Gestalt Psychology: History And Contemporary Applications

Updated June 10, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Robin Brock

Gestalt psychology is a school of psychology that has greatly impacted contemporary psychology practices as we know them today. But what exactly is Gestalt psychology, and how does it still affect the theories and treatments that psychologists and therapists use today?

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Here, we’ll explore what gestalt psychology is, an overview of its history and method, and its contemporary applications in modern therapy. Let’s learn about gestalt psychology!

What Is Gestalt Psychology?

Gestalt psychology is a school of psychological theory based on the idea that what we see and experience is more than the sum of its parts, known as the gestalt theory. It is humanist psychology that draws on the gestalt laws of perception. This gestalt theory suggests the accepted idea that humans react to comprehensible input from the world around them. They rely on qualities to form meaning that what they can understand is more than what their senses are actually perceiving. This school of psychology played a significant role in developing the history of modern psychology and therapy as we recognize it today.

Gestalt psychology humanistic psychology that is based on gestalt principles. The gestalt principles are a series of rules that were written to explain the design of all things! According to the gestalt principles, people view designs as a whole thing rather than a series of parts or components. When these rules were applied to human psychology, they became known as the principles of gestalt psychology. Like in gestalt design rules, these principles of gestalt psychology emphasized the whole experience as greater than the sum of its parts. In fact, the word gestalt comes from the German word that means “form or shape.” So, it’s an apt word to describe the gestalt approach, which seeks to add form and shape to a series of experiences or problems.

A Brief History Of Gestalt Psychology

Now, let’s take a look at the fascinating history of gestalt psychology. The school of gestalt psychology was started by psychologists Max Wertheimer, Kurt Koffa, and Wolfgang Kohler to understand the “intrinsic nature of the whole” when approaching behavioral and psychoanalysis. In essence, a good gestalt psychologist claims that social psychology is founded on understanding how a person’s perception works. One father of gestalt psychology Kurt Koffa also drew on his expertise in perception and hearing impairments. At the same time, Wolfgang Kohler was known for his problem-solving approach and structural contribution to the history of psychology. Most notably, he opposed behaviorism while still adhering to his beliefs in a humanistic and holistic approach to human psychology.

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While the psychologist Max Wertheimer was considered the father of gestalt psychology, many contributed to its development, including psychologist Kurk Koffa and many others, including Wolfgang Kohler and Fritz Perls. According to Wertheimer, gestalt psychology needed its’ own institute. In fact, the many proponents of gestalt psychology founded their own institute by his vision. The founders of gestalt psychology eventually became the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland, where many of their contributions to psychology have been researched and implemented. When the fathers of gestalt psychology founded this institute, they opened the doors to more research on the gestalt approach and thought in psychology. The Gestalt Institute of Cleveland has made many contributions to research and insight into the history of modern psychology.

Several years later, along come Fritz and Laura Perls, who further contributed to the development of gestalt psychology. They had fled Nazi Germany in 1933 to South Africa, where they continued their research and worked on the general principles of this area of psychology. Perl, who was initially trained in Freudian psychoanalysis but didn’t accept all of the theories and methods, set out to develop a more comprehensive method of psychotherapy based on Wertheimer and Kurt’s gestalt theory of psychology.

1951, Fritz Perl published Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality, which laid out his theories and methods for treating patients with gestalt therapy. He had plenty of help from his fellow gestalt psychologists, Paul Goodman and Ralph Hefferline. Together, they laid the groundwork for what would become one of the leading methods of psychotherapy that is still used often to this day.

Gestalt Laws And Perceptual Organization

Much of the gestalt school of thought is based on laws that seem to govern people’s desire to see things organized. To explain this, gestalt psychology proposed some gestalt laws of perceptual organization. Basically, these laws state that when people see things in groups, they tend to think and behave as if these things “belong” together. Or, when objects resemble one another based on a series of different characteristics, such as color, position, or degree, they’re viewed as a whole that is more than the sum of its parts. For example, people might see similar shapes organized in a line and see a “column” or “row” in addition to just the group of shapes. These principles and gestalt laws further developed gestalt psychology and eventually led to its application in therapy and treatment.

Gestalt psychology suggests that humans’ propensity to see order and form in place of separate items gives insight into people’s problem-solving capabilities. When it works, gestalt psychology seeks to apply this same propensity for the order to a patient’s experiences to help them solve their problems. This big-picture perception works for a person who wants to approach their problems in a way that jives with their experiences as a whole. So, human psychology suggests order naturally, and this perceived order emerging from separate components helps patients apply the same patterns to their thoughts and perceptions.

