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Chords and melodies in hearing, the shape characteristics of visual objects,the roughness or the smoothness of tactual impressions, and so forth were used as examples. All these "Gestalt qualities" have one thing in common. When the physical stimuli in question are considerably changed, while their relations are kept constant, the Gestalt qualities remain about the same. But, At the time, it was generally assumed that the sensations involved are individually determined by their individual stimuli and must therefore change when these are greatly changed.


Gestalt Psychology Today
By Wolfgang Köhler (1959)
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Gestalt Psychology Today [1]
Wolfgang Köhler (1959)
First published in American Psychologist, 14, 727-734.
In 1949, the late Herbert Langfeld gave a lecture in Europe in which he described what appeared
to him to be the major trends in American psychology. He also mentioned Gestalt psychology;
but he added that the main observations, questions, and principles characteristic of this school
had become part of every American psychologist's mental equipment. I was not so optimistic.
And, in fact, the very next year attempts were made to explain the molar units in perception by
processes which gradually connect neural elements. Soon afterwards, a theory of conditioning
was developed, according to which more and more components of a stimulus object are
gradually conditioned, and the course of the whole process can be explained in this fashion. Such
theories may prove to be very useful, but one can hardly say that, at the time, their authors were
greatly influenced by Gestalt psychology. It is for this and similar reasons that a new discussion
of old questions seems to me indicated.
I should like to begin with a few remarks about the history of Gestalt psychology -- because not
all chapters of this history are generally known. In the eighties of the past century, psychologists
in Europe were greatly disturbed by von Ehrenfels' claim that thousands of percepts have
characteristics which cannot be derived from the characteristics of their ultimate components, the
so-called sensations. Chords and melodies in hearing, the shape characteristics of visual objects,
the roughness or the smoothness of tactual impressions, and so forth were used as examples. All
these "Gestalt qualities" have one thing in common. When the physical stimuli in question are
considerably changed, while their relations are kept constant, the Gestalt qualities remain about
the same. But, At the time, it was generally assumed that the sensations involved are individually
determined by their individual stimuli and must therefore change when these are greatly
changed. How, then, could any characteristics of the perceptual situation remain constant under
these conditions? Where did the Gestalt qualities come from? Ehrenfels' qualities are not fancy
ingredients of this or that particular situation which we might safely ignore. Both positive and
negative esthetic characteristics of the world around us, not only of ornaments, paintings,
sculptures, tunes, and so forth, but also of trees, landscapes, houses, cars -- and other persons --
belong to this class. That relations between the sexes largely depend on specimens of the same
class need hardly be emphasized. It is, therefore, not safe to deal with problems of psychology as
though there were no such qualities. And yet, beginning with Ehrenfels himself, psychologists
have not been able to explain their nature.
This holds also for the men who were later called Gestalt psychologists, including the present
speaker. Wertheimer's ideas and investigations developed in a different direction. His thinking
was also more radical than that of Ehrenfels. He did not ask: How are Gestalt qualities possible
when, basically, the perceptual scene consists of separate elements? Rather, he objected to this
premise, the thesis that the psychologist's thinking must begin with a consideration of such
elements. From a subjective. point of view, he felt, it may be tempting to assume that all
perceptual situations consist of independent, very small components. For, on this assumption, we
obtain a maximally clear picture of what lies behind the observed facts. But, how do we know
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that a subjective clarity of this kind agrees with the nature of what we have before us? Perhaps
we pay for the subjective clearness of the customary picture by ignoring all processes, all
functional interrelations, which may have operated before there is a perceptual scene and which
thus influence the characteristics of this scene. Are we allowed to impose on perception an
extreme simplicity which, objectively, it may not possess?
Wertheimer, we remember, began to reason in this fashion when experimenting not with percep-
[p. 728] tual situations which were stationary, and therefore comparatively silent, but with visual
objects in motion when corresponding stimuli did not move. Such "apparent movements," we
would now say, occur when several visual objects appear or disappear in certain temporal
relations. Again in our present language, under these circumstances an interaction takes place
which, for instance, makes a second object appear too near, or coincident with, a first object
which is just disappearing, so that only when the first object, and therefore the interaction, really
fades, the second object can move toward its normal position. If this is interaction, it does not, as
such, occur on the perceptual scene. On this scene, we merely observe a movement. That
movements of this kind do not correspond to real movements of the stimulus objects and must
therefore be brought about by the sequence of the two objects, we can discover only by
examining the physical situation. It follows that, if the seen movement is the perceptual result of
an interaction, this interaction itself takes place outside the perceptual field. Thus, the apparent
movement confirmed Wertheimer's more general suspicion: we cannot assume that the
perceptual scene is an aggregate of unrelated elements because underlying processes are already
functionally interrelated when that scene emerges, and now exhibits corresponding effects.
