The New Unconscious: Opening Wider Perspectives on Society

Cites consultant Kenneth Eisold

The unconscious has had a robust and lively history – and it is still being written. Today, its scope is widening, and the evidence for its reach into every corner of society is being gathered from new domains.

Freud is generally credited with “discovering” the unconscious, but his achievement was to put it into scientific language and use it to account for neurotic behaviour. He postulated that the mind banished irrational and socially unacceptable thoughts from conscious awareness, thoughts that resurfaced as symptoms. Subsequently he linked up his explanation of symptoms with a theory of dreams, he conceived of an extensive netherworld below the surface of consciousness that was ruled by a logic of its own, what he called “primary process.” Shortly afterwards, his explorations of infantile sexuality in Three Essays described the sexual motives that essentially mandated the existence of that unconscious world, the repressed impulses and thoughts generally unacceptable to civilized society. At that point, psychoanalysis had a coherent theory of a dynamic unconscious. (Ellenberger, 1970; Makari. 2008)

A second modern attempt to delineate the unconscious, what I call ‘The New Unconscious,” began about 25 years ago. A loosely assembled group of philosophers, cognitive scientists, neuro-biologists and information theorists interested in AI (Artificial Intelligence), began to explore the limitations and flaws of consciousness itself. The key players in this new movement were philosophers like Daniel Dennett and Robert Searles, neurobiologists like Antonio Damasio and Joseph LeDoux, neuro-scientists like Gerald Edelman, Walter Freeman, and Eric Kandel, and cognitive psychologists such as Jerome Bruner and Howard Gardner

These men worked largely without reference to psychoanalysis, convinced that Freud’s view of the unconscious was inaccurate. Indeed, to maintain the legitimacy of their project, it often seemed to them necessary to put a wall between their findings and the unsubstantiated assertions of psychoanalysis. For them, the ingenious account that Freud put together at the turn of the century had not been validated by research. Moreover, psychoanalytic sectarian battles had made it seem dogmatic and arrogant, belief systems rather than legitimate theories.

Far more important to them, was the fact that there were a number of significant problems with consciousness itself, problems that had become increasingly apparent over the course of the 20th century. No longer could consciousness be considered a reliable guide to reality. Not only did it vary among cultures, it varied significantly from person to person. Increasingly, it was shown to be quirky, inconsistent, subject to the influence of many factors. But, then, what purpose did it serve? How did it work? Why had it developed over the course of human evolution?

John Searle, the philosopher, noted that when he first became interested in the subject, now about 30 years ago, “most people in the neurosciences did not regard consciousness as a genuine scientific question at all.” He recalled a renowned neuroscientist telling him “It is okay to be interested in consciousness, but get tenure first.”(Searle, 1997, p. 193)

This work was aided considerably by new research into the anatomy and functioning of the brain, and more recently by neuro-imaging, ways of detecting neural activity as it occurs. No longer was the mind a black box, impervious to investigation. Thanks to such new technologies as PET scans and electroencephalograms, hard data gradually became available to researchers.

In a remarkable short amount of time, a set of answers began to emerge. I give a fuller account of this new consensus in the first chapter of my book, What You Don’t Know You Know (Eisold, 2010), but let me quickly review the chief points here.

Philosophers have called the common sense picture of external reality we see in our minds the “Cartesian Theatre,” as if we were seated in our brains, looking out at the world through our senses. We believe we see what is actually out there. But apart from the dualism about two kinds of substance that Cartesian theory implies, there are several difficulties with this conventional view.

