Aldous Huxley’s Dystopian Mind Control
Propaganda, subliminal projection, and individual liberty.
Posted Apr 04, 2020
In 1932, Aldous Huxley published the classic Brave New World. The famous dystopian tale described a futuristic world where people are controlled by sleep learning, drugs, and conditioning. Nearly three decades later in Brave New World Revisited (1958), Huxley reflected on new psychological research, the political landscape since his original work and the feasibility of many elements of his dystopia.
He described the empirical research, as of 1958, in propaganda, persuasion, brainwashing, chemical persuasion, subconscious persuasion, and hypnopaedia (sleep learning). A reading of Huxley’s 1958 work provides a fascinating historical look at key areas of psychological research in the 1950s contrasted from the 1930s. Consider this to be time-traveling empirical psychology in literature from the 2020s to the 1950s looking at the 1930s.
Huxley wrote his original novel in the 1930s, which was after World War I (1914-1918), the U.S. and London stock market crashes (1927), and at the beginning of the Great Depression. In his words, “Fifty years ago, when I was a boy, it seemed completely self-evident that the bad old days were over, that torture and massacre, slavery, and the persecution of heretics, were things of the past” (1958, pp. 39-40). He went on to discuss class distinctions and how isolated members of the upper class must have thought the bad old days to be over, ignorant of World War II looming on the horizon.
When Huxley later wrote in the 1950s, he wrote after World War II (1939-1945) and the Korean War (1950-1953), in the early years of the Cold War and during the rise of communism. Psychologists who researched persuasion had come back from World War II and brought their knowledge of propaganda research to mainstream Ivy League laboratories, such as with the Yale Communication program with Carl Hovland, Irving Janis, and Harold Kelley (Hovland, Janis, & Kelley, 1953). The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was exploring mind control with their MK-Ultra program (Eschner, 2017) and the baby boomer cultural revolution of the 1960s was on the horizon.
In between Huxley’s two works George Orwell had written the book 1984 in the year 1949, which Huxley discussed in Brave New World Revisited. In general, Huxley spoke out against the evils of communism and the erosion of civil liberties. His thoughts on the idea of social science academic experts saving the day were expressed here: “There seems to be a touching belief among certain Ph.D.s in sociology that Ph.D.s in sociology will never be corrupted by power…Alas, higher education is not necessarily a guarantee of higher virtue, or higher political wisdom” (1958, pp. 34-35). He identified two major threats to society at that time: Over-population and over-organization (bureaucracy). With respect to these two threats, Huxley discussed Sigmund Freud’s famous concept of the unconscious as well as the role of IQ.
Huxley also described two types of propaganda. Rational propaganda appealed to more cold, deliberate cognitive thought. Non-rational propaganda appealed to emotion. He reflected on consumer’s use of propaganda and noted that people do the best they can with the information they have, trying to understand the meaning of facts. Though he did not reference Herbert Simon’s research at the time, the concept later became known as “satisficing” (Simon, 1956), and Huxley pointed out that mass communication can exploit that for good or evil.
When discussing the potential of a dictator to exploit propaganda, Huxley noted that empirical work in applied psychology would make it much easier for a dictator to be successful in the future. He analyzed the successful propaganda and persuasion techniques that Adolf Hitler had used to create his authoritarian regime. In describing phenomena of small groups that were less understood in the 1950s, he noted that “Groups are capable of being as moral and intelligent as the individuals who form them; a crowd is chaotic, has no purpose of it own and is capable of anything except intelligent action and realistic thinking.” (1958, p. 52). This observation fits with subsequent psychological research that showed how small group decision-making can be better or worse than an individual’s decision, depending on the type of decision and the skills of the group members (Laughlin et al., 2006; Levine & Moreland, 1998).
Perhaps the statement that best captured Huxley’s thoughts in 1958 is “In an age of accelerating over-population, of accelerating over-organization and ever more efficient means of mass communication, how can we preserve the integrity and reassert the value of the human individual?” (1958, p. 57). Indeed, the field of social psychology was undergoing a similar conflict in reverse at the time, as social psychology was shifting away from focusing on the individual (personality psychology) to focusing on the power of the group in the zeitgeist (Gergen, 1973), doing so in response to the same cultural events that shaped Huxley’s perspective.
Huxley provided his insight into John Dewey’s perspective and psychology’s role in propaganda. He discussed Pavlov’s conditioning and its effectiveness in the “recent invention” (1958, p. 66) of singing commercials, where music and lyrics were paired with a message on 1950s television. Finally, he lamented that sales techniques had shortened the attention span of the electorate and become commonly used to sell political candidates. He stated, “The methods now being used to merchandise the political candidate as though he were a deodorant positively guarantee the electorate against ever hearing the truth about anything” (1958, p. 71).
Walking through the psychological steps a dictator must take to create an authoritarian regime and yet again invoking Pavlov’s work, Huxley said, “What the intelligent and practical dictator needs is not a patient to be institutionalized, or a victim to be shot, but a convert who will work for the cause”(1958, pp. 75–76). After using Pavlov’s principles to demonstrate how to create an authoritarian communist regime (and using political examples of the time period), he pivoted to research on chemical persuasion and how “soma” of Brave New World was unthinkable at the time but was possible in 1958. Soma was a euphoric drug that placated people for the authoritarian regime in Brave New World. He made this argument in the context of research on opium, alcohol, serotonin, cocaine, amphetamines, marijuana, tranquilizers, and LSD.
