Application of Gestalt Theory and Therapy in Public Policy and Political Communication

Ekaterina Sinitskaya,
School of Governance and Politics, MGIMO University

Abstract: The article deals with the origin Gestalt psychology of perception and the fundamental laws, principles and ideas. The Gestalt theory can be applied both as a method of applied analysis in social, political and international studies and as a practical tool in psychology and psychotherapy, design, communication and advertisement. This methodology falls out of a framework of a science and thus can be applied dealing with basic laws of cognition, perception and deduction, which allows us to implement it into the sphere of public policy and political communication, as it accounts for psychology of the masses. What is more, Gestalt laws provide a set of instruments for political science, as it stands for new ways of structuration of the data which leads to a change in a paradigm of analysis and rethinking of the challenges and problems. The article considers the theory itself, its emergence, evolution and the basic principles, as well as the ways of practical application of the Gestalt principles in politics, such as outreach, political marketing, manipulating public opinion, legitimization of existent regimes and ideologies, propaganda and political mobilization and recruitment.

Key words: Gestalt theory,public policy, political communication, political science

Main body

The main issue under consideration in this article is the possible ways of application of the Gestalt laws and principles both to the political science, and to the sphere of public policy and political communication. Nowadays Gestalt theory has significantly gained in popularity and is widely used in design, psychotherapy, education and teaching, as it provides efficient instruments of restructuration of ideas and concepts through depicting and projecting them differently in accordance withlaws of visual perception developed by the Gestaltists. The attitude towards Gestalt theory and methods is rather ambiguous and controversial, as many modern researchers claim that this scientific school died out shortly after its emergence at the beginning of the XXth century, although numerous psychological surveys keep mentioning it if laws of perception are considered. One can’t deny the relevance of this theory today, when informational technologies and the media mainly serve as a source of visual information and a major means of communication without borders or restrictions, so it is vital to comprehend the effect they have on our mind and how we can benefit from our perceptional peculiarities (Wagemans, 2015).

According to The Concise Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology and Behavioral Science, Gestalt theory was originally developed as a method of scientific analysis aimed at the explanation instead of bare description of the psychological aspects of perception applicable in any physical science, such as but not limited to, physics, chemistry, biology or even sociology and linguistics. Gestalt rules and laws of visual perception were elaborated to account for the ways we perceive observed phenomena in order to literally manipulate our cognition and deduction by influencing the processes ongoing in our nervous system through psyche and consciousness, that underpin realized mental activity in our minds (The Concise Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology and Behavioral Science, 1996).

As every scientific discovery, the Gestalt school originated from a coincidence. It all began in 1912, when the founder of the Berlin school (the fundamental school in Gestalt theory) Max Wertheimer was about to board the train and unintentionally got a look at the railway lights. He noticed that two stationary light sources flashing create a sense of motion that is not actual but is perceived to be real and decided to study this phenomenon to figure out its psychological background. The early Gestaltism was mainly aimed at researching optical illusions, for example, illusion of motion created by motionless pictures flashing quickly in front of a light source, which was used by the Lumiere brothers in their invention of cinematography. Based on his observation, Wertheimer came up with a thought that the perception of the motion appears as the result of our mental activity that tend to unite isolated phenomena into structured wholes (die Gestalten), which became the key concept of a revolutionary theory. The Gestaltists argue that our brain fills in missing information due to our ability to perceive reality as a whole, not in parts and creates a feeling of the interconnection of facts and objects.

One of crucial postulates of the theory that the whole is more than a sum of the parts was implemented into psychology by Christian von Ehrenfels in 1890, but Wertheimer broadened this idea by arguing that the whole and the parts perform different functions and each part can be viewed as another whole in some way.

The word Gestalt is used in modern German to define the way a thing is “put together” or “located”. There is no precise translation into English, but the most frequent ones are “form” and “shape”. However, psychological understanding corresponds much more with the original definition: in psychology the word stands for “pattern” or “configuration” (Britannica, 2019). Gestalt principles are often referred to as “the laws of grouping” or “the laws of organization”, which is only partly correct, as they don’t only determine the linkages between phenomena and the methods of placing them in a certain system. Instead of reasoning mere connections and means of unity, Gestalt laws represent a holistic approach that suggests that human mind and all of the happenings occurring should be viewed as a whole body “from above”, in contrast to the atomistic approachthat advocates gradual understanding of an object or experience by means of ascensionfrom particular features and specific details (“from below”) to a bigger scale of assessment and observation and thus to a broader comprehension of the object under research(The Concise Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology and Behavioral Science, 1996).