  1. Consciousness presents an essentially seamless view of reality, a consistent picture in which the gaps and inconsistencies have been edited out. In other words, it deceives us by eliminating vast stores of information that do not fit, as well as smoothing over inconsistencies, creating a superficial coherence at the expense of accuracy.
  1. It also edits out unwanted painful or embarrassing perceptions, generally colouring what we see to enhance self-esteem and advance our psychological well-being.
  1. It supports our view of ourselves as the agents behind our actions, sustaining the illusion that we are deciding to respond to events and implementing our intentions. Now, however, there is substantial agreement that our bodies and brains construct responses to stimuli that are already set in motion by the time we become aware of them. Antonio Damasio puts it this way: “We are always hopelessly late for consciousness and because we all suffer from the same tardiness no one notices it.”
  1. Our perceptions and responses are layered, built up over time. New neural circuits build on old circuits, bundling together overlapping responses to similar categories of stimuli. The mind is not inherently logical. It is built up by associations and past connections. So the pictures we see are highly idiosyncratic.

Why, then, did consciousness evolve in us? If we don’t need consciousness in order to decide to flee danger or seek shelter, if it doesn’t present us with a fully reliable picture of reality, if it flatters us and induces us to believe that the world hasn’t changed much over time, what is it good for?

The consensus on this that has emerged is that consciousness gives us the opportunity to reconsider our actions. It enables us to inhibit our initial, automatic reactions, to talk among ourselves about alternative responses, to pool information and discuss different explanations for what we see and jointly to consider different plans. Consciousness, then, is linked with our social life, important to the coordinated and interdependent demands of our evolving communities. As individuals, our innate processing of information might be sufficient for survival. As societies, we needed more complex and reflective ways to work together.

This new body of research and synthesis has not easily linked up with psychoanalysis. For their part, as I said, the new researchers and theorists kept their distance. For psychoanalysts, on the one hand, the new research confirms so many key ideas that it has often seemed like a vindication. Yet it also challenges the theoretical autonomy and “splendid isolation” of the psychoanalytic profession. For a serious synthesis or integration of psychoanalysis and neuro-science to work, the cherished and heavily defended theories of its different schools would need to become subordinate to experimental findings. If confirmation for those theories is not forthcoming, psychoanalysts would have to modify or relinquish concepts that have become integral to their identities. The response has been equivocal. Let me give an example. Repression is a key concept in Freud’s unconscious, referring to the disappearance of ideas threatening to emotional stability. For Freud, repression is what pushes or pulls thoughts and perceptions into the dynamic unconscious. Heather Berlin in a review of relevant neurological research notes how much of it supports traditional psychoanalytic concepts: “Studies on unconscious affect provide persuasive evidence that people can feel things without knowing they feel them, and act on feelings of which they are unaware; an idea that has guided psychoanalytic clinical practice for a century.” But, then, she acknowledges that while there is robust neurological evidence supporting the existence of the defenses of suppression and dissociation, “the existence of repression is contentious.” (Berlin, 2008, pp 27, 32).

It may well be worth noting that, among psychoanalysts today, there is considerable renewed interest in dissociation as the mind’s primary defense. It links up with growing interest in different self-states, and the spaces between them into which memories and links disappear. But if, lacking unambiguous empirical evidence, psychoanalysts are forced to abandon the concept of repression, what will those who have relied on the concept to account for Freud’s dynamic unconscious replace it with? Clinically this may not be such a problem, but it is an ideological challenge. (Westen, 1998)

I have already touched on another problematic theory: “primary process.” Existing evidence now suggests that there are far more than two systems of mental processing. To be sure, there is growing evidence for earlier non-verbal and sub-symbolic forms of processing that are similar to Freud’s “primary process,” but it is more complex and multifaceted than he believed.

This is only one example of the problems lying ahead for the synthesis of the new unconscious with the old. One can anticipate that several key concepts might not find the empirical support required to carry them forward. Evidence for psychic energy has been seen as shaky for some time now. The idea of a psychotic core is problematic. Will new findings support the theory of depressive and schizoid positions? Infantile sexuality is well established, but does it have the on-going impact on individual development as Freud initially claimed? I mention these examples only to suggest the magnitude of the issues. This will take years for more neurological evidence to accumulate, and for psychoanalysts to develop their responses.