Wertheimer did not offer a more specific physiological explanation. At the time, this would have
been impossible. He next turned to the problem of whether the characteristics of stationary
perceptual fields are also influenced by interactions. I need not repeat how he investigated the
formation of molar perceptual units, and more particularly of groups of such objects. Patterns
which he used for this purpose are now reproduced in many textbooks. They clearly demonstrate
that it is relations among visual objects which decide what objects become group members, and
what others do not, and where, therefore, one group separates itself from another. This fact
strongly suggests that perceptual groups are established by interactions; and, since a naive
observer is merely aware of the result, the perceived groups, but not of their dependence upon
particular relations, such interactions would again occur among the underlying processes rather
than within the perceptual field.
Let me add a further remark about this early stage of the development. Surely, in those years,
Gestalt psychologists were not satisfied with a quiet consideration of available facts. It seems
that no major new trend in a science ever is. We were excited by what we found, and even more
by the prospect of finding further revealing facts. Moreover, it was not only the stimulating
newness of our enterprise which inspired us. There was also a great wave of relief -- as though
we were escaping, from a prison. The prison was psychology as taught at the universities when
we still were students. At the time, we had been shocked by the thesis that all psychological facts
(not only those in perception) consist of unrelated inert atoms and that almost the only factors
which combine these atoms and thus introduce action are associations formed under the
influence of mere contiguity. What had disturbed us was the utter senselessness of this picture,
and the implication that human life, apparently so colorful and so intensely dynamic, is actually a
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frightful bore. This was not true of our new picture, and we felt that further discoveries were
bound to destroy, what was left of the old picture.
Soon further investigations, not all of them done by Gestalt psychologists, reinforced the new
trend. Rubin called attention to the difference between figure and ground. David Katz found
ample evidence for the role of Gestalt factors in the field of touch as well as in color vision, and
so forth. Why so much interest just in perception? Simply because in no other part of psychology
are facts so readily accessible to observation. It was the hope of everybody that, once some major
functional principles had been revealed in this part of psychology, similar principles would prove
to be relevant to other parts, such as memory, learning, thinking, and motivation. In fact,
Wertheimer and I undertook our early studies of intellectual processes precisely from this point
of view; somewhat later, Kurt Lewin began his investigations of motivation which, in part ,
followed the same line; and we also applied the concept of Gestaltung or ,organization to
memory, to learning, and to recall. With developments in America, Wertheimer's further analysis
of thinking, Asch's and Heider's investigations in social psychology, our work on figural
aftereffects, and eventually on currents Of the brain, we are probably all familiar.
In the meantime, unexpected support had come from natural science. To mention only one Point:
Parts of molar perceptual units often have charac- [p. 729] teristics which they do not exhibit
when separated from those units. Within a larger visual entity, a part may, for instance, be a
corner of this entity, another part its contour or boundary, and so on. It now seems obvious; but
nobody in psychology had seen it before: the same happens in any physical system that is
pervaded by interactions. These interactions affect the parts of the system until, eventually, in a
steady state, the characteristics of all parts are such that remaining interactions balance one
another. Hence, if processes in the central nervous system follow the same rule, the dependence
of local perceptual facts on conditions in larger entities could no longer be regarded as puzzling.
Comparisons of this kind greatly encouraged the Gestalt psychologists.