The representatives of the Berlin school (Wertheimer, Köhler, Koffka) drew inspiration from masterpieces of Johann Wolfgang Goethe, who resorted to a metaphor of existence of an organism in relation to continuous self-actualizing holistic system that balances itself through dynamic interaction. Concluding that such interactions could not have taken place without any predetermined order, Berlin school researchers went further and discovered the laws of perception accounting for such a figure of speech (Wagemans, 2015). The language prescribes our understanding of what we envision and codifies our comprehension, and the formation of such comprehension through mental activity that precedes its further verbal translation through speech can be defined as the Gestalt, or the shaping of an idea in our mind. The Gestalt can also be called the main subject of rivalry in a so-called “language game” – a concept introduced by Wittgenstein. “Language game” is a kind of social integration aimed at acquittance of new meanings that is related with a general understanding of a game by the presence of rules, exchange of information, competitiveness and a certain form of trade. Like any other game, language game is a process of exchange and competition with an unpredictable and result, variable and depending on the situation, that, nevertheless, follows certain rules, that are the rules of Gestalt.

Gestalt approach in psychology of perception contributes to the enrichment of the existent theories in sociolinguistics and political psychology. Language as a philosophic category stands for the system of codes, like terms and their definitions, that cannot be viewed as scattered isolated phenomena and are unimaginable separated. In contrast, they are tied so tightly with one another, that the holistic system they constitute (the language itself) is the only possible condition of their existence and functioning. Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure defined language as system of commonly recognized symbols and their meanings emerged from the social convention of the speakers of the language, which provides uniformity and integrity of the language as a whole (de Saussure, 1999).  Gestalt theory accounts for a greater value of the language as an instrument that helps to transform visual (or acoustic, if we consider language and communication) signals into the data recorded to our brain and thus shape our realized vision of the world by means of restricting our visual experience to what we can name and describe. Such an effect of language was characterized as picture theory of language and meaning by Cambridge professor and philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Learning new definitions relies on the messages passed over to us through speech and communication, so language practice can become the basic channel of acquiring new information and shaping our attitudes towards factual external surroundings (Kulikov, 2016).

Language practices affect masscognition through social and political metaphors that facilitate the shaping of concepts and models of behavior in the collective mind, which results in the formation of the commonly shared paradigm of thinking that involve both attitudes towards certain deeds and characters and the view of the whole social environment. Conceptual frame is a kind of a stereotype or bias that activates in contact with the reality and restricts possible options of its interpretation, while categorization helps to secure the constructed frame and to incorporate it into a coherent system of metaphors and prejudges that is translated to the masses through social discourse, which is necessary for the shaping of a legitimate ideology in society. Lingual programming of social and political actions was embodied in the terribly notorious Nazi propaganda that imposed the idea of the excellency of Aryan race in contrast to Jews who were declared to be enemies and parasites (Golubeva, 2016). As Norwegian political science Stein Rokkan said accounting for the unifying role of the language in the enforcement of national unity: “There is a still much closer tie-in between language and territory, than there is between religion and the territory” (Rokkan, 2000). Categorization through language leads to a tighter unity of the nation and political metaphors account for the legitimacy of the ruling regime, due to the sense of community that is formed through shared discourse and opinions.

Gestalt helps to enhance this unifying role of the language, as it represents something broader than a language. Using Gestalt approach in the formation of the ideology we may overcome cultural and lingual differences while shaping political metaphors and ideologies. We may not be able to perceive the meaning of a slogan written in a language unknown to us but it may be easier for us to perceive the sense concealed in a figure or a visual illusion, since, as mentioned above, despite the unique peculiarities of our mental activity due to its dependence from our personal experience, it still follows the laws and rules of perception in general, which can be used, if scrutinized properly, and Gestalt approach might serve as a useful device.

