Thursday, 16 January 1986

From Shapes To Skin Colour: Is Gestalt Psychology The Reason We Discriminate? (2009)

PSYC103 - Cognitive Psychology

When faced with a picture of many black and white circles, we naturally tend to consider what we see as groups of black circles and groups of white circles – if the black circles are grouped close enough and the white circles are grouped close enough. This is a result of one of the celebrated laws of prägnanz in gestalt psychology, of which the law of similarity states that similar things appear to be grouped together (Goldstein, 2008).

Much of human attitudes, thought and behaviour can be traced back to the intricacies of basic cognition. Gestalt psychology is inherent to humans, and asserts that we have natural form-forming capabilities and visually recognize figures and whole forms instead of just a collection of simple lines and curves under the laws of perceptual organization (Köhler, 1929). In turn, this allows us to make quicker and more efficient judgments and utilize less cognitive resources based on our experiences and understanding of the world (Köhler, 1971), a principle which is linked to the idea that the perceptual system reduces its operation to a minimum and describes the external world in the simplest possible way (Hatfield & Epstein, 1985).

As stipulated by Koffka (1935), gestalt psychology has been found to extend beyond perception into learning, problem-solving and even attitudes and beliefs. Tying this in with the concept of automatic processing, Shiffrin and Schneider (1977) distinguished automatic activation from intentional search for memory content and their work establishes that stereotypes and group attitudes may indeed be activated spontaneously from mere exposure to a relevant environmental stimulus cue. The perceiver often remains unaware of the activation and its subsequent influences on judgment and behavior. If this is indeed true, then the tendency to group people together based on their looks or skin colour could be a basic human instinct, and might have its roots in gestalt psychology that is inherent to our perception. There is a possibility that, in the process of our tendency to associate visually-alike things together, we end up grouping blacks with blacks, whites with whites, asians with asians, and so on and so forth, thus making automatic associations and naturally segregating people apart often on the basis of race, of which skin colour (and other physical attributes such as facial features and build) is a prominent component.

Such a predisposition may be initially purposed to be beneficial, where humans can make judgments and decisions as efficiently as possible through conveniently organized visual information (Köhler, 1971), but through socialization, the unfortunate consequence of such an automatic habit is stereotyping and eventually prejudice and discrimination. In other words, we often do not intend to be discriminatory, prejudiced or stereotypical, but because of our innate tendency to follow, in this case, the law of similarity, we are subconsciously driven to draw lines and make associations at a very basic cognitive level. This is further supported by research showing that pre-existing ideas and expectations actively guide our interpretation of sensations, as we actively construct meaningful perceptions as opposed to passively recording events and stimuli around us (Coren, Ward & Enns, 2004; Most et al., 2005).

There is currently very little direct and substantive literature on such a connection between gestalt psychology and discrimination. This study hence is an exploratory foray into this area of psychological consideration involving the two concepts, and it is hoped that any insight gained will spur more research in this field to better understand the nature of stereotyping, discrimination and prejudice.

This study thus essentially wishes to explore whether such a relationship exists between gestalt psychology and discriminatory behaviour. If such a relationship does exist, then by keeping all variables constant while manipulating gestalt processes in the mind, it can be predicted that an observation of varied levels of discriminatory behaviour would occur. From this, the hypothesis of this study can hence be established: gestalt psychology forms one of the foundations of our tendency to discriminate. This study thus specifically seeks to determine whether this hypothesis is true.

Proposed Methodology


This study will require the enrolment of at least 60 undergraduate white male participants in the age range of 20-25 from a university, which will represent the lowest sample size needed for significance in each of the 2 levels of the independent variable (30 per group).

Only white male participants between the ages of 20 and 25 years old will be used in order to control for individual variations in racial discrimination borne by race, gender and age. Participants will be enrolled via the university’s subject pool system, and upon successful completion of the study, participants will be given course credits that act as bonus points towards their module grades.

