Wolfgang Köhler

By: Omar El Refai, Najmah Ibrahim, Katherine MacDonald, Iris Xing, Joe Patterson

Education & Achievements

University of Berlin

University of Berlin

Köhler began his studies at the University of Tübingen in 1905, before heading to the University of Bonn in 1906, and completing his last few years of study in the University of Berlin. During his last few years of education, his work was largely on the connections between physics and psychology, which he explored with Max Planck and Carl Stumpf. His Ph. D Thesis was on Acoustic Investigations and addressed certain aspects of psychoacoustics (the study of sound perception) with Stumpf as his advisor. After completing his Ph. D, Köhler worked with Max Wertheimer and Kurt Koffka for 3 years (between 1910-13) and aided Wertheimer in his studies of apparent movement, which is now referred to as the phi phenomenon (the illusion of moving stills).

Following this, they created the Gestalt Theory, inspired by the earlier work of Stumpf and a lecturer by the name of Christian von Ehrenfels. They later wrote a book called The Task of Gestalt Psychology. In this book, they explored developments of Gestalt psychology. In the introduction, Köhler`s displeasure of how his famous quote is misinterpreted as “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” rather then how it was originally spoken as “The whole is different from the sum of its parts”, in which the sum may result in something completely unrelated to the parts, rather than a simple escalation.

In 1913, Köhler left Frankfurt for the island of Tenerife, where he began working on a book about problem solving and monkeys. The Mentality of Apes would be published in 1917, cataloging his research on how apes went about solving problems. His work was the start of insight learning as well as using chimpanzees for experiments due to the similarities between them and humans. In his book, he explained why he chose apes as his test subjects over cats or rats, which were the two other animals that were currently being tested on, due to the structure of their brains being similar to human brains. During this experiment, he gathered most of his observations during the first six months while working with his assistant. He concluded from the experiments that there was a correlation between intelligence and brain development.

Köhler was very vocal in the psychological community and took stances against both introspection and behaviorism. Against introspection (the self-reporting of conscious thoughts and sensations), he claimed that it was far too subjective, and did not attempt to properly verify the conclusions that come from introspection. Against behaviorism (at the time focused only on what is easily observable and measurable), he argued that ignoring things like inner thoughts and feelings was insufficient, and that one could not accurately measure direct experiences.

In 1920, Köhler returned to Germany and was appointed as the professor and director of the Psychological Institute at the University of Berlin where he remained until 1935, after which he left to America as he refused to abide by the rules that the Nazi party imposed on him. During his time in Germany, he set up a graduate program in psychology, created a psychology journal, re-wrote Gestalt Psychology for an American audience, and helped von Restorff on her work on both the isolation effect (within many sensations, the odd one out is what you are likely to remember) and the theory of recall (memory).

He served as a professor for twenty years at Swarthmore College, before heading to Dartmouth College in 1956, where he was a research professor as well as the president of the American Psychological Association. During this time, he lectured freely around the United States, and made yearly visits to the Free University of Berlin, where he helped psychologists by keeping them in touch with American psychology and collaborating in research and encouraging discussion. He died in 1967 in Enfield, New Hampshire. The Association had planned to give him its gold medal, but he unfortunately passed away before he could receive that honor. The Leipzig Zoo established the Wolfgang Köhler Primate Research Center in his name.


Early Life

Wolfgang Köhler

Wolfgang Köhler

Wolfgang Köhler was a German psychologist who would become one of the leaders in the development of Gestalt psychology. He was born into a German family on the 21st of January 1887 in Reval Estonia. His parents moved the family to Germany where his father was a schoolmaster when he was six years old. Kohler was married twice and had four children and died in New Hampshire on the 11th June 1967. He taught at the university of Frankfurt and amongst many of his accomplishments was his work published on the mentality of apes in 1917.

In 1909 Köhler earned his PhD and worked at the psychological institute of Frankfurt-am-Main where he came to know Max Wertheimer and Kurt Koffka, with whom he formed a life-long friendship and a fateful intellectual companionship. Together the three of them were able to set up the foundation for Gestalt psychology. The word Gestalt means the “unified or meaningful whole”.

Another contribution Köhler is famous for is insight learning. Wolfgang believed that learning could occur when we gain insight to an entire situation rather than focusing primarily on the individual parts, which can be interpreted as stepping back and looking at the bigger picture.