One of the main achievements of the first Gestaltists, particularly Köhler, who maintained friendly relationshipswith the major physics of that time, including Albert Einstein and was inspired by their findings, was the first description of the principles of the mental activity in our brain as a self-organizing system. He was one of the first to discover how our brain reacts to insufficient visual information, subconsciously constructing the missing elements of the picture based on our knowledge about the situation (Wagemans, 2015).

In Gestalt theory, the central subject under research is the embodiment of our picture of the world in our mind with the help of visual perception, which is unique since dependent on our previous experiences. We do not only translate everything we see to our memory; we reprocess the information we acquire and thus construct our own vision of reality, that may fail to correspond with actually existent material objects. The fact that our perception of the reality and the reality itself differ is often ignored subconsciously, so we tend to alter our thinking processes, behavior and activity in compliance with how we visualize the occurring situation of the challenge arising, that makes it clear, how significant (in the long run) our visual perception is to our reactions to various stressors and stimuli. The knowledge we get using our senses provides us with an opportunity to act in the society in a very specific way, for example, to feel empathy to upset people or to put a hand away from a hot surface. Gestaltism emphasizes that if visual representation is under control of the scientifically grounded principles, the output and the feedback of the system (as it is in the David Easton’s model of political system) expressed in the social response is likely to be particular and thus may be predicted. To sum up, Gestalt approach helps to influence consequences by manipulating conditions and circumstances (Salazar, 2017).

This concept may as well correspond with Walter Lippmann’s understanding of public opinion that suggest that the world we live in is not a factual reality but in what we consider to be real due to the restrictions of our knowledge about it and that our behavior is predetermined by the concepts derived from our personal experience (Lippmann illustrates this idea with numerous examples, including the ancient Greek concept of  Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”, where prisoners can only rely on what they see in front of them, which is just shadows). Learning about the reality can only happen under the influence of information sources, that in the long run prescribe the way we understand the world around us, and what we can’t find ourselves is refilled by our brain (Lippmann, 1922).

Multiple pictures of the world form public opinion that can be manipulated by working with the agenda.In the essay “The Landscape of the war” Gestalt psychologist Kurt Lewin introduced one of the interpretations of his field theory, according to that our behavior is predetermined by the surrounding space. He draws a distinction between geographical and behavioral surface and studies how our life space is organized: what demarcates its boundaries, which zones and stages we go through, for how long it lasts and what effect it has on us. His concept of topological psychology significantly contributed to the psychology of environment and later to urban and architecture studies (Lewin, 2009).Lewin argues that our perception of the environment prescribes the context of our vision of reality and provides an example of soldiers on the battlefield. Soldiers cannot imagine themselves out of the battlefield context and their minds automatically ignore everything that is beyond the boundaries of the frontline (Rogacheva, 2008). If we extrapolate this concept to our everyday activities, we may notice the same effect: both the environment we are functioning in and we ourselves mutually influence each other, since the focus of our attention is adapted to the conditions of the environment and the environment (political, social, economic situation) is what we think and feel it is.

Thus, our surroundings are defined by what we are focused on and such a focus can be shifted with the help of external influence. That leads us to McCombs’s agenda-setting theory. According to him: “When connecting to the world outside our family, neighborhood and workplace, we deal with a second-hand reality created by journalists and media organizations. Over time, those aspects of public affairs that are prominent in the media usually become prominent in public opinion. This ability to influence which issues, persons and topics are perceived as the most important of the day is called the agenda-setting role of the mass media”“The agenda” consists of “objects” – public issues placed in the focus of attention for some reasons and have their “attributes” – particular features that may also be either emphasized or ignored intentionally by the “gatekeepers” – subjects responsible for picking the issues on the agenda and drawing our attention to them. The gatekeepers are represented by journalists, opinion leaders, the media, organizations, corporations or authorities. Their goal is to switch our attention focus to what they want to be widely discussed, for example, the prominence of the candidate during the election campaign, external problems in contrast to prosperity of our motherland, social disparities that surround us every day, in order to narrow our view of the world and make us concentrate on one particular idea or opinion(McCombs, Maxwell, Valenzuela, Sebastián, 2007). In analogy to Lewin’s environment concept, gatekeepers want us to view ourselves as voters of a particular candidate, patriots of the greatest country in the world or decision-makers in charge of a better future. Thus, the need for adaptation of an individual to particular surroundings may enhance the effect of media indoctrination. To do so, it is beneficial to impose particular roles and statuses on targeted individuals, emphasizing their feeling of self-identification with a particular group.

