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In this video we’ll use a real-life example to explore adaptation-level theory and Gestalt psychology and the man who brought them both to the forefront of American psychology: Harry Helson.

Adapting in Real Life

Austin asked some of the guys in his dorm to help him move his stuff; he’s getting out. The noise and his dorm mates’ constant practical jokes have made it difficult for him to study.

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Austin wants this last semester to be his best academically. A few months earlier, he applied to a prestigious Master of Science in Psychology program and wants to make sure he’s prepared for graduate study when he receives his acceptance letter. As Austin comes up the stairs, one of the guys is standing on the landing holding what looks like a heavy box of books. As he approaches the first step, he trips and the box goes flying out of his hands toward Austin. Austin dodges in an effort to avoid going down the stairs with the box. When the box lands, Austin sees that it is empty and his buddy laughs. Austin says, ‘Playing a little Harry Helson with me, huh?’ His buddy has no idea what Austin is talking about.

Harry Helson

Austin made an obscure joke, but the man whose name he mentioned is still well-regarded and remembered in the psychological community. Harry Helson, born in 1898 in Chelsea, MA, earned his Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Psychology from Harvard University at age 26. He wrote his dissertation on Gestalt psychology (a theory based on the belief that the whole of something is more than the sum of its parts). It led to the first discussion of this new German idea with the American psychological community.

But Helson did not confine himself to writing about Gestalt psychology. He had a variety of interests and would eventually have his greatest impact on our understanding of the human psyche and how it reacts to stimuli when he experimented with photography.According to Gestalt psychology, a reaction to an event or a disorder is made up of many different psychological and physical processes, but the resultant effect is larger than that which can be explained if all of the processes are considered individually and then added up. For example, a violin is made up of several different types of wood, steel strings, and plastic pieces. As individual parts, they can do nothing. But when they are glued, screwed and strung together, they can make beautiful music. Similarly, psychologists used Gestalt theory to explain how diagnoses, such as anxiety, are made up of individual symptoms that mean little on their own, but when combined, form the anxiety that cripples a person.

Adaptation-Level Theory

When Austin’s friend threw a box at him and Austin dodged it, they were proving Harry Helson’s adaptation-level theory. Helson believed that when an individual receives a stimulus, he or she reacts to it based upon perceptions and reactions to similar stimuli in the past. Why did Austin duck when his friend threw the box? Because Austin believed that it was full of books and would be too heavy to catch. The fact that the box was actually empty had no bearing on the result.

Austin had adapted a response to a supposedly heavy box being thrown at him.This type of response happens no matter what the stimulus. For example, people expect the sky to have a consistent range of colors, so when it takes on a specific shade, they will react to it according to their adaptation-level. Similarly, someone who has persistent negative thoughts will react to new negative stimuli differently than someone who has a more positive natural outlook.

Lesson Summary

Harry Helson was a Harvard graduate and psychologist who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Gestalt psychology. According to Gestalt psychology, the whole is greater than the sum of the individual parts. In psychology, this means that a reaction consists of many different experiences and former responses that make up the immediate reaction.

Helson’s interests in photography led to an understanding of how people’s adaptations influence their reactions to stimuli. For example, if a box is thrown at them, many people will shrink from it, thinking it is heavy. Since prior experience has taught them that catching a heavy box may pose a threat, they react by letting the box go by.

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