In America, it may seem surprising that enthusiastic people such as the Gestalt psychologists
were intensely interested in physics. Physics is generally assumed to be a particularly sober
discipline. And yet, this happened to us most naturally. To be sure, our reasoning in physics
involved no chan-es in the laws of physics and no new assumptions in this field. Nevertheless,
when we compared our psychological findings with the behavior of certain physical systems,
some parts of natural science began to look different. When reading the formulae of the
physicist, one may emphasize this or that aspect of their content. The particular aspect of the
formulae in which the Gestalt psychologists became interested had, for decades., been given little
attention. No mistake had ever been made in applications of the formulae, because what now
fascinated us had all the time been present in their mathematical form. Hence, all calculations in
physics had come out right. But it does make a difference whether you make explicit what a
formula implies or merely use it as a reliable tool. We had, therefore, good reasons for being,
surprised by what we found; and we naturally felt elated when the new reading of the formulae
told us that organization is as obvious in some parts of physics as it is in psychology.
Incidentally, others were no less interested in this "new reading" than we were. These other
people were eminent physicists. Max Planck once told me that he expected our approach to
clarify a difficult issue which had just arisen in quantum physics if not the concept of the
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quantum itself. Several Years later. Max Born, the great physicist who gave quantum mechanics
its present form, made almost the same statement in one of his papers. And, only a few weeks
ago, I read a paper in which Bridgman of Harvard interprets Heisenberg's famous principle in
such terms that I am tempted to call him, Bridgman, a Gestalt physicist.
We will now return to psychology. More particularly, we will inspect the situation in which
American psychology finds itself today. The spirit which we find here differs considerably from
the one which characterized young Gestalt psychology. Let me try to formulate what members of
this audience may have been thinking while I described that European enterprise. "Enthusiasm?"
they probably thought. "Feelings of relief when certain assumptions were found less dreary than
those of earlier psychologists in Europe? But this is an admission that emotional factors and
extrascientific values played a part in Gestalt psychology. We know about the often pernicious
effects of the emotions in ordinary life. How, then, could emotions be permitted to influence
scientific judgments and thus to disturb the objectivity of research? As we see it, the true spirit of
science is a critical spirit. Our main obligation as scientists is that of avoiding mistakes. Hence
our emphasis on strict method in experimentation and on equally strict procedures in the
evaluation of results. The Gestalt psychologists seem to have been guilty of wishful thinking.
Under the circumstances, were not some of their findings unreliable and some of their concepts
I will at once admit two facts. Almost from its beginning, American psychology has given more
attention to questions of method and strict proof than Gestalt psychology did in those years. In
this respect, American psychology was clearly superior. Secondly, sometimes the Gestalt
psychologists did make mistakes. Not in all cases was the reliability of their findings up to
American standards, and some concepts which they used were not immediately quite clear. I ,
myself once used a certain concept in a somewhat misleading fashion. I had better explain this.
What is insight? In its strict sense, the term refers to the fact that, when we are aware of a
relation, of any relation, this relation is not experienced as a fact by itself, but rather as
something that follows from the characteristics of the objects under consideration. Now, when
primates try to solve a problem, their behavior often shows that they are aware of a certain
important relation. But when they now make use of this "insight," and thus [p. 730] solve their
problem, should this achievement be called a solution by insight? No -- it is by no means clear
that it was also insight which made that particular relation emerge. In a given situation, we or a
monkey may become aware of a great many relations. If, at a certain moment, we or a monkey
attend to the right one, this may happen for several reasons, some entirely unrelated to insight.
Consequently, it is misleading to call the whole process a "solution by insight."
This will be particularly obvious when the solution of the problem is arbitrarily chosen by the
experimenter. Take Harlow's excellent experiments in which primates are expected to choose the
odd item in a group of objects. "Oddity" is a particular relational fact. Once a monkey attends to
it, he will perceive it with insight. But why should he do so during his first trials? His first
choices will be determined by one factor or another, until he happens to attend, once or
repeatedly, to the oddity relation just when he chooses (or does not choose) the right object.
Gradually, he will now attend to this particular relation in all trials; and he may do so even when
entirely new objects are shown. Surely, such a process should not simply be called "learning by
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insight." If Harlow were to say that, under the circumstances, it is learning of one kind or another
which gives the right relation and corresponding insight their chance to operate, I should at once
agree. What, I believe, the monkeys do not learn is insight into which object in a given group is
the odd one; but they must learn to pay attention to the oddity factor in the first place. I hope that
this will clarify matters. They have not always been so clear to me.
When the solution of a problem is not arbitrarily chosen by the experimenter, but more directly
related to the nature of the given situation, insight may play a more important role. But, even
under these circumstances, it is not insight alone which brings about the solution. The mere fact
that solutions often emerge to the subjects' own surprise is clear proof that it cannot be insight
alone which is responsible for their origin.