As a school in psychology, gestaltism is in contradiction with psychoanalysis, as it considers a person to possess less willpower, whose views can be greatly modified by external pressure. What is more, unlike psychoanalysis, gestalt psychology is much more applicable in the outreach-therapy, as visual perception is what a person sees at the particular moment without mentally returning to previous experiences, but taking them into account subconsciously, providing reasoning for his reaction to a present situation (Pavlovsky, 2009). It is also at odds with behaviorism, because the gestaltists saw human behavior as a concept which was beyond the frames of stigmas and responses (Salazar, 2017).

Empirical experience indicates that as an approach in psychotherapy Gestalt is especially beneficial in the outreach-therapy, that is aimed at reaching out to a patient, establishing the first contact and building basic trust between him and the therapist in order to maintain future communication. Outreach practice is widely implemented into social work, because it created a bridge between closed and marginalized groups and the whole society, where therapist serves as communicator and the brokerIn Gestalt approach to outreach therapy the patient never reflects his past experiences, as it is in psychoanalysis, that examines patient’s traumas from his or her life history. Instead, the therapist acts as an interviewer and a guide and aims at figuring out current concerns of the patient observing the way he visualizes reality. This approach is rather experimental but extremely productive, particularly when the patient is not good at describing his feelings or is unable to talk about his past due to mistrust to the therapist or general unwillingness to remember and analyze memories. A vivid example of the application of Gestalt therapy is social work with homeless children, who are reluctant to contact with social workers and are greatly traumatized by their life experience. The main technique of such approach is creative adaptation that provides the patient to voice his feelings using his imagination and creativity, thus depicting it through visual metaphoric images: pictures, letters, crafts, presentations. Another practice is externalization – a way of distancing the patient from his problem and metaphorically separating him from it, for example, by asking him to prescribe characteristics of a human being or a physical creature to the problem, or to implement “an empty chair” where the embodiment of the issue could “seat” (Pavlovsky, 2009).

Serge and Anne Ginger in their monography “The Gestalt – therapy of contact” suggest that the main advantages of this therapy is the absence of pressure from the therapist and creative representation of the patient that helps him to boost his mental activity and resolve the issues concerning him not with the help of the therapist but under his observation. Political scientists can benefit from this peculiarity by implementing it into the practice of data collection, for example, focus groups, public opinion polls, interviews, trainings and discussions – both “face-to-face” and with the larger number of people or respondents (Ginger S., Ginger A., 1999). Thus, Gestalt therapy techniques might enrich existent sociological practices that are primal to political marketing and campaigning, laying the ground for potential voters to voice their needs freely and willingly, which would facilitate elaborating elections campaigns to make them more likely fit in with their expectations.

Through pre-election marketing political organizations, parties, movements and independent politicians can improve their reputation and raise legitimacy, launch a brand, communicate a message and promote their ideas, enlighten their electorate and raise their awareness about essential public issues. Marketing helps to elaborate promotion strategies that ensure attention and interest of the audience. Political communication can be either static (politician of political organization addresses the public), including the communication of candidates or campaign communication (based on polls and research promotion that includes market-oriented advertising, branding, celebrity marketing etc.) and encompasses tools (get out the vote, direct marketing, targeted communication and mobile/virtual marketing); selling policy (government advertising and social marketing, examination of policies), discourse modification, risks and crisis management; and integrated marketing communications (University of Auckland, 2010).Gestalt approach allows to figure out the fundamental values and of the public and to ensure that a candidate or policies being implemented are appealing to the particular target groups and are likely to meet their support or votes.

Speculating over the concept of propaganda, it is also possible to discover that the application of Gestalt approach is appropriate here, in particular, the Gestalt laws of perceptional organization, for example, the law of similarity, that stands for our tendency to group similar shapes instead of looking at each individually; the law of proximity, that suggests that the closer objects are to one another, the more likely they are to be seen as a group or at least considered to be two of the same kind, as if hostess approached a group of people in a restaurant, assuming that they might be friends from the same company, although they only looked similar in age and seemed to be sharing joyful spirits, thus probably being strangers to one another; the law of continuity, that holds that points connected by lines are seen in a way that follows the smoothest path, without separate lines and angles being noticed (Gans, 2017) etc.