On the other hand, our understanding of the scope of unconscious behaviour is expanding dramatically. We know now that groups and systems are pervaded by unconscious dynamics, and a vast literature has grown up about the value of exploring them. A significant number of consultants use this perspective in their work. To be sure, Freud also wrote about unconscious aspects of historical and social issues, using the lens of his metapsychology. But his work was admittedly speculative and exploratory. Today’s practitioners are more pragmatic, less inclined to draw large inferences. Their work is driven by specific problems and focused on seeking solutions to concrete problems.

It should be acknowledged, of course, that the information we have is far from definitive. There are serious methodological – as well as ethical problems — in studying the mind in stress. But as techniques and technologies improve, increasingly we will have more clear choices.

Before going on to describe this expanded scope, let me clarify that I think all unconscious processes work through individual brains, brains that are integral parts of their bodies. Group dynamics, for example, operate on individual, embodied brains, brains that are situated in groups, receiving all the clues that other group members provide, whether consciously or unconsciously registered. Individual minds are highly motivated to achieve the security of belonging to larger wholes, or to avoid the terror of exclusion, but it is individual brains that process those hopes and fears and the information that is relevant to monitoring them. Similarly, widespread social forces such as prejudice also work through individual brains, even though the information that provides the stimulus for individual acts of prejudice is widely distributed and is not the possession of any one brain.

Thus, even though we understand that the mind is distributed, pervious, and highly social, the neural activity that leads to each individual response so far appears to be bounded by the body. (To be sure, chaos theory does open the possibility that collectives of brains may self-organize, but as of now, to the best of my knowledge, there is no real evidence for this.) The legitimacy of our work with organizations, with culture, politics and the economy, developments I want to focus on now, has to be grounded on the firm basis of the existence of such individually motivated neural activity.

I have identified seven domains of research where important work is being done to extend our understanding of unconscious influences on behaviour. The first three domains – the autonomic nervous system, the cognitive unconscious, and the emotional unconscious – are the domains that operate directly within individual minds and account directly for our behavioral responses. The other domains of investigation involve the information and signals that derive from our social and community lives, that shape our integration into larger systems.

I will not describe these seven domains here in any depth. But some brief account is needed to be able to describe new work that is expanding the boundaries of these domains.

The first domain, the autonomic nervous system is about the regulation of bodily processes essential for maintaining life, such processes as breathing, blood pressure, digestion, and so on. These processes are homeostatic, normally functioning entirely without conscious awareness, but they can be affected by outside stimuli, and they can be manipulated through feedback mechanisms, meditation, and other techniques.

The second domain, the cognitive unconscious, as the psychologist Timothy Wilson put it, “gathers information, interprets and evaluates, and sets goals in motion, quickly and efficiently.”

A major part of this scanning consists of perceptual categorization, whereby the objects or events we encounter are continuously classified into familiar categories, and appropriate responses are set in motion. That makes our world recognizable to us – but it also leads to the discarding of information that doesn’t fit existing categories. (Wilson, 2002; Edelman, 1992)

Emotions also shape our behaviour, but our awareness of them, like our awareness of our actions, is largely retrospective. As Joseph LeDoux put it: “The mental aspect of emotion, the feeling, is a slave to its physiology; not vice versa.” For that reason, he and others claim, we have an “emotional unconscious,” sets of established physical responses to events. These set responses are partly shaped by our emotional histories and become activated unconsciously in response to cognitive clues, but they are also shaped by emotional systems and some rudimentary plotting of such systems has occurred. Clearly the cognitive and the emotional unconscious can overlap. Indeed, it is probably rare for one to operate entirely without the other, but they appear to be quite distinct systems. One does not require the other. (Ledoux, 1996; Kihlstrom, et al, 2000))

There is a fourth domain, closely associated with these, what I call the domain of self-esteem. Anything that threatens the stability and consistency of the cognitive and emotional categories that we have established and upon which we rely to live in the world will arouse anxiety because it forces us to acknowledge that we do not understand things as well as we thought, that we are not as much in control of events as we had believed, and that we cannot be sure of what we are currently planning to do. For the American psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan, there were different intensities of threat. On the routine level of everyday experience, we simply “selectively inattend” information that is inconsistent with what we want to continue to believe about the world and ourselves. (This is somewhat similar to the social psychologist Leon Festinger’s concept of “cognitive dissonance.”) More dangerous threats bring about dissociation, blanking out the information entirely. But this monitoring of experience is a continuous and largely unconscious activity.

