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Law of Similarity: Examples, Lesson & Quiz

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Orin Davis

Psychologists use the Law of Similarity to understand behavior. Learn the Law of Similarity, which is the tendency to link similar items into a distinct group, and see examples of how it affects you every day.

Definition of the Law of Similarity

Have you ever walked down a busy street on a summer day and heard the music coming out of the cars with open windows? You are probably hearing multiple songs at once, and yet you are able to identify each of them and not get lost in the ocean of sound. Within each song, the series of notes is connected more closely than it is to the notes of any of the other songs, and it is this similarity that allows you to pick out the Beatles, Frank Sinatra, and Barbara Streisand all at the same time. The fact that we link things that are similar and treat them like a distinct group is the Law of Similarity. Psychologists use the Law of Similarity to understand behavior.

Examples of the Law of Similarity

To really understand how the Law of Similarity works, let's look at a few examples.

Example 1

Take a look at the letters below:

h h h h h h h h h h

q q q q q q q q q q

n n n n n n n n n n

p p p p p p p p p p

You would probably describe what you see as four rows of letters instead of ten columns of letters, because we tend to group similar things into whole sets - that's the Law of Similarity.


Example 2

What shape do you see in this picture?

ASCII Smiley

If you look closely, you will see that the smiley face is made of individual characters. We are able to see each of the eyes and the mouth because they are made of similar characters that we combine in our minds using the Law of the Similarity. While the light and dark contrasts help, we would be able to see the smiley face as long as the characters that make up the eyes are all the same but also distinct from the characters that make up the background. That way, we can group the characters using the Law of Similarity and distinguish them as eyes that are separate from the background of the face.

The Law of Similarity is a Gestalt Rule

The Law of Similarity is one of the rules that comes from Gestalt Psychology ('gesh-TAHLT'; German for 'whole'), which is about how human beings perceive wholes. Gestalt Psychology describes how a whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Take a look at Example 3 to see for yourself.

Example 3

Here are four lines:

Four Lines

Here are four more lines:

Four lines in a square

You likely called the second set of four lines a 'square,' because you grouped the four lines together as a whole shape that is something more than just a collection of lines. Where possible, people tend to organize their perceptions through wholes, combining items to make them easier to process. If you are asked to memorize the numbers 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, 16, you would probably just group them into a whole set of 'even numbers up to 16,' which is far easier than trying to keep eight numbers in your head!

Behavior is a Gestalt

If you encounter someone who is smiling, speaking with an upbeat tone, and has a bright, relaxed look, you would group those facts together into a gestalt perception and describe the individual as 'happy.' In fact, most of the labels that we apply to behavior, such as 'happy,' 'sad,' 'generous,' 'judgmental,' and 'brave,' are gestalt labels that we place on a combination of actions relevant to each other that we group using the Law of Similarity. Psychologists investigate this law in order to understand how we group actions and stimuli to determine and/or define the behaviors and constructs that we perceive.

Summary

The Law of Similarity describes how people group related constructs, whether they are dots, notes, or actions, into whole perceptions that can be labeled using a summary title, such as 'line,' 'song,' or 'happy.' The law is one of the rules that gestalt psychologists apply in order to understand how people determine and/or define the things and behaviors they perceive.

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