Before Wolfgang came along Edward Thorndike controlled the dominant views on learning. Thorndike believed that animals learned by a means of rewards and punishments. Kohler sought out to test his theory through experimentations with chimps. His studies suggested that through insight learning animals were able to grasp key learning concepts. Kohler had several of his own ideas at the time. He was able to extend the gestalt ideas into new experimental areas in memory and perception.

Gestalt Psychology and Fight Against the Nazis

Wolfgang Köhler contributed greatly to not only developing Gestalt psychology, but also through his social work against Nazis in Germany throughout his life.

While you may know the phrase “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”, it had actually been mistranslated. The actual quote by Kurt Koffka was that “the whole is **other* than the sum of its parts*” and was used to describe the field of Gestalt psychology (Dewey, n.d.). Wolfgang Köhler, along with Max Wertheimer and Kurt Koffka were critical towards the foundation of Gestalt psychology as well as the research that followed. Work towards Gestalt psychology first began in the early 20th century when Wertheimer completed experiments regarding apparent motion and perception. He found that when he placed the apparent movement of an object and the real movement of the object beside it, subjects were unable to distinguish the difference between the two.

Phi Phenomenon

Phi Phenomenon

This intrigued Wertheimer greatly and inspired him to continue his investigations on the topic and to start the beginning of Gestalt psychology. In German, the word “gestalt” can be translated to “form” or “shape”. It is based on the premise that while our sensory experiences can be broken down into individual parts, it is the relationship of these parts as a whole that we actually perceive (Boeree, n.d.). A common example is given in terms of music. Consider the video below. While a song may be made up of individual notes, it is their combination that we perceive as the melody. When Twinkle-Twinkle Little Star is played in different keys the notes that make up the melody change, but we still continue to recognize the same whole (melody) despite a complete difference in its parts (actual tones).

This largely differed from the principles regarding structuralism, a popular subject at the time, which believed that the conscious experience could be broken down into basic conscious elements. The work towards Gestalt psychology was largely founded on Carl Stumpf and Clerk Maxwell’s work in physics. Köhler found that many phenomenon in physics supported the ideas of gestalt psychology and seemed to “justify” their work (Köhler, 1959). Additionally, further investigations by Koffka, Wertheimer and Köhler allowed them to develop the theoretical framework behind Gestalt psychology known as the Principles of Grouping. Examples of the Gestalt Principles can be seen in the following link.

The podcast Gestalt Psychology by Todd Daniel provides greater detail about the principles and also theory regarding how Gestalt Psychology came to be (around 00:08:35).

After lecturing at various American universities during the mid 1920s, Köhler was inspired to write the novel “Gestalt Psychology” (Henle, 2000). This novel was critical towards giving English speakers more information regarding Gestalt Psychology, but also provided criticisms to topics in psychology that are still relevant today (Henle, 2000).

Köhler also contributed greatly to protesting against the Nazi authorities during his time at the Psychological Institute of the University of Berlin. When Karl Planck and various other Jew professors were dismissed from their jobs at Universities in Germany, Köhler wrote an article titled “Conversations in Germany” against the Nazis. Although Köhler expected to be arrested, the Nazis didn’t come, but letters from various strangers applauding Köhler’s courageous stand did. One letter from a German Jew proclaimed that “[they were] deeply motivated by [the article] and tears came to [their] eyes.” (Henle, 1978). Furthermore, when the government decreed that professors must open their lectures with the Nazi salute, Köhler gave a mocking salute and stated that he “[did] not share the ideology which it usually signifies or used to signify.” (Henle, 1979). In addition to this, Wolfgang Köhler protested several times against unannounced raids during his seminars and requested for the reinstatement of his assistant. When his requests failed, Köhler resigned from the Berlin Institute and moved to the US for a new job at Swarthmore College.

Wolfgang Köhler played a significant role in the foundation of Gestalt psychology which is still used as the basis for research in sense and perception today. Furthermore, he fought against anti-semitism and proved to be an inspirational figure for both Jews and Non-Jews during that time of conflict.

Famous Experiments

Kohler’s most famous experiment was one in which he studied insight learning in Apes. He completed these experiments during his time on the Island of Tenerife on the Canary Islands during World War One. This experiment took place within a large room containing bamboo poles and crates. He began by hanging a banana from a string to the ceiling and leaving the apes to figure out how to get it down. He noticed that the apes would jump and attempt to grab it and once they figured out they couldn’t get it that way, they would sit down for a while and ponder. After a while they would suddenly get up and attempt to grab it in a new way, by either using the crates or the bamboo pole. Some stacked boxes, and had to figure out how to stack them properly before jumping to grab it while others would use the bamboo pole to knock the banana down by throwing the pole at it (Kohler’s Work on Insight Learning, n.d.).