But I intended to discuss some trends in American psychology. May I confess that I do not fully
approve of all these trends?
First, I doubt whether it is advisable to regard caution and a critical spirit as the virtues of a
scientist, as though little else counted. They are necessary in research, just as the brakes in our
cars must be kept in order and their windshields clean. But it is not because of the brakes or of
the windshields that we drive. Similarly, caution and a critical spirit are like tools. They ought to
be kept ready during a scientific enterprise; however, the main business of a science is gaining
more and more new knowledge. I wonder why great men in physics do not call caution and a
critical spirit the most important characteristics of their behavior. They seem to regard the testing
of brakes and the cleaning of windshields as mere precautions, but to look forward to the next
trip as the business for which they have cars. Why is it only in psychology that we hear the
slightly discouraging, story of mere caution over and over again? Why are just psychologists so
inclined to greet the announcement of a new fact (or a new working hypothesis) almost with
scorn? This is caution that has gone sour and has almost become negativism -- which, of course,
is no less an emotional attitude than is enthusiasm. The enthusiasm of the early Gestalt
psychologists was a virtue, because it led to new observations. But virtues, it has been said, tend
to breed little accompanying vices. In their enthusiasm, the Gestalt psychologists were not
always sufficiently careful.
In American psychology, it is rightly regarded as a virtue if a man feels great respect for method
and for caution. But, if this virtue becomes too strong, it may bring forth a spirit of skepticism
and thus prevent new work. Too many young psychologists, it seems to me, either work only
against something done by others or merely vary slightly what others have done before; in other
words, preoccupation with method may tend to limit the range of our research. We are, of course,
after clear evidence. But not in all parts of psychology can evidence immediately be clear. In
some, we cannot yet use our most exact methods. Where this happens, we hesitate to proceed.
Experimentalists in particular tend to avoid work on new materials resistant to approved methods
and to the immediate application of perfectly clear concepts. But concepts in a new field can
only be clarified by work in this field. Should we limit our studies to areas already familiar from
previous research? Obviously, would mean a kind of conservatism in psychology. When I was
his student, Max Planck repeated this warning over and over again in his lectures. [p. 731]
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Our wish to use only perfect methods and clear concepts has led to Methodological Behaviorism.
Human experience in the phenomenological sense cannot yet be treated with our most reliable
methods; and, when dealing with it, we may be forced to form new concepts which, at first, will
often be a bit vague. Most experimentalists, therefore, refrain from observing, or even from
referring to, the phenomenal scene. And yet, this is the scene on which, so far as the actors are
concerned, the drama of ordinary human living is being played all the time. If we never study
this scene, but insist on methods and concepts developed in research "from the outside," our
results are likely to look strange to those who intensely live "'inside."
To be sure, in many respects, the graphs and tables obtained "from the outside" constitute a most
satisfactory material; and, in animal psychology, we have no other material. But this material as
such contains no direct evidence as to the processes by which it is brought about. In this respect
it is a slightly defective, I am tempted to say, a meager, material. For it owes its particular
clearness to the fact that the data from which the graphs and tables are derived are severely
selected data. When subjects are told to say no more than "louder," "'softer," and perhaps "equal"
in certain experiments, or when we merely count how many items they recall in others, then we
can surely apply it precise statistical techniques to what they do. But, as a less attractive
consequence, we never hear under these circumstances how they do the comparing in the first
case and what happens when they try to recall in the second case.
Are such questions now to be ignored? After all, not all phenomenal experiences are entirely
vague; this Scheerer has rightly emphasized. And, if many are not yet accessible to quantitative
procedures, what of it? One of the most fascinating disciplines, developmental physiology, the
science investigating the growth of an organism from one cell, seldom uses quantitative
techniques. And yet, nobody can deny that its merely qualitative description of morphogenesis
has extraordinary scientific value. In new fields, not only quantitative data are relevant. As to the
initial vagueness of Concepts in a new field, I should like to add an historical remark. When the
concept of energy was first introduced in physics, it was far from king a clear concept. For
decades, its meaning could not be sharply distinguished from that of the term "force." And what
did the physicists do? They worked and worked on it, until at last it did become perfectly clear.
