Us and Them

Giovanni Paolo Panini: Ancient Roman Ruins // Public domain
Giovanni Paolo Panini: Ancient Roman Ruins // Public domain

It is a basic need for every human being to connect with others. Social psychology classifies the need for connection as one of the basic human motives, since humans are essentially social beings. Belonging somewhere has countless advantages. But what about when it’s not a partnership or a group, but a crowd? What psychological buttons are pressed at this time?

As austrian-american psychologist Watzlawick established in his axiom, perhaps already known to everyone, that it is impossible not to communicate, and communication is the key to our connection with the other.  Addressing the masses in politics is not a new thing.

As the well known question goes: What did the Romans give us? For example, political communication addressing broad sections of the population and the masses which was an integral part of ancient Roman society. Roman coins carried the news of the war success of the Imperium Romanum and the new ruler.

Back then the mainstream media that everyone followed – even those who could not read – were in the form of small and large works, i.e. coins and statues were the data media that reached the widest masses, which could be found in all provinces and even beyond . For practical reasons, the head of some of the emperors’ statues could be replaced, in the case of a new ruler, so only the current head had to be replaced on the body. Fast, practical, clear communication.

As long as we are on the topic of Rome, the person and cult of the emperor, the common faith – which in the age of religious syncretism included elements of many different religions – united the people living in the Roman Empire. Another way to create group consciousness in the masses is to instill fear, thereby setting up an identity against others.

This socio-psychological phenomenon also works in the case of group organization and larger groups, i.e. masses. It is a phenomenon that can be observed from a socio-psychological point of view that when we demarcate our group from others in such a way that the other group is presented in a negative light, we bring emotions into our communication.

This is based on simple heuristics, which ignore logical thinking, and emphasize feelings. Such emotions can be fear and hatred towards a group branded as the fearful enemy, which soon leads to the dehumanization of the “other”. Thanks to dehumanization, it is already easier to diminish the rights of the group called the enemy, and in extreme cases to take the lives of the members of the other group.

A good example of this kind of communication is the narrative of the Hungarian political leadership in power during the 2015 migration crisis. The same polemic method has been used against LGBTQ communities, and finally towards the EU. The communication of the political leadership operates with simple, basic human motives, and it carefully separates its followers from the others. This kind of communication and group cohesion will always be tied to an external enemy.

The question is, how can an average person notice that he or she is exactly in such a situation that the government propaganda machinery is pressing the buttons related to such a basic human motives as belonging? The key is in proper self-awareness and critical thinking. The question can rightly be asked: do I really want to belong to a group which only defines what I am not? Knowing what we are not does not make it clear what we are. We can get out of this mental confinement by thinking critically and expanding our knowledge.


Smith, E. R., Mackie, D. M., & Claypool, H. M. (2015). Social psychology (4th ed.). Psychology Press.

Watzlawick, P., Bavelas, J. B., & Jackson, D. D. (2011). Pragmatics of human communication. WW Norton.

Written by Veronika Kontsek

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