Views on problem solving - Thorndike versus Gestalt

Dr. Donna L. Roberts

Behaviorist versus Cognitive aproaches to learning
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Edward Thorndike, in his famous experiments with cats in puzzle boxes, advanced the behaviorist approach to conceptualizing the processes involved in problem solving. In this series of studies, he investigated learning in terms of the sensory associations that occurred and how they related to action. Specifically, he observed the implementation of repeated trial-and-error strategies for escape in response to being placed in a confining space and the subsequent repetition of effective (i.e., rewarding) strategies. From these observations he posited his Law of Effect, which stated that, “Responses to a situation that are followed by satisfaction are strengthened; responses that are followed by discomfort are weakened” (Ormrod, 2004, p. 50).

In contrast, Gestalt psychology focuses on a more cognitive approach to problem solving, emphasizing perception and the active mental organization of sensory data over simple sensory associations. Wolfgang Kohler, a German researcher who also conducted problem solving experiments with animals, observed the application of more complex mental strategies than the simple trial-and-error approached observed by Thorndike. He contrived various problem situations in which chimpanzees had to overcome certain barriers to reach a goal (e.g., obtaining fruit outside their reach). From his observations of these scenarios, Kohler concluded that the learning involved in problem solving consisted of inner process of mental manipulation and problem restructuring which led, finally, to insight and subsequent resolution (Ormrod, 2004; Schunk, 2004). While Thorndike argued against the importance of mental associations and motives as influencing the learning processes of animals, Kohler’s view considered these mental procedures as paramount to learning in a problem-solving situation (Driscoll, 2005).

One of the fundamental differences between the behaviorist orientation and the Gestalt perspective concerns the concept of the whole in relation to its parts. Behaviorism focuses on breaking down complex phenomena into its elementary components. Conversely, an important principle of the Gestalt philosophy is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, indicating that some degree of meaning is lost when a whole is reduced to a collection of its separated individual components (Moore & Fitz, 1993). To Gestalt theorists, context and relationship are paramount in perception and critical thinking. This concept can be clearly illustrated using a musical example. If a 16-note melody is played first in the key of C and then in the key of A-flat an individual listening to it can recognize that it is the same tune despite the fact that there might not be any like notes in the two versions. It is the relationships between the notes, rather than the individual notes themselves, that render the tune (i.e., the whole) and impart meaning.

In regard to practical application in a learning context, while Thorndike’s theory considers repetition to be a necessary and sufficient condition for the reinforcement of learning, it is actually viewed as a hindrance in Gestalt theory in that it limits the encoding process and restricts the availability of past experience in novel problem-solving situations (Clark, 1999). Gestalt theory holds that, “Connections among psychological contents are more readily and more permanently created on the basis of substantive concrete relationships than by sheer repetition and reinforcement. Thinking and problem solving are characterized by appropriate substantive organization, restructuring, and centering of the given ('insight') in the direction of the desired solution.” (Society for Gestalt Theory and Its Applications, n.d.).

Clearly, human learning, critical thinking and problem solving are complex processes that engage different strategies under different circumstances. Children are often observed engaging in repetitive trial-and-error methods in simple tasks with limited scope, such as jigsaw puzzles and memory matching games. However, more sophisticated and comprehensive mental engagement is commonly observed in more creative, open-ended tasks, such as the construction of structure with blocks or a piece of art using various media. Such tasks require the mental manipulation and recombination of elements and exemplify the qualitative difference between wholes and their components. Our ability to apply the most effective strategies in our repertoire to novel problem situations – to both repeat successful solutions and build upon them in new ways in contexts as varied as cooking a meal, building a house or building a spreadsheet - makes the human animal an amazingly adaptive creature.


Clark, D. (1999). Gestalt theory.

Driscoll, M. P. (2005). Psychology of learning for instruction (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Pearson.

Moore, P. & Fitz, C. (1993). Gestalt theory and instructional design. Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, 23(2), 137-157.

Ormrod, J. E. (2004). Human learning (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice Hall.

Schunk, D. H. (2004). Learning theories: An educational perspective, (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Society for Gestalt Theory and Its Applications. (n.d.). What is Gestalt theory? The Society for Gestalt Theory and Its Application Web site:

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Writer and university professor researching media psych, generational studies, addiction psychology, human and animal rights, and the intersection of art and psychology.

Canandaigua, NY

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