It is reasonable to assert that the age range utilized will be meaningful as it does not consist of ignorance of racial issues from the participant being too young and does not consist of extremely deep set and strong racial prejudice from the participant being too old. Having participants from a university also allows us to engage participants who would tend not to demonstrate outright racial discrimination due to the stigma of such an act being socially unacceptable (i.e., we would expect university students to be more socially aware and explicitly self-restrained), and allow us to measure more specifically implicit attitudes towards race. Additionally, enrolling participants from a university’s subject pool system is convenient and inexpensive to administer.

Experimental Design and Operationalization of Variables

The experiment will involve one independent variable, which will have 2 levels – the treatment group and the control group – and the level of racial discrimination as the dependent variable, which will be measured through a race implicit association task (IAT).

Independent Variable – Control and Treatment Group

Participants in the treatment group will be shown a set of 10 pictures consisting of a combination of mono or dual-coloured circles and squares (see Appendix A). Each picture will be displayed for 5 seconds. Participants will not be instructed to do anything (other than observe the pictures), so that any mental processes that occur are implicit and non-conscious. Gestalt psychological processes will hence be induced and primed in the mind and relevant mental areas and neurons will be activated without interference from the participant’s conscious cognitive processes.

The control group will not undergo the viewing of any pictures.

Dependent Variable – Race Implicit Association Task

Response latency procedures and other techniques, often borrowed from cognitive psychology, have been frequently used in social psychology to assess the content of stereotypical representations (Banaji & Greenwald, 1995) and evaluative associations, attitudes, and prejudices (Fazio, Jackson, Dunton, & Williams, 1995). These techniques potentially assess implicit activations and offer a conceptually and empirically different viewpoint on both stereotypes and attitudes compared to traditional self-report measures.

The IAT has become an instrument to measure attitudes in general, and prejudices toward groups in particular (McConnell & Leibold, 2001). It assesses attitudes by having participants quickly categorize stimuli using two response keys. In the race IAT employed by this study, the stimuli are portraits of white or black men, or adjectives that have desirable or undesirable connotations (e.g., wonderful and disgusting). In critical time trial blocks, participants will categorize these stimuli using two keys, Z and M, when the adjective or portrait appears. As has been typically found, white participants tend to categorize the words more quickly when “black or undesirable” is mapped onto one key response and “white or desirable” is mapped onto the other key response than when the opposite set of key mappings (i.e., “black or desirable” and “white or undesirable”) are used (Greenwald, McGhee & Schwartz, 1998). Participants will carry out the race IAT twice with each set of mapping, making it a total of 4 trials per participant. The mapping type will be alternated to reduce any order or practice effects. The difference in the average response time between these two sets of key mappings will be established as the score for our dependent variable. A faster response time reflects stronger associations in memory between the concept pairings (i.e., responses that share the same response key) that facilitate judgment, while a slower response time reflects poorer association between the concept pairings. Results will be coded into a score known as the IAT effect, where the larger the IAT effect, the greater the association (i.e., the larger the IAT effect, the lesser the discrimination).


The treatment group will carry out the race IAT after undergoing the treatment condition, while the control group will immediately carry out the race IAT without being subjected to any treatment, to measure for racial biasness or discrimination. The control group will provide the baseline level of IAT effect score without influence from the gestalt prime. The IAT effect score from the treatment group will represent the IAT effect under the influence of the gestalt prime. The mean IAT effect scores from both the treatment group and the control group will be compared to establish relative differences and determine if the treatment – the gestalt prime – has an influence on racial attitudes.

Expected Outcome

If there is indeed a gestalt basis for discrimination, then it would be expected that participants in the treatment group would indicate a greater degree of racial prejudice through the race IAT by having a lower IAT effect score compared to participants in the control group (i.e., main effect of treatment condition). It is uncertain as to the extent of the effect size, but significance would be expected.