It’s worth mentioning here that early in his career, Freud stressed our powerful need to ward off awareness of motives damaging to self-esteem. He and Breuer used the concept of “censorship” to account for hysterical symptoms, and, as late as his dream book, censorship was a central concept in explaining the need to exclude certain thoughts from consciousness. With his theory of infantile sexuality, he moved into exploring what he took to be deeper motivations.

With the domain of self-esteem we are moving closer to our participation in the social world, as threats to self-esteem largely originate there. The final three domains of the unconscious I describe are more directly about those social relations themselves. They are the domains of language, group cohesion, and politics.

The tool of language is not neutral. The primary medium we use to communicate, is also the best means we have to conceal and deceive.   It is infiltrated with unconscious processes in two ways: Language frames discourse, so that our social conversations are structured in ways of which we are usually unaware; and language confers meaning on our private acts, meaning that inevitably and invisibly suggests, as well as excludes, other meanings.

Both the cognitive and emotional unconscious, as we have seen, are based on our ability rapidly to discriminate and categorize perceptions. We often do not know what defines these categories, since we have to infer them from the behavioural responses they elicit in us as well as others. However, when it comes to behaviour, the categories appear to possess neuronal consistency. Researchers in this field express this in the slogan: “Neurons that fire together wire together.”

Eskimos are reputed to have 17 or 18 terms for snow, because their ability to discriminate among different categories is important to their very survival. On another level, Foucault has made us aware of the political power of controlling a discourse. And there are stories and myths that guide our actions without out knowing. The intergenerational transmission of trauma is a good example of the power of stories to affect subsequent generations.

George Lakoff has argued that the Democratic and Republican parties in America offer competing metaphors of the family. The Democrats’ favour the metaphor of the nurturing family, concerned to protect and foster the development of its members, while the Republicans see the family, particularly the strong father, preparing its members for a tough and unforgiving world. In the light of these underlying metaphors, their differing social policies are more coherent than they might otherwise appear: the republican vision of the family is characterized by the need for a strong national defense, firm law enforcement, a reduced emphasis on social insurance programs and entitlements, a strict moral code. The democrats on the other hand, come across as more maternally oriented, trying to lend a helping hand to the disadvantaged, promoting social justice, offering insurance, etc. Lakoff has offered his services as a political consultant based on his ability to decode such myths. (Lakoff, 1999)

The next domain, unconscious belonging, is perhaps the least recognized and appreciated in our culture. Our historic, embedded focus on the individual has meant that we idealize and reward our leaders, our winners, our geniuses and heroes. It is a widespread conviction among us that groups thwart the individual, impede action, waste time. On the other hand, working together, group members can be creative and productive, achieving far more collectively than they possibly could working as separate individuals.

But what is the motive for belonging? Darwin argued in The Descent of Man, that if members of a tribe were always ready to aid one another, sacrificing themselves for the common good, they would inevitably be victorious over other tribes. He believed that such a social instinct aided natural selection, especially when operating within the family unit. We are less likely to accept that there is such an instinct. But what gets individuals to cooperate or, at least, coordinate their actions?

I think it is fair to say that we can generalize two kinds of motives arising in individuals that profoundly influence group processes. One set is about anxieties over being included or accepted in the group. Bion postulated that this process was based on a primitive need to be accepted at the maternal breast, activated by our participation in complex and confusing social settings. That’s one possible explanation for this anxiety. A second set of motives has to do with the anxieties that arise from failing at the task the group has come together to perform.

