Insight Learning - Wolfgang Kohler: Theory, Definition & Examples

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Insight learning is a theory of learning first put forth by Wolfgang Kohler about 90 years ago. Learn about the development and definition of this theory and then test your knowledge with a short quiz.

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Theory Development

In the 1920's, German psychologist Wolfgang Kohler was studying the behavior of apes. He designed some simple experiments that led to the development of one of the first cognitive theories of learning, which he called insight learning.

In his experiment, Kohler hung a piece of fruit just out of the reach of each chimp. He then provided the chimps with either two sticks or three boxes, then waited and watched. Kohler noticed that after the chimps realized they could not simply reach or jump up to retrieve the fruit, they stopped, had a seat, and thought about how they might solve the problem. Then after a few moments, the chimps stood up and proceeded to solve the problem.

In the first scenario, the problem was solved by placing the smaller stick into the longer stick to create one very long stick which could be used to knock the hanging fruit down. In the second scenario, the chimps would solve the problem by stacking the boxes on top of each other, which allowed them to climb to the top of the stack of boxes and reach the fruit.

Learning occurs in a variety of ways. Sometimes it is the result of direct observation, other times it is the result of experience through personal interactions with the environment. Kohler called this newly observed type of learning insight learning. Based on these observations, Kohler's theory of insight learning became an early argument for the involvement of cognition, or thinking, in the process of learning.


Insight learning is the abrupt realization of a problem's solution. Insight learning is not the result of trial and error, responding to an environmental stimulus, or the result of observing someone else attempt the problem. It is a completely cognitive experience, which requires the ability to visualize the problem and the solution internally, in the mind's eye so to speak, before initialing a behavioral response.

Insight learning is considered a type of learning because it results in a long-lasting change. Following the occurrence of insight, the realization of how to solve the problem can be repeated in future similar situations.


Insight learning happens regularly in each of our lives and all around us. Inventions and innovations alike are oftentimes the result of insight learning. We have all experienced the sensation of insight learning at one time or another. It is sometimes called a eureka or aha moment. Whatever you call it, insight learning is often at the root of creative, out of the box, thinking.

Here is an example of a situation that while simple, illustrates the basic principles of insight learning. If you are like most people, when you were a kid you loved a good snow cone. While many think of snow cones as a summertime treat, kids don't care what season it is. So, imagine it's January, you live in Minnesota and your son wants a snow cone. Unless you have a snow cone maker, you are probably telling your son, maybe the next time we go out to eat we will get one, OK?

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