Wolfgang Kohler

(1887 - 1967)

Compiled by Faith Luyster


Time Line

Wolfgang Kohler was one of the founders of Gestalt psychology along with Max Wertheimer and Kurt Koffka. He is also famous for his description of insight learning which he tested on animals, particularly chimpanzees.

Kohler was born on January 21, 1887 in Revel, Estonia. His family moved to Germany and settled in Wolfenbuttell when he was six years old (URL 1). Between 1905 and 1907, he attended the universities of Tubingen, Bonn, and Berlin. In 1909, Kohler received his Ph.D. under Carl Stumpf (Hothersall, 1995). During the same year, he began to work at the Psychological Institute in Frankfort-am-Main where he met Wertheimer and Koffka (URL 1). Kohler was a subject in Wertheimer's experiment along with Koffka. He was appointed director of the Anthropoid Research Station on Tenerife in the Canary Islands. Remaining on the island during W.W.I, Kohler began to study problem solving and general intelligence of a group of African chimpanzees (Hothersall, 1995). In 1917, he published The Mentality of Apes which summarized the results of his insight studies (URL 4). Upon his return to Germany, Kohler took the position as director of the Psychological Institute at the University of Berlin (URl 1). During 1925-1926, he served as a visiting professor at Clark University in the United States.

In 1934-1935, Kohler was invited to give the William James Memorial lecture at Harvard (URL 1). He immigrated to the United States in 1935 because of Nazi interference with his work. From 1935 to 1955, he was a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College (URL 4). Kohler was appointed president of the American Psychological Association in 1959 (URL 4). In 1958, he became a research professor at Dartmouth University until his death on June 11, 1967, in Enfield, NH (URL 1).

Kohler's Major Contributions

During the time period, Edward Thorndike had the prevailing view of animal learning. He concluded through his studies of monkeys, dogs, and especially cats that learning is a trial-and-error process which is dependent on rewards and punishments. Kohler questioned Thorndike's conclusion that his animals learned mechanically through the selection of action of rewards and punishments (Hothersall , 1995). Kohler attempted to prove that animals arrive at a solution through insight rather than trial and error. His first experiments with dogs and cats involved food being placed on the other side of a barrier. The dogs and cats went right towards the food instead of moving away from the goal to circumvent the barrier like chimps who were presented with this situation (URL 2).

Kohler Kohler's experiments consisted of placing chimps in an enclosed area and presenting them with a reward that was out of reach, such as bananas. Kohler used four chimps in his experiments, Chica, Grande, Konsul, and Sultan. In one experiment, Kohler placed bananas outside Sultan's cage and two bamboo sticks inside his cage. Neither stick was long enough to reach the bananas so the only way to reach the bananas was to put the sticks together. Kohler demonstrated to Sultan the solution by putting his fingers into the end of one of the sticks (Hothersall, 1995). However, this did not help Sultan solve the problem. After some contemplation, Sultan put the two sticks together and created a stick long enough to reach the bananas outside his cage (URL 3).


Another study involved bananas suspended from the roof. The chimps first tried to knock them down by using a stick. Then, the chimps learned to stack boxes on top of one another to climb up to the bananas (URL 3). Kohler described three properties of insight learning. First, insight-learning is based on the animal perceiving the solution to the problem. Second, insight-leaning is not dependent on rewards. Third, once a problem has been solved, it is easier to solve a similar problem (Hothersall, 1995).

Kohler tested Gestalt theory in regards to the transposition of stimuli by training a chicken to distinguish between two shades of gray. The chicken was then rewarded for pecking at the darker gray card but was not rewarded for pecking at a lighter gray card. After numerous trials, the chicken only pecked at the darker gray card. When the chicken was exposed to a dark gray and a black card, the chicken pecked at the black card. This experiment disproves Throndike's theory that animals learn to respond to a particular stimulus with a specific response (Hothersall, 1995).

Time Line of Kohler's Life

1887 Wolfgang Kohler born on January 21st
1905 Attended University of Tubingen
1906 Attended University of Bonn
1909 Attended University of Berlin and received Ph.D.
1910 Worked at the University of Frankfort
1913 Became director of the Anthropoid Research Station on the Island of Teneriffe
1917 The Mentality of Apes published in German
1920 Worked at the University of Berlin
- Published monograph, Die physischen Gestalten in Ruhe und im stationaren Zustand
1925 The Mentality of Apes published in English
- Visiting professor at Clark University in the US
1929 Published Gestalt Psychology
1934 William James Lecturer at Harvard
1935 Immigrated to the United States
- Visiting professor at the University of Chicago
- Professor of psychology at Swarthmore College
1938 Published The Place of Value in a World of Facts
1940 Published Dynamics in Psychology
1958 Research professor of psychology at Dartmouth College
1959 Became president of the American Psychological Association
1967 Died, June 11th, Enfield, NH


Hothersall, David. 1995. History of Psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill.
URL 1 - http://kirjasto.sci.fi/kohler.htm
URL 2 - http://www.pigeon.psy.tufts.edu/psych26/history.htm#kohler
URL 3 - http://www.muohio.edu/~dragonfly/tools/chimptools.htmlx
URL 4 : http://www.zeal.com/exit.jhtml?cid=90914&wid=253816&so=&xr=%2FHumanities___Social_Sciences%2FPsychology%2FPsychologists%2FK_hler__Wolfgang%2F%3F

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