"Hungarian society is going through a difficult time," says social psychologist Zsófia Nagy

May 11, 2017

“A fundamental condition for a successful mobilization is that there should be at least temporary coalitions between different social groups.”

Translation of Péter Cseri’s interview with social psychologist Zsófia Nagy appearing in the April 27th, 2017 edition of print weekly 168 óra under the title “Hungarian frog in hot water: Zsófia Nagy on the active minority’s message to the passive majority.”

Born in 1982, Zsófia Nagy is a sociologist and a graduate of ELTE and CEU universities. She is currently an assistant lecturer in the social psychology department of ELTE’s social sciences faculty. Her research areas include digital, political and migration sociology.

“I am sceptical about whether the current wave of protests can be broadened into a comprehensive social movement,” the social psychologist Zsófia Nagy told 168 óra. A basic condition for a successful mobilisation is the formation of at least a temporary coalition between different social groups, she said. Nagy believes that the shared symbols and slogans will remain a source of strength even when this series of demonstrations comes to an end. Naturally, the main question is how a society crippled by apathy could come to realise that the institutional system of democracy is crumbling around them.

Are Hungarians an apathetic people?

Not at all. There is no hidden character trait specific to Hungarians that would cause bad feeling or apathy at the level of the whole society.

Yet we seem unable to act.

There is undoubtedly a tradition in Hungarian history whereby if we throw ourselves into something, a state of euphoria is usually followed by a lengthy one of depression. This is how it was in 1848-9 and after 1956, but the change of system [in 1989] was also followed by a period of disillusionment and hopelessness. People feel that is is not worth doing anything, as the situation cannot be changed.

So Hungarians are apathetic.

Let’s approach the question via things that can be measured. For example, the level of trust people have in state institutions and the political system tells us a lot about the state of a nation. The loss of trust did not begin with the ‘ballot box revolution’ but much earlier. A similarly negative trend can be seen in the level of active participation in the civil sphere. In a survey where people were asked whether they had taken part in a demonstration in the past year, or signed a petition, the numbers in Hungary are consistently lower than in other European countries, Hungarian society is going through a difficult time, there is no doubt about it.

Is it not apathy that no move by the government would seem to be able to shake a larger part of society from its stupor?

In that sense, of course there is social apathy, but you have to tread carefully with socio-psychological myths that serve to provide infallible explanations for this phenomenon.


Or partial truths. One of these is the suggestion of an information deficit, or that Hungarian don’t do anything because they are not aware of the true state of the country. This is partially true, of course, since the Hungarian publicity system is extremely distorted, with people receiving widely differing news depending in which part of the country or on what level of the social hierarchy they live. But even those people who are not consumers of fake news and whose impression of the situation is closest to reality do not take action as a group.

Why don’t they take action?

Before we get into that, let’s demolish another myth: that of the moral deficit. Those who do not take action are often accused unjustly of being simply lazy. Yet it can clearly be seen that it often requires more energy to do nothing. If you look at a parent in the street who is hitting his or her child, their emotional burden of standing by without a word is greater than that of going over and intervening.  In turn, there arises a third misconception that arises from the pyramid of needs. According to this idea, people no not worry about the so-called ‘abstract’ needs – ideas, faith, beliefs, principles – until they are able to satisfy their fundamental, primary needs such as eating, drinking and sleeping.

Why is this a misconception?

According to this explanation, for example, people only protested en masse about the introduction of the internet tax because the measure would have hit them hard in the pocket. And now, too, people are protesting in their tens of thousands over the CEU affair.  Yet I can hardly think of a more abstract theme than the rescue of an American private university. It is a mistake to argue about whether people can be mobilised by human rights or questions of livelihood – we should not choose between them but join them together.

We have spoken so far about unsatisfactory nature of explanations based on a lethargy in society. What does social psychology say about the true causes of apathy?

It is not a straightforward question, and from a scientific point of view, nothing is more difficult to research than a lack. Namely, why somebody does not do something for some reason;  why they don’t protest, fight, organize or take action when they are unsatisfied with their circumstances. It is essentially historical examples and social psychological experiments that can provide answers to this. It is worth mentioning a number of basic principles that play a part in the development of social apathy. One is the graduated approach. A famous metaphor is that of the frog, who would leap out immediately if placed in boiling water. But if we place it in cold water, and then slowly start to heat it up, after a time the frog is cooked without even realizing it.

Have we been cooked like this in the past few years?

We did not switch on the alarm system in time. We did not realize that something was slowly, gradually breaking down, being destroyed. Freedom House issues a report each year showing how the democratic relations in a given country have changed. In the past decade, Hungary’s rating was always a little worse each year, but the extent of the breakdown was gradual.

Did it work in the same way in other historical periods, too?

In exactly the same way. German, and Hungarian, society were led into war in just such a gradual way. The alarm system did not work then, either.

You spoke of several basic principles.

