2.7 Gestalt Principles & Concepts

Jan 12, 2020 | ch2 Perception & Sensation, Cognitive Psychology, Courses

In this lesson, we will learn about Gestalt principles and concepts. We will learn that we cannot always trust what we see. We will learn how our perception and reality may be very different.


Did you ever wonder why you see items in a picture that seem connected, whereupon a second look you see they are not? In this lesson, we will look at how things we see may not be as they are. The following theory describes how we tend to organize visual parts into groups or unified wholes when certain principles are applied. We tend to trust our eyesight to be accurate and reliable; however, ask a policeman at a crime scene how many different descriptions come from a set of witnesses who all saw the same event and people.

Gestalt is a term that means ‘unified whole,’ and it shows how people tend to organize what we see into groups when certain principles are applied. The leaves, branches, flowers, and fruit are all parts of a tree, but you tend to see the tree as a whole tree. The parts are only secondary to the whole.

Six Laws of Gestalt Perception

The fundamental principle of gestalt perception is the law of prägnanz, which says that we tend to order our experience in a manner that is regular, orderly, symmetric, and simple. Gestalt psychologists attempt to discover refinements of the law of prägnanz, and this involves writing down laws that allow us to predict the interpretation of sensation, which are often called Gestalt laws. There are six principles or laws of Gestalt perception:

  1. Proximity is the belief that those items that we see close together, we tend to see as being a group.
  2. Similarity – the belief that things that look similar in characteristics, such as shape, size, color, texture, value, or orientation, are seen as belonging together as a group or pattern. When similarity occurs, an object can stand out because it is dissimilar from the other objects.
  3. Common fate – we tend to perceive visual elements moving in the same direction at the same rate as being more related than elements that are stationary or that move in different directions. For instance, if we see a flock of birds, they are all flying in the same direction. If a bird veers off from the group, we will still tend to notice the flock of birds.
  4. Good continuation shows our preference for continuous figures or lines. We perceive two lines intersecting in the middle as two lines rather than four shorter lines, or when the eye is forced to move through one object and continue to another.
  5. Closure means that individuals see objects, such as shapes, letters, or pictures, as being whole when they are not complete, or where pieces of a picture seem missing our perception completes the picture. It is thought that the reason the mind completes a regular figure that is not perceived through sensation is to increase the regularity of surrounding stimuli.
  6. Area and symmetry – the principle of area says that the smaller of two overlapping figures is seen as figure, where the eye differentiates an object from its surrounding area, while the surrounding area is seen as ground, or background. The principle of symmetry is that the mind perceives objects as being symmetrical. It is pleasing to the eye to divide things into an even number of symmetrical parts. So, when two symmetrical items are not connected, our mind connects them. Similarity in objects increases the chances that objects are grouped to form a combined symmetrical item.

Lesson Summary

Let’s review. Gestalt, or the unified whole, is the idea that we organize what we see into certain groups that follow a set of principles known as Gestalt principles or laws. These principles include:

  1. Similarity, or the idea that when we look at something, we put like items together.
  2. Proximity is the idea that we see things as groups that are close together.
  3. When both of these ideas are applied we see movement, or common fate.
  4. Good continuation is that we tend to notice lines continuing as one line even if they are intersected by another line.
  5. Closure is when one sees items as complete when they are not. Our eye completes the lines.
  6. Symmetry is the idea that we see items as symmetrical, and when they are not connected, our mind completes them.

Learning Outcomes

After completing this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Define Gestalt
  • Describe how humans tend to organize what we see into certain groups
  • Explain the six principles of Gestalt
2.8 Template, Feature Analysis & Prototype Theory
2.6 Locke's Causal Theory of Perception