The desire for inclusion and approval is likely to be stronger among members of a teenage clique or gang, but we are well aware that no one is immune to the pressures of feeling accepted or, probably more importantly, to the danger of being extruded. A related set of individual motives has to do with identity. More adult or sophisticated group members may not be satisfied with mere inclusion, requiring recognition for their specific identities in order to feel secure. This is related, no doubt, to the anxieties of group dysfunction or failure, effects that not only threaten the stability of the group but also the livelihoods and reputations of its members.

The last domain, politics, has to do with the processes that affect society as a whole. This is probably less known than any other domain, but writers like Vamik Volkan have been working not only to understand the motives and dynamics around such issues as ethnic conflict and genocide, but also developed strategies to lessen or resolve them. See Volkan, 2006).

I think we do understand now that prejudice is a universal process, rooted in normal development. On the simplest level, it stems from the ways in which our brains create categories as part of our adaptation to reality; we cannot stop ourselves from doing it. It is based on our early ability to discriminate strangers from care-givers, those we know and have come to reply upon from those we don’t. The normal two-year-old in our culture will cry in the presence of a stranger; the adult will simply stiffen or become more reserved. But as Peter Fonagy and Anna Higgitt have observed in their studies of normal attachment: “however socially noxious the strategies adopted by some individuals may be, prejudiced responses are basic to coping with insecurity in attachment.” (2007, p. 71).

Prejudice, then, will never be done away with. Those who claim to be free of prejudice can only be speaking a half-truth, at best. The most they can validly affirm is that they do not act on their prejudices. This is clearly a place where consciousness needs to intervene, to help us suppress or reformulate our automatic reactions and chart alternative courses of action.

“Malignant prejudice,” when normal processes of discrimination lead to splitting and active discrimination, often occurs when group identity is involved. Erik Erikson coined the ungainly term “pseudospeciation” to describe the all too familiar process through which we come to believe we are members of a different species, apart from other groups of human beings, whose different racial, religious or ethnic communities no longer deserve our respect or understanding.

Prejudice is just one example of large scale social processes based on unconscious motivations, though perhaps the most urgent for us to work on understanding. Terrorism can perhaps be thought of as an aspect of this process, but what other motivations does it rely upon – or stimulate in others? What is the effect on us of our increasingly ubiquitous digital communication or social networking? (See chapter by Philip Boxer in this volume) . What about the erosion of traditional identities? The long-term effects of the destabilization of gender differences or acceptance of differences in gender orientation?

On the other hand, there are idealizing effects of prejudice as well. Our entertainment and advertising industries are based upon the manipulation of such perception and feelings, creating celebrities and stars, trusted brands, strong candidates, and TV series that inspire identification and loyalty. This is inevitable in a consumer-oriented society, where those who have products to sell seek out the means to manipulate perceptions and create positive prejudices, otherwise known as brands. (See chapter by Richard Morgan -Jones in this volume.)

This is a quick summary of what I call the “New Unconscious.” I don’t claim that these seven domains of inquiry are definitive. They are what I see now – and they will inevitably change as our knowledge expands and new problems present themselves. Even now we can begin to discern where these fields are moving –and the new problems that understanding the unconscious can illuminate.

There is some important new research on the question of how new ideas arise and how old ideas can be changed. The new unconscious, like the old, tends to be conservative, illustrating the sway of past learning over the present. But, clearly, new ideas cannot be impossible to generate. Nor can it be impossible to alter or extinguish old ideas.

One of the most fascinating areas of current research is into what is called the “Default Network,” the brain systems that are active when the brain is not engaged in focused, problem solving actions. Understandably, researchers first studied the brain functions underlying cognition and motivation. But evidence began accumulating around the edges of that research showing that the brain was highly active in “default mode.” According to researchers, default activities include: reminiscence of past experiences based on episodic memory, recalling autographical incidents, day-dreaming, and planning for the future. (See. Mazoyer, et al, 2008)

These “stimulus-independent thoughts” (or SITs, as researchers call them) seem to correspond to what psychoanalysts mean by free association, “free-floating attention,” or reflection, the state of mind that facilitates new connections and new thoughts. Although it is too early to decide on the evolutionary value of these functions, some researchers have suggested it is crucial to planning the future.