The second half of the experiment involved putting the apes within a cage, giving them a branch of a tree, and placing the banana outside of the cage. This involved a similar reaction of attempting to reach them, discovering it was too far, going to think, and then suddenly snapping the branch in such a way that it could reach between the bars and extend their arms to reach the banana. Due to the similar reactions between Apes, Kohler concluded that they did not experience trial-and-error, but experienced a flash of insight and would go off of whatever they figured out until they achieved their goal (Ash, I. K., Jee, B. D., & Wiley, J., 2012). For Kohler’s translated notes on this experiment click here.

Through these experiments he also discovered that the apes had these flashes of insight at different times and it took some longer than others to figure out a solution or even realise there was anything to do in their environment. For example, one of the apes named Sultan figured it out in the first and second experimental conditions almost immediately and was very successful, but another ape named Koko took several weeks to figure out a solution to the first experimental condition (Insight Learning (Wolfgang Kohler in 1925), 2011, December 6). Prior to his work what we knew about animal learning largely came from Edward Thorndike and his puzzle box experiments, which largely believed animals came to specific conclusions by accident and repeated random actions. Kohler’s ape experiments showed that they can also experience flashes of insight that lead them to a specific goal when attempting to figure out a problem.

A fun video about Kohler’s work:

His second most famous experiment included the use of hens and pieces of paper in shades of grey. He began by placing a lighter and darker piece of paper down and placing the feed on the darker piece, he continued this until they began always going to the darker piece before taking out the lighter paper and adding an ever darker paper (Encyclopedia.com, n.d.). He found that the hens wouldn’t go to the same circle for the feed, but most went to the even darker one showing that they only remembered that feed always went on the darker circle. He repeated this experiment with chickens and a lighter paper, and again with apes and lighter paper and found very similar results. This proved to Kohler that both apes and chickens learned through association to a relationship and they didn’t learn the specific colour.

From these experiments, Kohler was able to deduce that these animals learned an association to a relationship rather than just memorising the specific colour, which went against what behaviourists believed at the time, and became known as the Gestalt Law of Transposition (Smith, n.d.).

Criticisms, Influence, and Importance Today of Wolfgang Kohler and Gestalt Psychology

Many believe Gestalt Psychology to have died in the 1940’s and 1950’s due to the development of field theory. Field theory was developed by Kurt Lewin, who was influenced by Gestalt Psychology, and developed the theory that B = f(P,E). Lewis’ equation means that “behavior (B) is a product of the person (P) in their environment (E)” (Pelletier 2015). Gestalt psychology also died off due to the emergence of cognitive science and neuroscience in the 1970s. In 1965, Köhler had been working on an electric field theory seperate of Lewin’s, and it had been heavily criticized by his peers, who rejected it of any significance, thus rendering Köhler’s ideas as dead. Köhler and Gestalt psychology were heavily criticized on their methodology towards their experiments. According to the critics, their methodology consisted of demonstrations with too simple stimuli, creating laws without careful consideration and precision, and finally for having no causal explanation to these phenomena (Wagemans et al. 2012). However, Gestalt psychology still remained prominent in experimentation by later psychologists, mostly regarding research into visual perception and information processing. Recent research has addressed the methodological problems that Gestalt psychology was criticized of, and has made an attempt to solve them. For further information on the criticism of Gestalt Psychology, click here.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty

Köhler and gestalt psychology’s influence has reached past the domain of psychology and into other fields, such as the philosophy of French phenomenologist Maurice Merlau-Ponty. Merlau-Ponty was interested in perception, and was attempting to redefine the way humans perceive in a way separate from Kantian beliefs and influences. In doing so, he used the research and psychological findings of Gestalt psychology to shape his phenomenology of perception. In particular, Merlau-Ponty referred to the “nervous system as a field of forces”, which was inspired by Köhler’s field theory (Toadvine 2018). Furthermore, Merlau-Ponty used Köhler’s experiments on chimpanzees to claim that a humans orientation towards objectivity is on a level of symbolic behavior, exclusive to humans. While other animals orient themselves towards things in a functional behavior, a humans symbolic behavior allows them to “orient themselves towards objectivity, truth, creativity, and freedom from biological determined norms”(Toadvine 2018).


