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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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Doctor Who Part 2: Social psychology and psychoanalysis

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Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Friday, 7 July 2017, 11:02

Our new module Advancing social psychology (DD317) introduces psychoanalysis as a distinctive social psychological approach. What insights can it offer? As an example, a member of the DD317 module team continues a previous discussion of Doctor Who by offering a psychoanalytic interpretation of one particular episode.

An earlier entry on this blog pondered some of the social psychological angles from which to shed some light on the unique cultural phenomenon that is Doctor Who. Yet, given that the longest-running science fiction series in the world embodies an almost Shakespearian quality of engaging many people on many levels, some further thoughts might be welcome. Here I utilise the psychoanalytic distinction between fantasising (in the sense of conscious daydreaming) and unconscious phantasies that result from our inability to tackle some real (and really frightening) emotional dilemmas.

The relevance of this distinction to Doctor Who occurred to me during the Matt Smith era, when I was watching the episode Night Terrors. As I recall, the episode featured the Doctor receiving a psychic message whilst being out and about at the edge of the universe. He takes the message, “Please save me from the monsters!”, with utmost seriousness. It is, he says, only some enormous scare that would make a message like that be delivered that far. It then turns out that the message in question was written by an eight-year-old child by the name of George, who, despite living amidst the mundane surroundings of a British estate, is convinced there are monsters living in his cupboard. Whilst we (but not the Doctor, of course) all know that this is completely impossible, we are also not utterly surprised when the Doctor’s two companions, Amy and Rory, disappear into the cupboard to be chased by some freakish looking giant dolls with a lovely chuckle and a not-so-lovely lethal embrace.

Now these dolls are monsters and the thrill of the episode may be attributed to their monstrous attributes. Yet, as we subsequently learn in the episode, they are mere products of the child’s phantasy. The child, you see, is not quite what he seems to be. As the Doctor figures out, he is a Tenza child, an empathic and otherwise benevolent alien who needs a host family to survive. George’s “parents” on the estate, Alex and Clare, were not able to have a child of their own – yet they really wanted one. This is what the Tenza creature could sense and it then turned itself into the embodiment of Alex and Clare’s wish: George. Using a “perception filter”, he made Alex and Clare believe that he was really their biological son and forget that they never had one, that Clare was never pregnant (this is what the Doctor spots when looking at family photographs!) and the likes.

What no magic can achieve, though, is to assuage George’s (i.e., the Tenza creature’s) profound fear that his hoax will one day come to light and he will then be got rid of. His way of coping with his fear is to put it in the cupboard. Yet, as you may suspect by now, this strategy rather backfired as it gradually transformed the cupboard into the giant container of all sorts of monsters and evils – some of whom are right now chasing Amy and Rory!

So what exactly is my point with all this?... It is that the Doctor’s realisation that as the monster dolls are actually arising out of George’s fear they will only be pacified if George faces up to his fears is essentially a psychoanalytic insight. For the fear and its objects (i.e., WHAT or WHO George is afraid of) will indeed become fantastic if banished to phantasy. They will grow out of all proportions and acquire all sorts of characteristics they would never have in broad daylight. And when George becomes able to open his eyes and replace the frightful magical mantra (“Please save me from the monsters”) that reached the Doctor at the other end of the universe with the action of facing up to those phantasy monsters – they immediately disappear.

What does not disappear, of course, is George’s original fear of abandonment. And even without being coloured by his fearful phantasy, that is no small issue either (after all, if it was, it would not have had to be pushed into the cupboard!).  As Alex and Clare were tricked into “adopting” the non-human creature George originally was (or still is?), how will they react on learning this? We have recovered from the relief of Amy and Rory surviving the doll scare, but we suddenly focus on George. His feelings are no longer banished from consciousness and therefore phantastically frightening. But recovering them into conscious thought also exposes him to the original fear, and indeed some frightening reality, that he couldn't previously face. What is now in the open is that he is not a human but a Tenza, as is the prospect that he was originally defending himself against: that upon learning this and realising they have been tricked, Alex and Clare will show him the door.

How does the episode end? We all know how. The common family history which Alex, Clare and George have shared proves stronger than blood. Alex and Clare's original wish has really made the Tenza creature into George and they would never ever contemplate giving up this George, their son.

Look up more information about our new  Level 3 module Advancing social psychology (DD317) (which unfortunately doesn't feature Doctor Who)

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Social psychology and psychoanalysis on DD317

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Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Friday, 7 July 2017, 11:06

Is it just me, or do quite a lot of us share a sense that there is something in the air and we are living in dark times? Either way, both the Westminster massacre (terrorism or a madman running amok?) and the more recent Croydon attack seem particularly odious manifestations of humanity.

Because many models of (social) psychology these days are either cognitive or focus on language,  social psychology may sometimes look toothless in the face of such atrocities. This is an overly simplistic image of the discipline of course, and the recognition of the cognitively or discursively constructed worldview of humans is indispensable in accounting for their conduct.

However, the manifest irrationality of such attacks  seems to point to the importance of another level: namely, the role of 'affect' (emotion) and motives which may not be directly available to the consciousness of the agents of the attacks. Psychoanalysis is a therapeutic tradition that tries to understand such motivations, but it has also had a great influence on some forms of social psychology as well. The psychoanalytically informed field of psychology and the social sciences is known as psychosocial studies. You will be able to learn more about psychoanalysis and psychosocial studies, and how they can help us understand political conflict and violence, in Block 5 of the new module, Advancing social psychology DD317.

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