There is no other way of dealing with new, and therefore not yet perfect, concepts. Hence, if we
refuse to study the phenomenal scene, because, here, few concepts are so far entirely clear, we
thereby decide that this scene will never be investigated -- at least not by us, the psychologists.
Now, I had better return to Gestalt psychology. Let me try to show you how Gestalt psychology
tends to work today by discussing, a more specific issue, an issue on which scores of American
psychologists have worked for years. We shall thus be enabled to compare the way in which they
approach this issue with the Gestalt psychologists' approach.
The issue in question refers to the concepts of conditioning and motivation. One school seems to
regard conditioning as almost the process with which the psychologist has to deal. In a famous
book with the general title Principles of Behavior, the late Clark Hull, then the most influential
member of the school, actually dealt with little else -- although he often used other terms. He felt
that even such facts as thinking, insight, intentions, striving, and value would eventually be
explained by a consistent investigation of the various forms of conditioning. We are all familiar
with the basic concepts of his theory. Hence I will say only a few words about it. When
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conditions in an animal's tissue deviate from an optimal level, a state of need is said to exist in
this tissue. Such needs produce, or simply are, drives -- which means that they tend to cause
actions in the nervous system, some more or less prescribed by inherited neural connections,
others of a more random nature. Drives are also called motivations. None of these terms is to be
understood in a phenomenological sense. They always refer to assumed states of the tissue. The
main point is that, for biological reasons, states of need must, if possible, be reduced and that this
may be achieved by certain responses of the organism to the given situation. In case first
responses are of a random character, learning or conditioning will often select such responses as
do reduce the needs in question. In a simple formulation, the well-known rule which governs
such developments is as follows: when a response has repeatedly occurred in temporal contiguity
with the neural effects of a certain stimulus, then this stimu- [p. 732] lus will tend to evoke the
same response in the future -- provided the response has caused a reduction of the need. I will
not define such further concepts as habit strength, reaction potential, afferent stimulus
interaction, reactive inhibition, and so forth, because they will play no role in my discussion.
But one term seems to me particularly important. Many recent, and important, investigations are
concerned with so-called "learned drives," an expression which has, of course, this meaning: if a
neutral stimulus is repeatedly followed by conditions which cause a primary state of drive such
as pain, and the corresponding fear, then the fear with its usual effects on behavior will gradually
become connected with that neutral stimulus, so that the stimulus alone now evokes the fear and
its overt consequences. Certain drives are therefore said to be "learnable" in the sense that they
can be attached to facts which, as such, are not related to the drive and hence would originally
not evoke corresponding responses.
Some experiments in the field of conditioning in general are most interesting. I will only discuss
the concepts used in the interpretation of this work and the conclusions which it is said to justify.
To begin with these conclusions: They refer to certain human experiences which, if the
conclusions were justified, would have to be regarded as strange delusions. I mean our cognitive
experiences. Suppose somebody discovers by accident that, every time he subtracts the square of
a given integer from the square of the next integer in the series, the result is an odd number. A
more learned friend now explains to him why this is a necessary rule, undoubtedly valid beyond
any tests ever done by a person. The explanation refers to simple relations and to relations
among relations -- all readily understandable -- and the final outcome is convincing. Now, is the
understanding of the relations involved to be explained in terms of conditioning? Nothing in
conditioning seems to give us access to the psychological fact which I just called understanding;
and, since an understanding of relations is essential to, all cognitive achievements, the same
applies to the whole field.
Explanation of our intellectual life in terms of conditioning would simply mean: its reduction to
the operations of an often most practical, but intrinsically blind, connection of mere facts.