Applications Of Gestalt Psychology In Contemporary Treatment

One of the most notable ways gestalt psychology is applied to treating patients today is through gestalt therapy. You’ve probably seen this method of psychotherapy depicted in popular culture: the patient explains their problems and worries while the therapist listens. Then, the therapist asks guiding questions to help the patient draw their own conclusions and come to their own solutions for the problems they have described.

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Because the gestalt movement is based on the underlying belief that a person’s experiences are defined by an organized whole that is more than the sum of its parts, there is a big emphasis on the present moment and the patient’s experiences. In fact, this field of psychology has given way to an experiential therapy that focuses on the patient’s freedom, awareness, and self-reflection.

Gestalt therapy could be further classed as a phenomenological approach since its focus on the patient’s perceptions of reality outweighs the importance of the patient’s ability to describe reality accurately. This means that by describing the world around us, gestalt therapy taps into our own side of the story to look for bias and eventual solutions.

Furthermore, the gestalt movement is defined as existential since it works towards remaking and redefining the self. This means that patients are expected to extract and form meaning based on their experiences and to use their expressions of these experiences to build up their own meaning and purpose in their lives. Even if a patient hasn’t put a lot of thought into psychology, they’ll be propelled by the desire to create meaning for their life.

In the midst of all of this verbal processing, one of the key aspects of gestalt therapy is that the therapist has unconditional acceptance. This means that the patient can give no wrong answer, and the gestalt psychologist doesn’t pass any judgment on what the patient is sharing. In this way, the gestalt psychologist seeks to bring the patient from a place of emotional sharing to one of realization. The patient should play a huge part in discovering the solution to their problem, and then this emotion serves as a basis for concrete change in the patient’s life. In this way, the therapist can help draw a straight line from the patient’s emotions to their desired behavioral change.

In all of the practices, the goal of the gestalt psychologist is to help the patient move from a need for environmental support to one where they can rely on their own self-support. Ultimately, the therapist wants to see the patient reach their own conclusions about their problems, form the better part of their own solutions, and work towards concrete behavioral change to implement these solutions.

Gestalt therapists also use phenomenological inquiry as their main method of drawing information out of their patients. This means that they prefer asking “what” and “how” questions instead of “why” questions. This helps the patient focus on the present and discuss what specific experiential factors contribute to their problems and solutions. Although the answers to these questions may initially be difficult to define, over time, the psychology, including the desire to see order, wins out, and the patient can extrapolate their own solutions to their problems.

One thing that gestalt psychology seeks to root out is what therapists call “unfinished business.” Unfinished business refers to any hatred, anxiety, anger, guilt, or shame that cloud the experience of the present moment. This unfinished business often has its roots in bad experiences or fallout from unhealthy relationships or reactions. So, the therapist might have to revisit some of these experiences. However, the therapist will always listen to accept the patient’s version of the event as they perceived it. There is no right or wrong way to explain the events that led to the unfished business, as long as the patient is honest and the therapist exhibits unconditional acceptance. This practice of addressing aspects of psychology, including unfinished business, first requires that the gestalt psychologist identifies the unfinished business.

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There are a few ways that gestalt psychologists can target problems that need solving in a patient’s life. Gestalt therapists are trained to look out for the following signs of unfinished business or problems:

  • Introjection: This means accepting others’ beliefs and standards without assimilating them to make them congruent. For example, a patient may blindly accept the word of a friend or loved one, even if the information that they receive is false or ultimately hurtful. Instead of looking for ways to counter this false or hurtful information, they accept it as true and let it dictate their further thoughts and actions.
  • Projection: This means disowning certain aspects of the self by assigning them to the environment. For example, a patient who feels insecure or inadequate might spend a lot of time pointing out the inadequacies of the things and people around them.
  • Deflection: This means distracting the self or veering off course so that it’s hard to maintain a sustained sense of contact. For example, a patient may – knowingly or subconsciously – steer clear of certain sensitive topics when talking with their gestalt psychologist. This is especially clear when the deflection comes from the therapist asking a direct question about the touchy subject. Deflection can take many forms, from dismissing or joking about the matter to flat-out refuse to discuss it.

Gestalt psychologists are also trained to look out for specific language patterns while their patient speaks. These patterns, especially patterns of depersonalization, can give insight into the patient's insecurities. For example, when a patient doesn’t use first-person pronouns but instead describes things in terms of “it,” “they,” or “you,” the gestalt psychologist can easily see how the patient is depersonalizing.  Other key phrases, like “maybe,” “perhaps,” or “I guess,” can also signal uncertainty in the patient. In these cases, the patient is likely deflecting.

With these expressions of deflection and uncertainty, the therapist can sense unfinished business. In gestalt therapy, a common way to address this unfinished business is the empty chair technique. This is an exercise in which the patient spends time talking to an empty chair representing someone with unfinished business.


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