Education & Achievements

“Insight Learning.” Psychestudy, 17 Nov. 2017, https://www.psychestudy.com/behavioral/learning-memory/insight-learning

K. Jensen. “Memoir Wolfgang Köhler.” Memoir Wolgang Koehler, http://wkprc.eva.mpg.de/english/files/wolfgang_koehler.htm

Ulric Neisser. “Wolfgang Kohler.” National Academy of Sciences , vol. 81, 2002, http://www.nasonline.org/publications/biographical-memoirs/memoir-pdfs/kohler-wolfgang.pdf

Therese Boyd. “Wolfgang Kohler.” The Gifford Lectures, 19 Aug. 2014, https://www.giffordlectures.org/lecturers/wolfgang-kohler


Asch, Solomon E. “Wolfgang Köhler: 1887-1967.” The American Journal of Psychology, vol. 81, no. 1, 1968, pp. 110–119. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1420815

Köhler, W. (1967). Gestalt psychology. Psychological Research, 31(1), XVIII–XXX https://www.jstor.org/stable/1867042



Gestalt Psychology and Fight Against the Nazis

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Ash, M. G. (1979, April). The struggle against the Nazis. American Psychologist, 34(4), 363-364. http://dx.doi.org.proxy.lib.uwaterloo.ca/10.1037/0003-066X.34.4.363

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Daniel, O. (2012). Gestalt Psychology [Audio blog post]. Retrieved from https://player.fm/series/1321299/167378116

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Gestalt Principles. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://facweb.cs.depaul.edu/sgrais/gestalt_principles.htm

Henle, M. (2000). Köhler, Wolfgang. In A. E. Kazdin (Ed.), Encyclopedia of psychology (Vol. 4, pp. 454-456). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. http://dx.doi.org.proxy.lib.uwaterloo.ca/10.1037/10519-193

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Köhler, W. (1959). Gestalt psychology today. American Psychologist, 14(12), 727-734. http://dx.doi.org.proxy.lib.uwaterloo.ca/10.1037/h0042492

Famous Experiments

Ash, I. K., Jee, B. D., & Wiley, J. (2012). Investigating Insight as Sudden Learning. The Journal of Problem Solving, 4(2). https://doi.org/10.7771/1932-6246.1123

Ellis, & Willis D. (n.d.). Source Book of Gestalt Psychology. Retrieved from https://books.scholarsportal.info/en/read?id=/ebooks/ebooks0/apa/2010-03-04/2/200710344

Insight Learning (Wolfgang Köhler – 1925). (2011, December 6). Retrieved December 7, 2018, from https://principlesoflearning.wordpress.com/dissertation/chapter-3-literature-review-2/the-cognitive-perspective/insight-learning-wolfgang-Kohler-1925/. (n.d.).

Köhler’s Work on Insight Learning. (n.d.). Retrieved December 7, 2018, from http://www.pigeon.psy.tufts.edu/psych26/Kohler.htm

Shettleworth, S. J. (2012). Do animals have insight, and what is insight anyway? Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology/Revue Canadienne de Psychologie Expérimentale, 66(4), 217–226. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0030674

Smith. (n.d.). Wolfgang Köhler. Retrieved December 7, 2018, from http://psychology.jrank.org/pages/364/Wolfgang-K-hler.html

Wolfgang Koehler | Encyclopedia.com. (n.d.). Retrieved December 7, 2018, from https://www.encyclopedia.com/people/medicine/psychology-and-psychiatry-biographies/wolfgang-koehler

Wolfgang Köhler - New World Encyclopedia. (n.d.). Retrieved December 7, 2018, from [http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Wolfgang_K%C3%B6hler


Criticisms, Influence, and Importance Today of Wolfgang Kohler and Gestalt Psychology

Pelletier, Jen (2015). Behavior is a Function of the Person and Environment | Student Life | Student Employment Experience. (n.d.). Retrieved November 8, 2018, from https://u.osu.edu/studentemployment/2015/01/28/bfpe/

Toadvine, Ted (2018). Maurice Merleau-Ponty. In the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Spring 2018. Edward N. Zalta, ed. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2018/entries/merleau-ponty/, accessed November 8, 2018

Wagemans, J., Elder, J. H., Kubovy, M., Palmer, S. E., Peterson, M. A., Singh, M., & von der Heydt, R. (2012). A Century of Gestalt Psychology in Visual Perception I. Perceptual Grouping and Figure-Ground Organization. Psychological Bulletin, 138(6), 1172–1217. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0029333