The Internet and Pop Psychology

Cites consultant Kerry J. Sulkowicz
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Instead of posters of rock stars and movie actors, today’s children and adolescents may opt to hang pictures of Microsoft chairman Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of, on their walls.

The Internet, along with the icons of the new economy such as Gates and Bezos, have infiltrated about every aspect of society, from child development and corporate culture to the practice of psychiatry, says Kerry J. Sulkowicz, MD, a faculty member of New York University’s Psychoanalytic Institute.

“Some parents used to want their children to grow up to be doctors and lawyers. Now they want them to grow up to be entrepreneurs and captains of industry,” he says at a lecture at St. Vincent’s Hospital and Medical Center here in New York City. “Business leaders are overtaking sports stars and movie stairs as heroic figures and idols in popular culture.”

“We can easily idealize such electronic luminaries as Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos as omnipotent visionaries, partly as a defense against our envy of them, but also out of our wish to fuse with them and acquire their power and seeming invulnerability,” says Sulkowicz, who is also the president of The Boswell Group, LLC, a management consulting firm in New York City.

“The Internet has changed just about everything, even though it’s only been with us for less than a decade. Its form evolves nearly daily, but it has already so infused our culture that it has become a metaphor for much that is fast, new, exciting, progressive, even dangerous in our society.” He says the anonymity and facelessness of the Internet “give rise to an unprecedented society-wide disinhibition. … People say things to each other that they might, in the past, have said only to their … psychiatrist.”

For example, when it comes to the practice of psychiatry, how a patient uses the Internet and for what can reveal a great deal about his or her psychology, Sulkowicz tells WebMD.

“If a patient told me or I observed that that they had difficulty with intimacy, yet they were able to engage in intense passionate exchanges via e-mail or with someone they met in a chat room, I may want to know what’s different. Why does it feel safer to be so open on an email and so difficult to be open when sitting in a room with a spouse?” says Sulkowicz, also a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine

Even with its exponential growth, the Internet will never replace face-to-face therapy, he says. It may help with patient recruitment, but if a doctor treated a patient via the Internet, they would miss out on so much, such as nonverbal cues like body language.

Virtual counseling also touches on other ethical issues, he says.

For example, the Internet creates a world without borders, so a doctor in New York could have a patient in Chicago. “If that patient were to become suicidal, it would be hard to get to him or her in time,” he says.

There may, however, be a role for in-between session emails, in the same way that phone calls are currently used.

On the business side of things, small companies and large corporations are trying to understand what the Internet means and how it is changing their corporate climates and cultures as well as their day-to-day functioning.

Enter the emerging field of psychoanalytic management consulting. In this field, consultants can — among other things — help “young and inexperienced CEOs of Internet start-ups choose and manage the people in the fast-paced Web business environment.”

“The Internet and the concept of a world without borders are undoubtedly changing the way we do business in the corporate world,” says David S. Kleinman, assistant vice president of human resources at the Bank of New York in New York City. “The key is going to be learning how to maximize its benefits to create a harmonious, discord-free work environment.”

In that sense, he says, the role of a psychoanalytic management consultant could be potentially invaluable to both old-school and new-age companies.

Written by Denise Mann
Reviewed by Dr. Jacqueline Brooks