A related area of research focuses on insight, the process by which new ideas suddenly appear, like revelations. The brain systems involved in insight are thought to be “at rest,” somewhat different from the “default system” in that different areas of the brain are involved. (See, Kounios et al, 2008)

Experimentally, it is relatively easy to distinguish the flash of sudden understanding characterizing insight from the problem solving that comes from the methodical cognitive work of comparing or analyzing data. Moreover, techniques have been developed to observe the brain engaged in both activities. Insight is accompanied by a dramatic spike in gamma rhythms, the highest electrical frequency generated by the brain.

One researcher noted the drawback of the cognitive approach to problem solving: “Concentration comes with the hidden cost of diminished creativity.” That is, determined efforts to come up with the solution to cognitive puzzles can work, but they do that by blocking out information and forestalling approaches other than the method the brain is resorting to at the moment. He tells the story of a Zen monk who could not use insight to solve any of the puzzles he had devised in his experiment, concluding that the Zen master was too intently focused. But then, suddenly, the master got it. He learned to focus on not focusing, and the solutions came, one after the other. (Lehrer, 2008)

Tracking brain activity revealed that insight involves the right brain, where neurons with longer branches and more dendrites collect information from larger cortical areas. They are less precise but better connected. But, first, the brain has to be primed by left-brain cognitive efforts to engage and direct attention. In other words, we have to struggle to engage the problem we are seeking to understand; then we have to let go and let the brain do its work without pressure. “If you are in an environment that forces you to produce and produce, and you feel very stressed,” says John Kounios, co-author with Mark Jung-Beeman of many of the key articles describing this work, “then you are not going to have any insights.” (2008, p281-291)

A sceptic might well ask, “What does this add to what we already know intuitively?” There are two answers. That fact that there is empirical data for unconscious processing can help convince others that we do know what we are talking about. It is also likely that experimental research will uncover new strategies to promote insight. Kounios and Jung-Beeman have reported on their research to DARPA, the research arm of the military that has been responsible for such revolutionary practical developments as the internet. Given the strategic and competitive advantages of insight, we can be sure that they are working to find ways of promoting it.

Let me conclude by shifting our attention away from the brain to two areas of research that are receiving more and more attention: the behaviour of voters and the making of financial decisions. In both areas, the role of unconscious motivation is becoming increasingly apparent, and understanding that role can have substantial economic payoffs.

Earlier I touched on George Lakoff’s theory about the opposing family myths that underlie democratic and republican politics in the U.S. Lakoff set up a research institute to provide help to liberal politicians. Others have followed, but I think it fair to say that much of this work is not publicly disclosed. Politicians not only want to protect their competitive advantage, but they are also reluctant to be seen as “manipulating voters”.

Drew Westen, a clinical psychologist who has written extensively on links between brain research and psychoanalysis, in his recent book draws on neurobiological research. He describes an experiment in which the brains of subjects during the 2004 election were scanned while they were exposed to conflicting statements by the candidates they favoured.

He found that, faced with the contradictory information, initially the brains showed signs of conflict and distress, but they rid themselves of the distress by quickly disposing of the troubling information. This is consistent with the work being done in the domain of unconscious efforts to maintain self-esteem. More surprisingly, he found: “not only did neural circuits involved in negative emotions turn off, but circuits involved in positive emotions turned on. The partisan brain didn’t seem satisfied in just feeling better. It worked overtime to feel good, activating reward circuits to that give partisans a jolt of positive reinforcement for their biased reasoning.” (Westen, 2007)

Westen has also set up a consulting firm to attempt to capitalize on his findings about politics and the emotional unconscious, and no doubt increasingly others will as well. The equipment is expensive, and much of the theorizing is speculative, based on how the emotional unconscious is thought to function. But it’s not hard to imagine a time in the near future when teams of neurologists and psychologists will routinely advise and vet political campaigns.