Another is submission to the authorities, the desire to fit in. Numerous socio-psychological studies have demonstrated that the individual is capable of doing many things that go against their own moral convictions when ordered to do so by a superior power. In this case, it is important to highlight that it is not a question of the moral weakness of the individual, but of social relations that define the actions of a significant majority in a given set of circumstances. The more an authority demands submission, the more the people try to fall in line with expectation, which clearly increases social passivity. In a less open society, where individuals have to avoid retaliation from the powers that be, submissiveness can lead to self-censorship and inactivity.

And part of society considers submissiveness to be a positive thing.

That is understandable, given that submission has an important function from the point of view of how a society operates. Just consider how often as parents we teach our children whom and under what situations they must obey. At the same time, we must recognize a destructive power, whose orders we should not carry out. At the level of a society, this is a difficult and slow learning process. The third principle associated with apathy is the so-called bystander effect. This is essentially that the more of us that are present to witness an attack in the street, the slower we are to intervene. In such a situation, the individual does not feel obliged to intervene, but that the obligation rests with another bystander. Many studies have demonstrated this basic human behavior. In the famous smoke-filled room experiment, the subjects were led into a room and asked to wait until they were called, then smoke was unexpectedly released into the room. Almost without exception, those people who were alone in the room told the leader of the study. But if others were present in the room, the majority sat motionless and waited for someone else to intervene. At the societal level, many people feel it is not their responsibility to be the first to raise their voice when the country is heading in the wrong direction. The next basic principle is psychological paralysis, which means that people are more likely to remain inactive, when they otherwise see the need for joint action, because the task seems impossible. This is also linked to learned helplessness, which is about people being conditioned by social cataclysms and having to adapt to repeated changes of system. This means that, if the system does not work properly, one must not reform it but get used to it.

These socio-psychological explanations lead to apathy in the individual, but what do we know about social groups?

Researching historical parallels can help us here, when we look at societies where revolutions broke out. On the basis of these – to put it rather simply – it appears that in very closed and very open societies, the various strata of society do not act together: in the former they have no opportunity, and in the latter they have no need. A fundamental condition for a successful mobilization is that there should be at least temporary coalitions between different social groups.

We’re not doing well in that.

Let’s not be naive, the questions on the agenda of the present street protest – the CEU affair, the harrying of NGOs, electoral reform – are not apt to lead different social groups with their own separate problems to forge alliances with each other. I am sceptical whether the current wave of protests can be broadened into a comprehensive social movement.

If the demands of a demonstration are not fulfilled, can it still be of some use from a socio-psychological perspective?

Of course, and not a little. The students who demonstrated in the CEU affair, for example, were able to realize that the issue is not of interest only to students in their own institutions, but elsewhere, too. Hey, it’s not only on Lágymányos that they think the same way we do, but on Fővám Square, Múzeum Boulevard and in Szeged, too! Even more importantly, a shared experience can help forge a common identity. Experiences gained in the course of street protests raise the chances for joint action at a later date, and the quality of organization.

 So there is a value, even if a given wave of protests comes to an end?

All waves of protest come to an end at some point; the experience gained, the shared symbols and slogans remain as a source of strength. The network of connections that develops at such times can become an extremely important team-building element. It can easily happen that a person will take part in a protest over an entirely unconnected issue, and one which does not affect them directly, but which lets them join up with an earlier fellow protester. On the other hand, an active minority can have a great effect on the inactive majority, too. Here, I would add that credible right-wing intellectuals, opinion leaders and powerful economic actors can in turn formulate meaningful criticism of the powers that be, whose coinciding with the street protests will certainly play a role, even if only a secondary one.

What does a social psychologist think of the fact that the youngsters demonstrating on the streets are at once angry and happy?

It is obvious why they are angry. And they are happy because they are experiencing the other discovery: the joy of finding each other. It is a liberating experience for an individual when he or she is confronted with the fact that others, too, think as they do.

What is needed for the crowd to produce a leader?

Outstanding qualities. For now we cannot see such a leader figure, but I would not underestimate the speakers and activists who stand up in front of the crowd. They are taking the greatest risks, while at the same time are following their studies, too. They are developing.

Are the powers that be aware of the hidden force that is developing on the streets?

In any event, I would be very careful if I were in the place of those in power. In the long term, few things are more dangerous for them than laughter and mockery. It is also dangerous for them if they lose control of the political socialization of the youngest generation. The youths of March, the Pest leaders, or even the Fidesz youngsters of 1988-89, all represented progress in their day.

Is there such a thing as the “last straw”? Can a social psychologist say when society is going to move as one?

That is fortune telling. I don’t believe that you can use scientific means to define in advance the timing of any kind of grandiose social change. In retrospect, of course, we can research and analyze the causes. Few people, for example, foresaw the Arab Spring, while afterwards many people are explaining why it was able to happen.

So you are not willing to predict when the System of National Cooperation will fall?

No. But when it does, I’ll come and explain how it happened.