The increased racial discrimination is a direct result of priming participants with subconscious gestalt exercises, which cause the areas of the brain responsible for gestalt thought processes to activate. In the process of activating these brain areas responsible for gestalt thought processes, the participant becomes more inclined, predisposed and ready to be racially discriminating due to the increased tendency, as a consequence of the gestalt priming, to create racial associations. To reiterate, gestalt psychology has been found to extend beyond perception into learning, problem-solving and even attitudes and beliefs (Koffka, 1935). As a result, participants in the treatment condition, primed with the laws of prägnanz, exhibit a greater tendency to racially discriminate compared to participants in the control group, who demonstrate a baseline level of discrimination without gestalt influence.

Furthermore, as stated earlier, studies have shown that we are actively constructing meaningful perceptions through our experiences which result in a make-up of pre-existing ideas and expectations that actively guide our interpretation of new sensations (Coren, Ward & Enns, 2004; Most et al., 2005). This socialization process thus shapes the way we implicitly and subconsciously interpret people and races through the mental mechanism of automatic processing and gestalt psychology, resulting in cognitive processes that can determine behaviour, such as discrimination in this case.

Studies thus far have substantially asserted that people have implicit negative attitudes towards certain races, but seldom do they attempt to determine what exactly is the cognitive basis or mechanism for these attitudes. The results from this study will open a new window of investigation on psychology relevant to this area both in terms of cognition as well as racial discrimination, stereotyping and prejudice. The results from this study will also shed further light on human nature, and perhaps uncover novel ways to reduce harm brought about by discrimination, negative stereotyping and prejudice.


It must be taken into consideration that using only undergraduate white males between the ages of 20 to 25 years old may not be representative of the population. Another consideration to make is that the study conducted is strongly experimental and thus may compromise on external validity.

Future Directions

It will be important to replicate this study across different age groups and populations in order to establish the generalizability of the findings. Other ways of quantifying racial attitudes can be established to improve external validity, such as by role-playing with the use of confederates to establish an element of mundane realism. Other methods of activating gestalt processes in the mind can also be creatively explored. Various degrees of gestalt stimuli exposure can be utilized as well to determine if there exists a gradient of activation strength. In doing so, we may understand better the mechanism of gestalt psychology and discrimination better.


Banaji, M., & Greenwald, A. (1995). Implicit gender stereotyping in judgments of fame. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 68, 181-198.

Coren, S., Ward, L. M., & Enns, J. T. (2004). Sensation and Perception (6th Ed.). New York: Wiley.

Fazio, R., Jackson, J., Dunton, B., & Williams, C. (1995). Variability in automatic activation as an unobtrusive measure of racial attitudes: A bona fide pipeline. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69, 1013-1027.

Goldstein, B. E. (2008). Perception. Cognitive Psychology (pp. 75). Belmont: Thomson Wadsworth.

Greenwald, A. G., McGhee, D. E., & Schwartz, J. L. K. (1998). Measuring individual differences in implicit cognition: The Implicit Association Test. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 1464-1480.

Hatfield, G., & Epstein, W. (1985). The status of minimumprinciple in the theoretical analysis of visual perception. Psychological Bulletin, 97(20), 155–186.

Köhler, W. (1929). Gestalt Psychology. New York: Liveright.

Köhler, W. (1971). Zum Problem der Regulation [On the problem of regulation]. In M. Henle (Ed.), The selected papers of Wolfgang Köhler (pp. 305–326). New York: Liveright. (Original work published 1927).

Koffka, K. (1935). Principles of Gestalt Psychology. New York: Harcourt Brace & World.

McConnell, A. R., & Leibold, J. M. (2001). Relations among the implicit association test, discriminatory behavior, and explicit measures of racial attitudes. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 37, 435-442.

Most, S. B., Scholl, B. J., Clifford, E. R., & Simmons, D. J. (2005). What you see is what you set: Sustained inattentional blindness and the capture of awareness. Psychological Review, 112(1), 217-242.

Shiffrin, R. M., & Schneider, W. (1977). Controlled and automatic human information processing: II. Perceptual learning, automatic attending, and a general theory. Psychological Review, 84, 127–190.

Appendix A

Examples of pictures used as gestalt primes shown to participants in the treatment condition.

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