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Gestalt Principles of Perception

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

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 [link] 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).

The concept of figure-ground relationship explains why this image can be perceived either as a vase or as a pair of faces.
An illustration shows two identical black face-like shapes that face towards one another, and one white vase-like shape that occupies all of the space in between them. Depending on which part of the illustration is focused on, either the black shapes or the white shape may appear to be the object of the illustration, leaving the other(s) perceived as negative space.

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 [link] illustrates.

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.
Illustration A shows thirty-six dots in six evenly-spaced rows and columns. Illustration B shows thirty-six dots in six evenly-spaced rows but with the columns separated into three sets of two columns.

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 ([link]). 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.

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.
An illustration shows six rows of six dots each. The rows of dots alternate between blue and white colored dots.

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 ([link]). The principle of closure states that we organize our perceptions into complete objects rather than as a series of parts ([link]).

Good continuation would suggest that we are more likely to perceive this as two overlapping lines, rather than four lines meeting in the center.
An illustration shows two lines of diagonal dots that cross in the middle in the general shape of an “X.”
Closure suggests that we will perceive a complete circle and rectangle rather than a series of segments.
An illustration shows fragmented lines that would form a circle if they were connected. Another illustration shows fragmented lines that would form a square if they were connected.

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 & Woodbury, 2010).

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 young Blacks were killed by people who claimed to believe that the unarmed individuals were armed and/or represented some threat to their personal safety.


Gestalt theorists have been incredibly influential in the areas of sensation and perception. Gestalt principles such as figure-ground relationship, grouping by proximity or similarity, the law of good continuation, and closure are all used to help explain how we organize sensory information. Our perceptions are not infallible, and they can be influenced by bias, prejudice, and other factors.

Review Questions

According to the principle of ________, objects that occur close to one another tend to be grouped together.

  1. similarity
  2. good continuation
  3. proximity
  4. closure


Our tendency to perceive things as complete objects rather than as a series of parts is known as the principle of ________.

  1. closure
  2. good continuation
  3. proximity
  4. similarity


According to the law of ________, we are more likely to perceive smoothly flowing lines rather than choppy or jagged lines.

  1. closure
  2. good continuation
  3. proximity
  4. similarity


The main point of focus in a visual display is known as the ________.

  1. closure
  2. perceptual set
  3. ground
  4. figure


Critical Thinking Question

The central tenet of Gestalt psychology is that the whole is different from the sum of its parts. What does this mean in the context of perception?

This means that perception cannot be understood completely simply by combining the parts. Rather, the relationship that exists among those parts (which would be established according to the principles described in this chapter) is important in organizing and interpreting sensory information into a perceptual set.

Take a look at the following figure. How might you influence whether people see a duck or a rabbit?

A drawing appears to be a duck when viewed horizontally and a rabbit when viewed vertically.

Playing on their expectations could be used to influence what they were most likely to see. For instance, telling a story about Peter Rabbit and then presenting this image would bias perception along rabbit lines.

Personal Application Question

Have you ever listened to a song on the radio and sung along only to find out later that you have been singing the wrong lyrics? Once you found the correct lyrics, did your perception of the song change?


organizing our perceptions into complete objects rather than as a series of parts
figure-ground relationship
segmenting our visual world into figure and ground
Gestalt psychology
field of psychology based on the idea that the whole is different from the sum of its parts
good continuation
(also, continuity) we are more likely to perceive continuous, smooth flowing lines rather than jagged, broken lines
pattern perception
ability to discriminate among different figures and shapes
perceptual hypothesis
educated guess used to interpret sensory information
principle of closure
organize perceptions into complete objects rather than as a series of parts
things that are close to one another tend to be grouped together
things that are alike tend to be grouped together

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