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Manipulators of Our Unconscious Desires

Guard against the art of being influenced without your awareness.

Psychoanalytic perspectives on contemporary manipulators of our unconscious desires

In 2005, NPR hosted a series on the scientific discoveries that had occurred in 1905: “That was the year Sigmund Freud published his seminal work, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, and Albert Einstein published most of his important papers.” Alix Spiegel wrote: “Years ago, Americans grabbed toast and coffee for breakfast. Public-relations pioneer Edward Bernays changed that. Bernays used his Uncle Sigmund Freud's ideas to help convince the public, among other things, that bacon and eggs was the true all-American breakfast. He took Freud's complex ideas on people's unconscious, psychological motivations and applied them to the new field of public relations.”

What transpired during the next century?

Bernays and his students perfected the art of influencing people without people being aware that they were being unconsciously manipulated. Did Bernays dream of a world which would become so interconnected that his messages to influence could be delivered instantaneously to millions of people?

Who would have thought, 100 years ago or even 10 years ago, that the evolution of technology, and our ubiquitous indiscriminate use, would leave all of us vulnerable to the inappropriate use of our personal data by manipulators and purveyors of “fake news” without our awareness.

Psychoanalysis has taught us that we all have powerful desires, many of them unconscious. An important part of development includes civilizing forces within our families of origin. This civilizing process helps us develop a capacity to delay gratification and a capacity to make moral and ethical judgments. Both for good and for bad, our current technology promotes our wishes for instant gratification: whether it is to connect with our friends and families, retrieve information, communicate with colleagues and the general public, as well as myriad other activities which either can help us immeasurably or, without our conscious realization, can hurt us and those around us. Such connections occur virtually instantaneously. Those of a certain age remember when communication was slower, allowing us time to reflect on our choices.

We cannot return to that pre-instantaneous-information-era.

How can psychoanalysis contribute to the public discourse about the problems posed by Cambridge Analytica and other such groups who prey on us?

Psychoanalysts have demonstrated that from early in life we all begin to gradually learn that there is a need to erect barriers to the immediate gratification of our desires. These barriers (defenses) oppose the immediate gratification of those desires. Throughout life all of us, in order to live in our social groups, need to continually balance our wishes for gratification with our need to curb and master those desires.

Psychoanalysts need to communicate the persistent power of such unconscious desires in all people. On the one hand, we need to develop internal systems where there is a balance between gratifying our wishes and keeping them in check. Such systems help us develop greater mastery of our own desires. On the other hand, all of us need external controls to help us when our internal controls are not functioning in an optimal manner.

In the April 2, 2018 New Yorker, in “Cambridge Analytica and a Moral Reckoning in Silicon Valley,” David Remnick writes, “With great power comes great responsibility." On one hand, Remnick is correct. Yet such an assertion seemingly omits the need for external controls over those with immense power over us.

We also have to keep in mind how all of us have a propensity to immediately express our unchecked desires. At these moments, we do not appreciate that such actions can make us vulnerable to the desires of predators, who will never disappear. We all are vulnerable to the entreaties of hucksters and tricksters. As P. T. Barnum reputedly said, “A sucker is born every minute.” We have all been suckers at one time or other in our lives. Remnick is addressing the morality that is required by those information-gathering giants. Yet, we also need a legal system. The legal system is the one system in a democratic society which can protect us. The legal system needs to protect us from those who try to deceive us and take advantage of our unconscious desires.

Unfortunately, too often the legal system also needs to protect us from ourselves, from own desires, when they become unchecked. In this age of instantaneous communication where tricksters and hucksters can reach too many of us with one click of a mouse, we too easily become vulnerable to the messages sent out by contemporary Eddie Bernays.

In the first part of the twentieth century, Bernays could only influence one group at the time, eventually reaching mass audiences via the airways. Contemporary versions of public information gurus have a capacity many-fold over.

Remnick’s conclusion implies that those powerful purveyors of information need to assume greater responsibility so their power over the public does not remain unchecked. However, internal controls are not enough. External controls are needed. In the words of James Madison, in Federalist Paper Number 10, “no man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause, because his interest would certainly bias his judgment, and, not improbably, corrupt his integrity.” Those with power are prone to modify their integrity to increase their own gain. Our legal system has to insure that a group such as Cambridge Analytica not allow free rein of its biased activities to exploit and take advantage of the rest of us.

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