In discussing subconscious persuasion, Huxley began with some early empirical work on the subject and covered in detail the marketing studies of James Vicary in 1957, just prior to the publication of Brave New World Revisited. In 1957, Vicary had claimed to have inserted frames such as “Drink Coke” and “Eat Popcorn” into movies. The frames were said to be too rapid to be perceived by consciousness, but he claimed they had increased sales. He later admitted to falsifying the claim, but society had already been frightened by the notion of subliminal persuasion. Later research showed that subliminal perception is possible, but difficult (Randolph-Seng & Mather, 2009)
As Huxley wrote in 1958, the concept of “subliminal projection” was being used in a new age of visual mediums, which was concerning. What we currently call subliminal perception or subliminal persuasion was called “strobonic injection” by British researchers at the time. This foreshadowed government research programs into these persuasive forms of mind control, such as the MK-Ultra program of the CIA (Eschner, 2017). Huxley noted that subliminal projection was not discussed in the original Brave New World, but that he would have included such a powerful concept if he had known about it.
With further regard to altered consciousness, Huxley discussed research into learning while sleeping (hypnopaedia), as well as hypnosis. He specifically cited the work of Simon and Emmons (1955), Barber (1956), and Bramwell (1903) as well as several others. He contrasted hypnosis with general suggestibility, somnambulism of Buddhists, and the recently discovered placebo effect.
Huxley characterized J. B. Watson and B. F. Skinner as being opposed to individualism, and compared the perspectives of William James to that of Herbert Spencer, in which James argued in favor of the individual. This discussion (1958, pp. 120-122) was particularly insightful for psychology students. Huxley injects a healthy dose of his own beliefs into this discussion.
Huxley’s belief in free will and the autonomy of the individual leads to his observation that “For the individual termite, service to the termitary is perfect freedom. But human beings are not completely social; they are only moderately gregarious. Their societies are not organisms, like the hive or the anthill; they are organizations, in other words, ad hoc machines for collective living.” (1958, p. 127). These comments stand in stark contrast to E. O. Wilson’s theory of humans as a social organism directly comparable to ant colonies (Wilson, 2019).
Huxley’s is an interesting perspective, particularly as he wrote during a time of high conformity in the United States, rapidly rising authoritarian communist dictatorships across the world during the Cold War, and a yet to be created global network of supply chains. Currently, the world is facing the COVID-19 pandemic which has stressed global supply chains and exposed our reliance on each other. However, Huxley’s lesson of the power of the individual is still fundamentally in line with current social psychological zeitgeist, even if it is not politically saavy to say so. The narrative of social psychology has always made a noble tale of those individuals who do not conform, as shaped by the work of Asch (1952) and Milgram (1963), both of whom did their work at the same time as Huxley wrote about psychological research.
Huxley viewed a limited food supply and environmental conservation as two issues connected to over-population, both of which are classic social dilemmas (Aronson, Wilson, & Akert, 2013) where the needs of individuals conflict with the needs of the group. He foresaw the shift to suburbs and the later revitalization of cities due to the need for humans to have close-knit, small communities. This is our fundamental need to belong (Baumeister & Leary, 1995).
He lamented polls at the time that had shown teenagers had lost faith in democratic institutions, did not object to censoring speech, and approved of being ruled by assorted experts. He gave a final example of how humans would gravitate to communism to their own detriment. “But, alas, we forget the dodo. Any bird that has learned how to grub up a good living without being compelled to use its wings will soon renounce the privilege of flight and remain forever grounded.” (p. 145). In the end, he called on people to resist the forces that seek to remove individual freedom.
Aldous Huxley gave an interesting look into psychological research of the 1950s and how it had changed and supported different elements of his early dystopian novel. In the same way, it is valuable to look back at his later work through the lens of modern psychological research and cultural history. Huxley’s themes of caution with techniques of mind control and protecting individual liberty are timeless lessons.
Aronson, E., Wilson, T. D., & Akert, R. M. (2013). Social psychology (8th ed.). Boston: Pearson.
Asch, S. E. (1952). Social psychology. New York: Prentice-Hall.
Barber, T. X. (1956, August 31). Comparison of suggestibility during “light sleep” and hypnosis. Science, 124, 405.
Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 497-529.
Bramwell, J. M. (1903). Hypnotism: Its history, practice, and theory. London: Grant Richards.
Eschner, K. (2017, April 13). What we know about the CIA’s midcentury mind-control project. Smithsonian Magazine (online).
Gergen, K. J. (1973). Social psychology as history. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 26, 309-320.
Hovland, C. I., Janis, I. L., & Kelley, H. H. (1953). Communication and persuasion. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Huxley, A. (1932/2006). Brave new world. New York: Harper.
Huxley, A. (1958). Brave new world revisited. New York: Harper & Brothers.
Laughlin, P. R., Hatch, E. C., Silver, J. S., & Boh, L. (2006). Groups perform better than the best individuals on letters-to-numbers problems: Effects of group size. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90, 644-651.
Levine, J. & Moreland, R. L. (1998). Small groups. In D. T. Gilbert, S. T. Fiske, & G. Lindzey (Eds.), The handbook of social psychology (Vol. 2, pp. 415-467). New York: McGraw-Hill.
Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67, 371-378.
Orwell, G (1949/1961). 1984. New York: New American Library.
Randolph-Seng, B., & Mather, R. D. (2009). Does subliminal persuasion work? It depends on your motivation and awareness. Skeptical Inquirer, 33, 49-53.
Simon, C, W., & Emmons, W. H. (1955, July). Learning during sleep. Psychological Bulletin, 52, 328-342.
Simon, H. A. (1956). Rational choice and the structure of the environment. Psychological Review, 63, 129-138.
Wilson, E. O. (2019). Genesis: The deep origins of societies. New York: Liveright.