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30 Gestalt Principles of Perception

Learning Objectives

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

  • Define Gestalt principles
  • 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).

Table SAP.2 Summary of Gestalt Principles of Form Perception.
Principle Description Example Image
Figure-ground relationship We structure input so that we always see a figure (image) against a ground (background). At right, you may see a vase or you may see two faces, but in either case, you will organize the image as a figure against a ground.



Similarity Stimuli that are similar to each other tend to be grouped together. You are more likely to see three similar columns among the XYX characters at right than you are to see four rows.
Xs and Ys
Proximity We tend to group nearby figures together. Do you see four or eight images at right? Principles of proximity suggest that you might see only four.


Continuity We tend to perceive stimuli in smooth, continuous ways rather than in more discontinuous ways. At right, most people see a line of dots that moves from the lower left to the upper right, rather than a line that moves from the left and then suddenly turns down. The principle of continuity leads us to see most lines as following the smoothest possible path.
Closure We tend to fill in gaps in an incomplete image to create a complete, whole object. Closure leads us to see a single spherical object at right rather than a set of unrelated cones. ""
Credit: USask Textbook


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.


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Gestalt Principles of Perception by Edited by Leanne Stevens is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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