Gestalt psychology led the researchers to the idea that human perception is not just about seeing what is actually present in the world around us, but also our motivations and expectations. In analogy with Gestalt laws of perception, propaganda manipulates prejudges and stereotypes we formulate in order to shape a definite commonly shared view of a current situation. According to renowned political scientist Harold Lasswell, “Propaganda is the management of collective attitudes by the manipulation of significant symbols”, where attitudes mean influential aspects of behavior that correspond with the patterns of the common values regardless of the time and location of their formation. Lasswell notes that these valuational patterns can be observed in everything that can be perceived: gestures, handwriting, speech – these are considered to be “significant symbols” – phenomena that help to demonstrate, identify, alter or reaffirm popular attitudes (Lasswell, 1927).

Surprisingly enough, Lasswell’s study of propaganda can be fully attributed to the Gestalt approach. First of all, it is based on perceptional psychology and considers the ways of social mobilization through discourse, from general meaning of the text and its interpretation to spelling, letter-forming and structure (that’s why it mainly appeals to content analysis). Secondly, it regards “collective attitude” as a unified self- organizing and regulating coherent system of shared opinions run by special standards, that might beideally vulnerable to modification through psychiatric interviews providing “access to the individual's private stock of meanings and becomes capable of exploiting them rather than the standard meanings of the groups of which the individual is a member”. However, a propagandist may not have clinical conditions for research at his disposal, that’s why he influences the individuals using well-known vicarious techniques, like advertising, marketing or framing, that see an individual only as a representative of a certain cohort (Lasswell, 1927).

It is important to mention that propaganda is not about setting new cultural values or opinions, but amplifying certain ideas “favorable for purpose” or turning masses hostile to them by presenting them in a certain way and activating particular process in the mind of the masses, thus creating new opinion patterns. In order to intensify the impact of propaganda the symbols passed over to the audience should be quite direct and draw aclear and unambiguous distinct between “an enemy” and “an ally”. For example, war propaganda uses social instability to promote more revolutionary concepts in order to encourage hatred and confrontation to the opponent, thus distracting the masses from the flaws of their own government and preparing a ground for an increase in patriotism. Such an effect can be achieved using laws of perceptual organization mentioned above, both in visual representation, like posters or satiric illustrations, and in texts, from slogans to books (Lasswell, 1927). Practical implementation of these rules is quite realizable and: schemes, tables, comparisons and comparative analysis, specific descriptions that ascribe necessary features to create a sense of contract between “an ally” and “an enemy” not only during crisis, but also in every routine situation. Moreover, Lasswell claims, that in terms of the language propaganda can be translated into the strategy of provoking responses by affecting necessary stimuli, taking into account the possibility of undesired conditions and consequences(Lasswell,1927), which correlates deeply with the Gestalt theory, though it considers human behavior as something bigger than reflex causes and results.

According to Lasswell, channels through which facts and opinions are disseminated can be limitless, as the message they translate impacts our mental activity through symbols and codes (Lasswell, 1927). Propaganda is closely tied with the language, that, as argued above, codifies the information we receive and shapes our attitudes through mental activity of translation of the reality we see physically into an interpretation we realize in mind – the process of Gestalt.


The theory of Gestalt provides a wide range of opportunities for political communication and political science. It broadens the concept of human behavior by accounting for the ways we perceive observed phenomena, that makes it possible to manipulate our cognition subconsciously. The Gestaltists were the first to discover that our brain is akin to fill in the gaps in the information it receives in accordance with our past experiences, and such an effect is crucial for political communication, public opinion research, agenda-setting and framing strategies of the media, opinion polls and political marketing, election campaigns and programs. Our perception is closely interconnected with the language we speak, as the language serves as the system of codes, that helps us to name what we see and actually think about it. The effect of the Gestalt is responsible for the process of shaping perceived phenomena into the information inside our brain, that’s why it can be applied in translating visual symbols and metaphors in any language and can be incorporated into ideologies and propagandistic techniques.


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