Promises that such an explanation will nevertheless be achieved cause in the present speaker a
mild, incredulous horror. It is not the business of science to destroy evidence. Behaviorists would
perhaps answer that arguments which refer to human thinking as an experience are irrelevant,
because science is only concerned with facts observable from the outside, and therefore
objective. This answer would hardly be acceptable. The Behaviorist's own objective observations
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are invariably observation of facts in his perceptual field. No other form of objective observation
has ever been discovered. Consequently, the Behaviorist cannot, without giving more particular
reasons, reject reference to other individual experiences merely because they are such
Thus we are justified in considering a further example of human experience. A need or drive, we
are sometimes told, is a motivation. I do not entirely agree with this statement for the following
reasons. A need or drive, we remember, is supposed to be a particular state in the tissue. There is
no indication in Hull's writings that such a state "points beyond itself" toward any objects --
although it may, of course, cause movements, or actions of glands. Now it is true that the same
holds for certain needs as human experiences; because, when a need is felt, it does not always
point toward an object, attainment of which would satisfy the need. At the time, no such object
may be in sight: in fact, no such object may yet be known. But when the proper object appears,
or becomes known. then the situation changes. For, now the subject feels attracted or (in certain
instances) repelled by this object. In other words, an object may have characteristics which
establish a dynamic relation between the subject and that object. According to common
experience, it is this dynamic relation which makes the subject move toward, or away from, the
object. We ought to use different terms for a mere need per se and the situation in which a
subject is attracted or repelled by an object. Otherwise, the dynamic aspect of the latter situation
might easily be ignored. I suggest that we reserve the term "motivation" for this dynamic
situation. Here we are, of course, on familiar ground. Motivation as just described was Kurt
Lewin's main concern in psychology. He clearly recognized the part which certain characteristics
of an object play in establishing the dynamic relation between this object and the subject. He
called such charac- [p. 733] teristics of objects Aufforderungscharaktere, a term which then
became "valences" in English.
So far as I know, there are no valences in objects no attractions and no repulsions between
objects and subjects in the Behaviorist's vocabulary. I am afraid that, in this fashion, he misses a
point no only important in human experience but also relevant to what he regards as true science.
How would a Gestalt psychologist handle motivation in the present sense? He would be-in with
the following psychological facts. I do not know up to what point Lewin would have accepted
what I am now going to say. My facts are these: (a) In human experience, motivation is a
dynamic vector, that is, a fact which has a direction and tends to cause a displacement in this
direction. (b) Unless there are obstacles in the way, this direction coincides with an imaginary
straight line drawn from the object to the subject. (c) The ,direction of the experienced vector is
either that toward the object or away from it. In the first case, the vector tends to reduce the
distance in question; 1 the second, to increase it. (d) The strength of both the need present in the
subject and of the valence exhibited by the object can vary. Both in man and in animals it has
been observed that, when the strength of the valence is low, this reduction can be compensated
for by an increase of the need in the subject; and, conversely, that, when the need is lowered, an
increase of the strength of the valence may compensate for this change when considering these
simple statements, anybody familiar with the elements of physics will be reminded of the
behavior of forces. (a) In physics, forces are dynamic vectors which tend to change distance
between one thing (or event) and another. (b) Unless there are obstacles in the way, force
operates along a straight line drawn from first object (or event) to the other. (c) The action in
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which a force operates is either that of attraction or of a repulsion of a reduction or of increase of
the given distance. (d) The formula which the intensity of a force between two objects is given
contains two terms which refer to the sizes of a decisive property (for instance, an electric
charge) in one object and in the other. It is always the product of these two terms on which, to
the formula, the intensity of the force depends. Consequently, a reduction of the crucial term on
one side can be compensated for by an increase in the term on the other side.
We have just seen that the behavior of vectors motivational situations is the same as the behavior
of forces in nature. Gestalt psychologists are, therefore, inclined to interpret motivation in terms
of such forces or, rather, of forces which operate be between certain perceptual processes and
processes another part of the brain, where a need may be physiologically represented. We have
no time to discuss the question how cortical fields or forces would cause overt movements of the
organism in the direction of these forces.
Now, not everybody likes the term "force." Its meaning, it has been said, has anthropomorphic
connotations. But, in human psychology, we simply must use terms which -- if I may use this
expressions -- "sound human." If we refused to do so, we would not do justice to our subject
matter which (to a high degree) is human experience. To be sure, in physics, Heinrich Hertz once
tried to do without the concept "force." He actually wrote a treatise on mechanics in which he
avoided this term. And what happened? He had to populate the physical world with unobservable
masses, introduced only in order to make their hidden presence substitute for the much simpler
action of forces. Ever since that time, physicists have happily returned to the old concept "force,"
and nobody has ever been harmed by the fact.
