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Which do you see first, the hillside or a face?

The core idea of Gestalt psychology is that a whole or ‘gestalt’ is perceptually primary rather than a secondary quality that emerges from its parts. This ‘whole’ seems to represent the innate way in which we experience things. Related to our training work and approach to psychology generally is the idea that phenomena or objects are perceived as ‘figure’ and ‘ground’. Hence the classic illustration above:

This is a similar principle to that of Foreground & Background that we use to illuminate the overt and covert parts of everyday consciousness in our training sessions. The important thing for us is that Background and Foreground do not exist independently of each other. They are in constant relationship and together form what the Gestaltists called a ‘Weltanschauung’ or world-view. This ‘Weltanschauung’ forms the blueprint for our actions. As Carl Rogers neatly puts it: “Behaviour is the goal-directed attempt of the organism to satisfy its needs as experienced, in the field as perceived.”

You can see immediately that any inquiry hoping to lead to an understanding or prediction of our actions – if it fails to account for the existence of Foreground and Background – and their interplay – is likely to be inaccurate and unreliable, simply because it fails to take into account the reality of the way we experience the world & make up our minds. It is this profound truth which makes Gestalt such a powerful ally in our attempt to challenge reductionism.

So, creating an inquiry process that allows the emergence of Foreground & Background is crucial. Next, we need to check the prominence of aspects of these two parts – we need to ask which is critical in driving behaviour in given circumstances? This notion of prominence bears relation to the Behavioural Economists’ idea of Choice Architecture: the similarity is the idea that it is the way in which perceptions are prioritised that leads to preferences.

The ‘Gestalt’ is not an easy thing to explain: everyone experiences the beauty of a summer evening, or the wonder of winter snow. But these things are not easy to report or take notes on. Somehow, ‘white flakes falling’ doesn’t do it justice – even though it is accurate at one level.

The rush to generalisation is common across many fields of inquiry: it simplifies the world and gives an impression that you know the facts. An illustration is a famous joke made by psychotherapists about their clients: it goes: “If they are early, they’re anxious; if on time, they’re obsessional; and if they’re late, they’re hostile.” Clearly this is a huge over-simplification that might make the therapist feel omnipotent but does not serve his client. Every client is seen as an example of one or other disorder.

It is easy to sneer at generalisations and claim not to be party to them, but most of our attempts to explain or understand run the risk of making too simplistic assumptions about things that are related in a complex manner. Starting with the whole rather than the parts often leads to a more realistic and subtle solution.

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