“Rider on a Horse” Gestalt Experiment

February 4, 2010

For this post, I performed an experiment on my sister and two friends.  No, it wasn’t that kind of experiment.  I’m not a genetic scientist or anything.  Rather, it was a test of Gestalt principles.  For those of you who have not encountered Gestalt, it is a German word meaning, roughly, “wholeness” or “shape.”  It is how we see things and make sense out of them visually.  There is an entire psychological study dedicated to Gestalt that is far beyond the scope of this post, but the most pertinent Gestalt concepts we will examine are Grouping and Closure.  Grouping is the tendency of our minds to organize various visual stimuli into coherent groups, despite all other dissimilarities the objects/shapes might have, whereas Closure is when our minds can finish off incomplete shapes given enough information.  Both of these are evident in the main focus of our experiment here:Grouping is the principle on which the experiment is based, for the most part, because the black blobs which constitute the image actually start far apart and are randomly shaped.  They would appear completely unrelated.  I, the experimenter, clicked a button which caused them to move together until they formed the above picture.  It took twenty steps to achieve the final picture.  I did not tell the person what it was, but asked them to tell me what they saw at any time as I slowly inched the pieces closer together.

For the experiment itself, my *victims* were shown two different series of images, each of which was followed by our Gestalt image.  The first set showed people in various environments, and the second set showed different four-legged animals.  Since the final image was a horse and rider, which the *victim* didn’t know, I surmised that the purpose of these fronted images was to unconsciously imprint the person’s mind into seeing different results.  If they couldn’t make out the horse after seeing the images of people, perhaps they could see it after seeing the animals.

The results, in reality, did not fit this assumption.  My sister, the creative type of the bunch, saw a smiling face on the fifth step, with an open mouth.  She actually said she saw a bunch of faces, which makes sense to me because, as a creative person, her mind could rapidly analyze the dots from as many angles as possible.  It also made sense because she had just seen pictures of people, so their faces were still floating around in her subconscious.  This was what I suspected; however, after seeing the pictures of animals, she still saw the face, and on the same step as well.  I had to stop to think about this.  Going in to the experiment, I had presumed the animal images were meant to assist in seeing the horse.  What my sister’s results said to me, though, was that the initial impression from the images of people was too strong, so she couldn’t see anything else after that.  The first impression is the most important, as they say.

The next person, a co-worker and friend, again stopped me on the fifth step.  This time, though, she said she saw a snowman’s face.  While this was consistent with seeing faces, like my sister, the fact that she saw a snowman‘s face signified that she was a much more shape-oriented person.  Not only was she looking for an overall picture, but, at the same time, the odd shapes of the middle black dots reminded her of misshapen coals of a snowman’s eyes, so she went on that.  And, again, she could not see anything different the second time.  I wonder about that…

The final person was another friend.  For him, it took a bit longer to see anything, but on the thirteenth step he stopped me and said he saw a man’s head and shoulders.  I had to look to see that, but it became evident when I looked at the left-most dot, the horse’s mouth, as the nose sticking out.  This was again different in that it was no face, but it nevertheless was still a person.  One thing remained constant, though, which was that he couldn’t see anything different after the second set of animal pictures.

After looking at these results, I have to reverse my first thought about what people would see.  When I started, I believed that, after failing to see the horse the first time, the images of animals on the second set would encourage the participants to see the horse that time.  This proved wholly incorrect.  I started to analyze what was happening after my sister, but, upon completion of all three experiments, I am now convinced that preconceptions and prejudices are much more important than anything seen immediately before the Gestalt image.  None of the participants saw anything to do with animals, despite the best efforts of the creators of this experiment.  First, as I found out, the pictures of people made a stronger first impression than predicted, and it could not be shaken loose by the time the second set came around.  Second, and more importantly, we are already conditioned to seek out images of people and faces more than anything else in our lives.  From the time when we are babies, recognizing and identifying human faces and forms has been ingrained into us.  It’s a survival instinct.  Thus, when faced with an ambiguous image like the horse above, and we don’t know what we are supposed to be looking for, it is only natural for our blindly groping mind to pick out something resembling a human (or a snowman face).  This was the most important lesson I learned from this experiment.  When we don’t know what we’re supposed to do, our minds naturally fall back on what we know, and what more do we know than our fellow humans?  Fascinating.  No wonder I always see weird faces when I stare at the patterns on the ceiling plaster.

Of course, some people see rabbits and dragons.  But that’s just a figment of their imagination.  Isn’t it?


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