The present reasoning leads to a conclusion which distinguishes this reasoning from the
treatment of motivation in the Behaviorist's system. Clark Hull was a great admirer of science;
but, to my knowledge, he hardly ever used the concepts characteristic of field physics. The
fundamental distinction between physical facts which are scalars (that is, facts which have a
magnitude but no direction) and vectors (which have both an intensity and a direction) played no
decisive part in his theorizing. His main concepts were obviously meant to be scalars. There is no
particular spatial direction in a habit strength, none in a reaction potential, and none even in what
he called a drive state. Hence, the core of modern physics as developed by Faraday and Maxwell
had no influence on his system. For this reason, and also because he refused to consider
motivation as an experienced vector, he could not discover that the operations of motivation
appear to be isomorphic with those of fields or forces in the brain.
But, if motivation is to be interpreted in this fashion, certain assumptions often made by Behav-
[p. 734] iorists may no longer be acceptable. Take the concept of learned drives. As I understand
this term, it means that learning can attach a drive state to a great variety of stimuli which, as
such, are neutral facts. Now, so long as a drive is not regarded as a vector, this seems indeed
quite possible. But, if the drive in Hull's sense is replaced by a motivational force which operates
between a subject and some perceptual fact, no arbitrary connections of this kind can be
established. For, now motivation becomes the experienced counterpart of a force in the brain,
and this force depends entirely upon the relation between conditions in the subject and the
characteristics of the perceived object. There can be no such force if the object is, and remains, a
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neutral object. Forces only operate between objects which have the right properties. Any
example of a force in nature illustrates this fact.
How, then, are the observations to be explained which are now interpreted as a learning of
drives? After all, some learning must be involved when an originally neutral object gradually
begins to attract or repel a subject. >From the present point of view, only one explanation is
possible. Supposing that the subject's need does not vary, learning must change the
characteristics of the object, and thus transform it into an adequate motivation object. One
instance would be what Tolman calls a sign Gestalt; in other words, the neutral object would
become the signal for the appearance of something else which is a proper motivational object.
This expected object would now be the object of the motivation. Or also, when a neutral object is
often accompanied by facts which are natural motivational objects, the characteristics of such
facts may gradually "creep into" the very appearance of the formerly neutral object and thus
make it a proper motivational object. Years ago, comparative psychologists in England stressed
the importance of such processes, to which they gave the name "assimilation." They regarded
assimilation as a particularly effective form of an association. And is it not true that, as a
consequence of learning, a coffin looks forbidding or sinister? I also know somebody to whom a
bottle covered with dust and just brought up from the cellar looks most attractive.
As a further and particularly simple possibility, the subject might just learn more about the
characteristics of the given object itself than he knew in the beginning; and the characteristics
revealed by this learning might be such that now the same object fits a need. It seems to me that
all these abilities ought to be considered before we accept the thesis that motivations in the
present sense can be attached to actually neutral objects. Incidentally, similar changes of objects
may also be responsible for the developments which Gordon Allport once regarded as evidence
of "functional autonomy."
You will ask me whether my suggestions lead to any consequences in actual research. Most
surely, they do. But, since I have lived so long in America, and have therefore gradually become
a most cautious scientist, I am now preparing myself for the study of motivation by investigating,
first of all, the action of dynamic vectors in simpler fields, such as cognition and perception. It is
a most interesting occupation to compare motivational action with dynamic events in those other
parts of psychology. When you do so, everything looks different, not only in perception but also
in certain forms of learning. Specific work? There is, and will be more of it than I alone can
possibly manage. Consequently, I need help. And where do I expect to find this help? I will tell
you where.
The Behaviorist's premises, we remember, lead to certain expectations and experiments. What I
have just said invites us to proceed in another direction. I suggest that, in this situation, we forget
about schools. The Behaviorist is convinced that his functional concepts are those which we all
ought to use. The Gestalt psychologist, who deals with a greater variety of both phenomenal and
physical concepts, expects more from work based on such premises. Both parties feel that their
procedures are scientifically sound. Why should we fight? Many experiments done by
Behaviorists seem to me to be very good experiments. May I now ask the Behaviorists to regard
the use of some phenomenal facts, and also of field physics, as perfectly permissible? If we were
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to agree on these points, we could, I am sure, do excellent work together. It would be an
extraordinary experience -- and good for psychology.
[1] Address of the President at the sixty-seventh Annual Convention of the American
Psychological Association, Cincinnati, Ohio, September 6, 1959.

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