Our Lost Perception
According to Gestalt Theory we perceive things in their simplest form. We see the whole object rather than its parts. For example, we see a forest rather than the individual trees, we see an airplane rather than its component parts, we see a tree rather than the individual leaves, limbs, roots, etc. All this is pretty obvious, I think. Bear with me because I promise I have a point to make.
Gestalt theory also argues that we group similar items together (airplanes, trees, Democrats), that we group things that are in close proximity to each other as belonging to the same group (a crowd at a concert or lights twinkling in the sky even though some are planets, others are stars, and still others are galaxies), that human minds naturally follow lines or curves, and that our minds fill in missing information to make sense of things we observe (a gap in the forest leads us to conclude that trees belong there and would be part of the forest).
I’ve now explained pretty much everything I know about Gestalt theory, and I’m sure you are glad! Now I’m sure you are wondering why the heck the old Fiercely dude is rambling on about a psychological theory when he is a Political Scientist.
I’ll not bore you with too many relevant examples, but one that is specifically interesting is how Gestalt theory has changed the way products are marketed. Read this to see how Google maps employs Gestalt theory, how incomplete designs employ those principles, how Amazon’s and Coca-Cola’s logos take advantage of Gestalt theory, and other interesting examples. But what does it have to do with our understanding of the social and political world? I’m glad you asked because I believe it does.
When we hear stories of migrants trying to cross into the United States we naturally group them together (MIGRANTS!) and lose sight of the fact that these are individuals who are trying to offer their families better lives. They often sleep in exhausting heat or numbing cold, they suffer when people steal from or otherwise take advantage of them, and the jobs they get when they arrive are often back-breaking or dangerous. We forget that their souls or individual worth have no less value than do yours or mine. I unfriended someone on social media a while back because this person said we should be shooting these people at the border, an argument that could only be made by someone concluding that migrants have no individual worth.
We tend to treat all “homeless” people similarly, forgetting that each individual has a story that might help explain his or her circumstances. Some had poor family backgrounds, some have mental illness, some are the result of unfortunate circumstances, and much more.
When we hear that yet another elementary school has been the target of a deranged gunman we focus on the number of victims (26 killed at Sandy Hook ten years ago today, by the way), but we never know their individual names or seriously consider the impact each individual death had on families and others.
When the news reports that thousands have died in Russia’s attack on Ukraine the numbers become mind numbing to the point we forget that each individual life was inherently valuable and that someone was robbed of a future.
This attitude also impacts our reaction to other events. We do tend to pay attention to individuals when, for example, a mountain climber is stranded on El Capitan, and there is no limit to the resources we will expend to save him or her because we learn this individual’s name and life story, but we won’t expend similar resources to ensure a group of school children have free meals.
I don’t really have a solution, but I think it is important to remember that as of 11:47 am on December 14, 2022 there were 7,939,107,405 INDIVIDUALS on this planet, and all have unique worth regardless of their ethnic, religious, gender, sexual orientation, geographic, legal, or other status. We must resist Gestalt tendencies.