Prägnanz in visual perception


How do we perceptually and cognitively organize incoming stimulation? A century ago, Gestalt psychologists posited the law of Prägnanz: psychological organization will always be as ‘good’ as possible given the prevailing conditions. To make the Prägnanz law a useful statement, it needs to be specified further (a) what a ‘good’ psychological organization entails, (b) how the Prägnanz tendency can be realized, and (c) which conditions need to be taken into account. Although the Gestalt school did provide answers to these questions, modern-day mentions of Prägnanz or good Gestalt often lack these clarifications. The concept of Prägnanz has been (mis)understood in many different ways, and by looking back on the rich history of the concept, we will attempt to present a more fine-grained view and promote a renewed understanding of the central role of Prägnanz in visual perception and beyond. We review Gestalt psychology’s answers to the questions listed above, and also discuss the four main uses of the Prägnanz concept in more detail: (a) a Prägnanz tendency in each organizational process, (b) Prägnanz as a property of a Gestalt, (c) Prägnanz steps as internal reference points, and (d) Prägnanz in relation to aesthetic appreciation. As a key takeaway, Prägnanz is a multifaceted Gestalt psychological concept indicating the “goodness” of an experienced organization. Both the removal of unnecessary details and the emphasis on characteristic features of the overall organization compared to a reference organization can contribute to the emergence of a ‘better’ Gestalt. The stimulus constellation is not the only factor in determining the goodness of an organization, also the stimulus' interaction with an individual in a specific spatial and temporal context plays a role. Taking the ideas on Prägnanz as a generative framework and keeping the original Gestalt psychological context in mind, future research on perceptual organization can improve our understanding of the principles underlying psychological organization by further specifying how different organizational principles interact in concrete situations.

Psychonomic Bulletin & Review


Van Geert, E., & Wagemans, J. (2023). Prägnanz in visual perception. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.