (Figure 5.27). For example, when watching a football game, we tend to group individuals based on the colors of their uniforms. When watching an offensive drive, we can get a sense of the two teams simply by grouping along this dimension.

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Figure 5.27 When looking at this array of dots, we likely perceive alternating rows of colors. We are grouping these dots according to the principle of similarity.

Two additional Gestalt principles are the law of continuity (or good continuation) and closure. The law of continuity suggests that we are more likely to perceive continuous, smooth flowing lines rather than jagged, broken lines (Figure 5.28). The principle of closure states that we organize our perceptions into complete objects rather than as a series of parts (Figure 5.29).

5.6 Gestalt Principles of Perception - Psychology 2e | OpenStax (4)

Figure 5.28 Good continuation would suggest that we are more likely to perceive this as two overlapping lines, rather than four lines meeting in the center.

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Figure 5.29 Closure suggests that we will perceive a complete circle and rectangle rather than a series of segments.

Link to Learning

Watch this video showing real world examples of Gestalt principles to learn more.

According to Gestalt theorists, pattern perception, or our ability to discriminate among different figures and shapes, occurs by following the principles described above. You probably feel fairly certain that your perception accurately matches the real world, but this is not always the case. Our perceptions are based on perceptual hypotheses: educated guesses that we make while interpreting sensory information. These hypotheses are informed by a number of factors, including our personalities, experiences, and expectations. We use these hypotheses to generate our perceptual set. For instance, research has demonstrated that those who are given verbal priming produce a biased interpretation of complex ambiguous figures (Goolkasian & Woodberry, 2010).

Dig Deeper

The Depths of Perception: Bias, Prejudice, and Cultural Factors

In this chapter, you have learned that perception is a complex process. Built from sensations, but influenced by our own experiences, biases, prejudices, and cultures, perceptions can be very different from person to person. Research suggests that implicit racial prejudice and stereotypes affect perception. For instance, several studies have demonstrated that non-Black participants identify weapons faster and are more likely to identify non-weapons as weapons when the image of the weapon is paired with the image of a Black person (Payne, 2001; Payne, Shimizu, & Jacoby, 2005). Furthermore, White individuals’ decisions to shoot an armed target in a video game is made more quickly when the target is Black (Correll, Park, Judd, & Wittenbrink, 2002; Correll, Urland, & Ito, 2006). This research is important, considering the number of very high-profile cases in the last few decades in which Black people were killed by people who claimed to believe that the unarmed individuals were armed and/or represented some threat to their personal safety.

5.6 Gestalt Principles of Perception - Psychology 2e | OpenStax (2024)


What are the 5 Gestalt principles of perception and how do they work to help us perceive our world? ›

Now, let's begin.
  • Proximity. The principle of proximity states that we tend to perceive elements as a group when they are close to each other. ...
  • Similarity. Throw a bag of M&Ms on a table and your mind will immediately start to group them by color. ...
  • Continuity. ...
  • Closure. ...
  • Connectedness.
May 11, 2023

What are the 5 Gestalt principles of grouping How are the principles applied? ›

Gestalt principles are the different ways individuals group stimuli together in order to make a whole that makes sense to them. These principles are divided up into five categories: proximity, similarity, continuity, connectedness, and closure.

What is the Gestalt theory of perception in psychology? ›

Gestalt psychology focuses on how people perceive objects, shapes, and forms as whole entities rather than separate parts. It proposes that the mind organizes sensory inputs into meaningful wholes, following principles like similarity, proximity, and closure.

What are the 6 principles of Gestalt psychology that are mentioned in the book? ›

The classic principles of the gestalt theory of visual perception include similarity, continuation, closure, proximity, figure/ground, and symmetry & order (also known as prägnanz).

What are some examples of Gestalt principles of perception in real life? ›

Examples of gestalt principles include: differentiating sports teams by color (similarity), differentiating words with spaces (proximity), and differentiating the focus of an image from the background (figure/ground).

What do the Gestalt rules of perception seek to explain? ›

Developed by German psychologists, the Gestalt principles—also known as the Gestalt laws of perceptual organization—describe how we interpret the complex world around us. They explain why a series of flashing lights appear to be moving, for instance, and why we can read this sentence: notli ket his ort hat.

What is the main idea of Gestalt psychology? ›

Gestalt psychology is a school of thought that looks at the human mind and behavior as a whole. When trying to make sense of the world around us, Gestalt psychology suggests that we do not simply focus on every small component. Instead, our minds tend to perceive objects as elements of more complex systems.

What are the key concepts of Gestalt theory? ›

The key concepts of gestalt therapy include figure and ground, balance and polarities, awareness, present-centeredness, unfinished business, and personal responsibility. Internal processing occurs through focusing inwards. To engage in internal processing, attention has to be directed inwards.

What does Gestalt psychology primarily focus on? ›

Adding to Hariharan Sundar's answer, Gestalt psychology focuses on the way we perceive things- we perceive stimuli in connection with one another and in reference to it's context. i.e., our perception is holistic. Gestalt in German means "Whole".

What is the purpose of Gestalt theory? ›

Gestalt psychology is a school of thought that seeks to understand how the human brain perceives experiences. It suggests that structures, perceived as a whole, have specific properties that are different from the sum of their individual parts.

What are the main principles of the Gestalt theory in learning? ›

The main principles of the Gestalt Theory in Learning are: Teachers should encourage their students to discover the relationship of the elements that make up a problem. Incongruities, gaps, or disturbances are essential stimuli in the learning process. Educational instruction should be based on the Laws of Organization.

What is an example of Gestalt principle of similarity? ›

An example of similarity in psychology would be observing a deck of playing cards spread out on a table. The perception would be grouped. First, half the cards are black and the other half red, making two groups. Next, there are four symbols (suits) that make four groups of cards.

How do Gestalt principles help us in the real world? ›

Gestalt theory emphasizes that we perceive things as a whole rather than individual components. It seeks to explain how humans organize perceivable elements into recognizable patterns by forming relationships between them. According to gestalt theory, we process information in this way to make sense of our environment.

What is the main idea how do the Gestalt principles of organization help explain perception? ›

The Gestalt principles of organization help explain perception because they summarize clear principles on which it seems humans categorize information they gather from the outside world and interpret it in into a meaningful whole.

Why is it important to study and learn the Gestalt principles? ›

Gestalt theory is also important in that the idea of the whole being different than its parts has influenced our understanding of the brain and social behavior. Gestalt theory still impacts how we understand vision and the ways that context, visual illusions, and information processing impact our perception.

What two main principles does Gestalt therapy emphasize? ›

Gestalt therapy is a form of psychotherapy in which self-awareness and self-acceptance are considered keys to personal growth.

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