4.3 Insight Learning – Wolfgang Kohler: Theory, Definition & Examples

Jan 12, 2020 | Cognitive Psychology, Courses, ch4 Problem Solving & Creativity in Psychology

Insight learning is a theory of learning first put forth by Wolfgang Kohler about 90 years ago. Learn about the development and definition of this theory and then test your knowledge with a short quiz.

Theory Development

In the 1920s, German psychologist Wolfgang Kohler was studying the behavior of apes. He designed some simple experiments that led to the development of one of the first cognitive theories of learning, which he called insight learning.

In this experiment, Kohler hung a piece of fruit just out of reach of each chimp. He then provided the chimps with either two sticks or three boxes, then waited and watched. Kohler noticed that after the chimps realized they could not simply reach or jump up to retrieve the fruit, they stopped, had a seat, and thought about how they might solve the problem. Then after a few moments, the chimps stood up and proceeded to solve the problem.

In the first scenario, the problem was solved by placing the smaller sticks into the longer stick to create one very long stick that could be used to knock down the hanging fruit. In the second scenario, the chimps would solve the problem by stacking the boxes on top of each other, which allowed them to climb up to the top of the stack of boxes and reach the fruit.

Learning occurs in a variety of ways. Sometimes it is the result of direct observation; other times, it is the result of experience through personal interactions with the environment. Kohler called this newly observed type of learning insight learning. Based on these observations, Kohler’s theory of insight learning became an early argument for the involvement of cognition, or thinking, in the process of learning.

Definition of Insight Learning

Insight learning is the abrupt realization of a problem’s solution. Insight learning is not the result of trial and error, responding to an environmental stimulus, or the result of observing someone else attempting the problem. It is a completely cognitive experience that requires the ability to visualize the problem and the solution internally – in the mind’s eye, so to speak – before initiating a behavioral response.

Insight learning is considered a type of learning because it results in a long-lasting change. Following the occurrence of insight, the realization of how to solve the problem can be repeated in future similar situations.

Example of Insight Learning

Insight learning happens regularly in each of our lives and all around us. Inventions and innovations alike are oftentimes the result of insight learning. We have all experienced the sensation of insight learning at one time or another. It is sometimes called a ‘eureka’ or ‘aha’ moment. Whatever you call it, insight learning is often at the root of creative, out-of-the-box thinking.

Here is an example of a situation that, while simple, illustrates the basic principles of insight learning. If you are like most people, when you were a kid you loved a good snow cone. While many think of snow cones as a summertime treat, kids don’t care what season it is. So, imagine it’s January, you live in Minnesota, and your son wants a snow cone. Unless you have a snow cone maker, you’re probably telling your son, ‘Maybe the next time we go out to eat we’ll get one, okay?’

Your son, disappointed, initially accepts your answer, until all of sudden, he stops and says, ‘We don’t have to wait. We can just use snow from outside!’ You’ve never done this before, and to the best of your knowledge, he has never seen anyone else do this. Proudly, you say, ‘Yeah! Good idea!’ So you go grab a bowl and a spoon and bring some nice, fresh snow into the kitchen. Before you know it, you and your son are enjoying your own homemade snow cones.

Your son just demonstrated the ability to solve a problem without trial and error or by seeing someone else do it. He was highly motivated (because snow cones are yummy!) to solve this snow cone dilemma, so he thought about all of the possible ways he knew of to solve this problem. His clear vision of the problem and ability to problem-solve using only his cognitive abilities demonstrate the power of insight learning.

Lesson Summary

Wolfgang Kohler conducted some simple but important studies involving ape behavior that helped lead to the development of the insight learning theory. Kohler put the apes into problem-solving scenarios that required they access fruit hanging just above their heads and out of their natural reach. Kohler found that once the apes discovered they could not reach the fruit, they stopped and thought about how they might solve the problem. After a period of time, they were able to use the tools at their disposal to solve the problem and reach the fruit. Kohler called this cognitive process insight learning.

Insight learning does not rely on behavioral or observational learning; it is a purely cognitive experience. Kohler’s theory of insight learning helped provide some early evidence to support the role of cognition in learning.

Learning Outcomes

When this lesson concludes, attempt to do the following:

  • Summarize Wolfgang Kohler’s research on the theory of insight learning
  • State the definition of insight learning and discuss some of its characteristics
  • Provide examples of insight learning
4.4 Functional Fixedness in Psychology: Definition & Examples
4.2 Problem Solving Methods: Definition & Types