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Support or something else? Insights from psychoanalysis and social psychology

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Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Friday, 7 July 2017, 10:59

This week's blog continues our exploration of social psychology in society, looking at a current advertising campaign informed by psychoanalytic or psychosocial social psychology. The blog, by a member of the DD317 module team, explores the psychoanalytic premises of the campaign. It then takes a more critical approach, questioning their implications.

The campaign under discussion is one by an admirable and important charitable organisation. It features a woman turning away from the camera. The top of the poster quotes her: Please don’t worry about it, you guys help people with worse problems than me. Underneath the picture, we read: “We don’t just hear you, we listen”. Thus, what the poster communicates is that the woman (we shall call her Joanne here) who has recently experienced hardship, conveys at face value that she is OK yet deep down that she is not. And the poster also communicates that the charitable organisation will not just hear the superficial talk but actually listen to the deeper message.

This, in fact, is a logic which was by and large introduced to the world by Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis. You say one thing but you actually mean something else – and the psychoanalytically-informed listener understands what that something else is. Why you would not or could not in the first place say what you mean is of course another issue, and the answer depends on the theoretical perspective taken. Freud’s psychoanalysis was distinctive in the sense that he hypothesized sexual and/or aggressive urges which would deep down motivate us to do things, yet which we would not be able to express on the surface. The poster’s message is probably different; although it is not clear why Joanne does not say what she really means to say, there is no suggestion that it would be due to her feelings being unacceptable.

These are big differences, and whilst we would imagine that Joanne will be grateful to the charitable organisation for listening, she would probably find it rather more difficult to come to terms with Freud listening to her and offering explanations in terms of repressed sexual/aggressive urges. In fact, she would probably accuse Freud of merely “listening without trying to help” – that is to say, imposing his silly theoretical agenda on her without being sympathetic.

At the same time, and on a deeper level (if I may…), there is a more disturbing common feature shared by both Freud’s and the charitable organisation’s way of listening.

The message of the poster suggests that an interaction between Joanne and the charitable organisation would look something like this:

Joanne: Please don’t worry about it, you guys should be helping people with worse problems    than me.

Organisation: You mean… “Please help me”…

Joanne: Yes…

Yet this actually contradicts another presumption of the poster, which is that Joanne cannot quite say what her problem is. That is to say, the sequence above is predicated on Joanne being both unable and able to access her genuine state of mind/heart (i.e., that she has lost hope). But why is this plausible? If something keeps Joanne from saying “Please help me” at one moment, why would she simply agree to it a short moment later? If, for whatever reason, Joanne is not able to communicate her true meanings at one moment, would it not be reasonable to assume that she is equally unable to accept them a moment later? So, the interaction would become something like this:

Joanne: Please don’t worry about it, you guys should be helping people with worse problems than me.

Organisation: You mean… “Please help me”…

Joanne: Oh… you are nice. But, no thanks, I really am OK.

or even:

Joanne: Please don’t worry about it, you guys should be helping people with worse problems than me.

Organisation: You mean… “Please help me”…

Joanne: No! Didn't I just say the opposite?!

In these alternative scenarios, based on either Joanne’s consistent inability to articulate what she means, or the fact that what she says on the “surface” actually conveys all that she wishes to say, she is rejecting the organisation’s “listening”. Perhaps she is wrong as to the meaning of her original utterance and the representative of the charitable organisation is right. Yet even this would not alter the fact that there is a certain insistence on the part of the charitable organisation that these hypothetical scenarios convey. In other words, there are certain features that the original campaign poster masks (in its premise that Joanne is first unable then able to access her deeper state of mind, in quick succession).

If we think that in the first instance Joanne is unable to articulate certain feelings, we might as well assume that she will find it equally difficult in the second instance. And if, in fact, this is the case then the charitable organisation’s message potentially becomes less one of benevolent understanding and more one of a possible intrusion.  If this is acceptable, the difference then between the charitable organisation and Freud’s direct descendants is not that the former are benevolent and the latter a bit aggressive and imposing. Inasmuch as something keeps Joanne from speaking her mind, chances are she will find it rather painful if anyone (i.e., the charitable organisation, Freud or even Joanne herself) persuades her to: and she will accordingly resist it. The difference between the charitable organisation and Freudians will be that whilst the former wish to forget that they are actually intrusive in making Joanne think about what she does not want to think about, the latter treat their own aggression as inevitable and try to work/learn with/from it.


This week's blog has explored some of the ideas and practices which have entered society by way of psychoanalysis. One of the themes of our new module, Advancing social psychology (DD317), is the impact on society of social psychology and connected theoretical areas, like psychoanalysis. To learn more about the module, you can watch a video here  https://youtu.be/dbzF4hBeBkk

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