Adam Curtis’ acclaimed series Century of the Self examines how the introduction of Sigmund Freud’s theory of Psychoanalysis has come to shape American culture. The series advances the thesis that Freud’s views of the unconscious set the stage for corporations, and later politicians, to manipulate public behavior through appeals to our unconscious fears and desires. Curtis’ detailed examination of how Psychoanalytic theories have been used to create a desire based consumer economy, manufacture public consent for unpopular military intervention and to emotionally manipulate the public in political campaigns raises important ethical questions about whether the utilization of psychological conditioning techniques to direct group behaviors is consistent with Democratic ideals.
Episode 1: Happiness Machines
Episode one explores the evolution of the American public relations industry and the use of Freud’s theories of Psychoanalysis to appeal to the subconscious desires of consumers. Freud’s cousin, Edward Bernays, first introduced the these principles in the United States by convincing American corporations that they could increase their sales by appealing to individual’s unconscious emotions.
Bernays created marketing innovations such as celebrity endorsements and the sexualization of consumer products. One of Bernays more controversial campaigns succeeded in breaking the taboo on female smoking by linking cigarettes with the Suffragette movement. Bernays successfully persuaded woman to adopt the harmful habit by referring to cigarettes as “liberty sticks” and symbolizing the act of smoking as an expression of liberation and independence. By satisfying the inner irrational desires that his uncle had identified, people could be persuaded to act in ways they would not normally behave.
It was the beginning of organizational psychology and the social engineering practices which the soon come to dominate American society.
Episode 2: The Engineering of Consent
Part two explores how policymakers in post World War II America came to embrace Freud’s underlying premise that human behavior was influenced by irrational subconscious desires and used Bernay’s propaganda techniques to engineer public consent. Public officials became mistrustful of the general public, concerned that if individuals were left alone to act on their irrational desires, the atrocities committed by Germany in World War II could repeat themselves in America. As a result, policy planners became preoccupied with installing social controls to identify and suppress the public’s potentially dangerous desires through social indoctrination.
Psychoanalysis gained increasing influence throughout American society as it proposed that dangerous behaviors could be controlled by conditioning individuals to obey social norms. Psychoanalysists were employed to create organizational models as this ideology rapidly spread through the corporate and public sectors. However, this rigid system of social conformity created problems of it’s own as rates of depression, anxiety and disillusionment began to rise within the general public. As the failures mounted, the tenets of psychoanalysis would be placed into question.
Episode 3: There is a Policeman Inside All of Our Heads, He Must Be Destroyed
The third segment explores how the perceived failures of psychoanalysis led to the public rejection of social conformity in favor of individual expression. Beginning in the 1960s, a group of psychotherapists influenced by the theories of Wilhelm Reich began to challenge the validity of the psychoanalytic model in explaining human behavior. They asserted that unleashing an individual’s subconscious desires led to empowerment and creativity. As the individual empowerment movement spread, the idea that individuals could transform society through political activism was soon replaced with the notion that a better society could only be achieved through individual transformation. Corporate marketers learned to capitalize on the ideological shift by persuading consumers to express their individuality through the products they purchased.
Episode 4: Eight People Sipping Wine In Kettering
This final installment of the series examines how politicians in the U.S. and Britain discovered the advantages of incorporating psychoanalytic principles into their political campaigns. Curtis explores the introduction of political focus groups to gather information about the subconscious motivations of voters and the ideological shift away from the public good towards fulfillment of individual desires. The segment focuses on the how politicians began pandering to individual self interest in an effort to maintain public office. Curtis raises the ethical question of whether the political shift towards egocentrism is actually capable of producing a more democratic society or if it simply exploits the public desires for self-liberation to maintain the existing power structure.