The second area of great potential growth is economic behaviour. The recent credit meltdown has discredited the inadequate motivational concepts that underlay classical economic theory and created an unprecedented opportunity for new thinking. Classical theory was based on two ideas: rational decision making based on individual’s self-interest, and efficient markets that optimized all the information available, the idea that markets are “perfect.” For many years, these ideas were virtually dogma in the world of economists, and traditional risk management was largely based on them.

Behavioural economists were standing in the wings to suggest other motivations grounded in a more sophisticated psychology. But it wasn’t until the recent credit crisis and the failure of economic policies based on classical theory that they have been getting the attention they deserve. A key idea for them is that investors are not merely motivated by self-interest but that they are also “loss averse,” that is, often, they will not sell in a market to maximize their gains because they shrank from experiencing a loss. Behavioural economists have promoted other psychological principals about investor irrationality: 90% of people overestimate their abilities and indulge in wishful thinking about their prospects; they persist in holding certain beliefs, reluctant to look for evidence that disconfirms them, and misinterpreting the evidence when forced to face it; their judgments about probability are skewed by the availability of relevant memories. But as two authors put it recently: “behavioural models often assume a specific forms of irrationality.” That is, far from providing a flexible and comprehensive theoretical framework, they are linked to very particular, concrete forms of behaviour. (See, Barberis and Thaler, 2005)

Let me give a small example. The chief financial correspondent for The New York Times recently commented on how victims of fraud have often refused to accept the settlements they have been offered. He gave the example of how many of Ponzi’s investors would not accept the government’s offer of 30 cents on the dollar, continuing to believe that Ponzi would make good on his original promise, even though he was in jail at the time, having been convicted of fraud. The Times’ correspondent invoked the new behavioral finance explanation: they declined the real if lesser gain of the settlement because they could not bring themselves to accept the loss. But it is at least equally plausible that they refused to accept the humiliating conclusion they had been duped. Far more than the mere loss was at stake. Behavioral explanations often do not take us deep enough into the realm of motivation.

Accounts of financial bubbles often acknowledge the importance of “herd behaviour,” markets being driven by a kind of contagion that, in effect, compromise their rationality. But so far few have tried to systematically link up sophisticated theories of group membership with market behaviour. This remains a promising area for exploration. It is not difficult for us to imagine how an understanding of defensive operation triggered by anxiety could be brought to bear on understanding markets, or how a deeper understanding of unconscious conflict might illuminate investor behaviour.

A few psychoanalysts have started to enter the dialogue. David Tuckett has interviewed a number of fund managers and developed the theory that the excitement generated by the prospect of great economic gains, especially in financial bubbles, overrules the normal and appropriate anxieties associated with potential losses (Tuckett and Taffler, 2008). He has also included references to basic assumption behaviour.

There are other promising signs, stimulated by the recent collapse of the credit markets and the subsequent recession from which we are still struggling to emerge. Much as the 1929 crash of the stock market and the subsequent world-wide depression required a profound reevaluation of economic theory, this crisis presents a unique opportunity to reexamine the assumptions underlying our economic behaviour.

Perhaps there is an analogy here for us. Just as research into brain function gives us an opportunity to reexamine our psychoanalytic beliefs about the ways in which the unconscious works, social failures open up new vistas and fresh opportunities for social psychologists and psychoanalysts seeking new insights into political and economic motivation.

The new unconscious is grounded on empirical research, as well as a wide variety of empirical practices. That’s the good news. The black box of the mind is no longer opaque. We can now see it as translucent, if not transparent, lit up by powerful flashes of mental activity, revealing mechanisms of coordination, driven by consistent needs. It sheds more and more light. As we grope our way through the tangled underbrush of old, familiar thoughts and the thickets of conventional expectations, increasingly it will help us to find our way.

And as we clear paths, others will follow.


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