Today no one can dispute that the world seems to have gone haywire. If we weren't already in a state of frenetic group hysteria over the rapid growth of social media, mobile technologies, and the freaky development of artificial intelligence, 2016 shocked us further on how quickly things can change on a global scale. Our previously reliable polling methods have gone grievously wrong while "fake news," frighteningly predictive social media algorithms, and the deployment of psychological warfare on domestic populations has landed us in the post-Brexit/Trump era that was a just dystopian fantasy less than a year ago.
There are a variety of ways to understand such phenomena; from political science and economics to game theory. Lately, however, we have found these approaches are better at understanding things retrospectively than predicting what's going to happen next. While many would like to blame the experts (notably Michael Gove), we sometimes forget that people are fiendishly complex - as individuals, and especially in crowds. Even the most seasoned psychoanalyst will say, "People continue to surprise me." She knows this because she's used to the murky world of psychodynamics and knows better than to think "I totally understand people".
Psychodynamics is the branch of psychology and psychotherapy that deals primarily with unconscious process. Most people are familiar with Freud's iceberg analogy where the smaller exposed part of the berg represents consciousness sitting atop the much larger unconscious, which is submerged. Jung took this further suggesting that the water upon which the iceberg is the "collective unconscious", a controversial term suggesting that in addition to our individual unconscious, we share a collective unconscious too. However you wish to understand it, today there is pretty good evidence of the individual unconscious - and it's also indisputable that when people get into groups, weird and unexpected things are bound to happen.
Most of our news and expert opinion suffers from a "consciousness bias" which appeals to reason, unfortunately assuming that people are more reasonable than they actually are. Unconscious processes are less tangible, less reasonable, and harder to grasp: that's why Freud tried to gain access to it through inferences from people's free associations and dreams. However, this isn't very "sciency" so thinking about the world psychodynamically isn't very popular amongst many of today's psychologists who prefer things that can be verified with numbers.
Human meaning-making, however, is quite different from what's accessible to academic and experimental psychology, which tends to rely on isolating single variables of experience and extrapolating from there. However, the way in which an individual or group responds to a leader, for example seeing them as saviour or anti-Christ needs quite a different formula, and psychodynamic thinking is one useful approach.
For example, the psychodynamic understanding of projection is very helpful in understanding what's happening today. Projection is a psychological defence where intolerable aspects of the self are projected on others. Quite simply put, it's like saying, "it's you, not me." Foreigners are often the target of such projection in which case all the bad stuff within a society gets projected onto them, and the subject doing the projection can feel safe that they are all good.
This operates very well (and pretty terrifyingly) on the group scale where emotional contagion (another psychodynamic idea) spreads through an "in group" creating an "out group" that needs to be quarantined or destroyed. Do refugee bans, halts on the free movement of people and "giant walls" sound familiar? Leaders use psychodynamic processes to their advantage, but who's talking explicitly about these concepts in the public sphere?
Stillpoint Spaces London, opening this March, is one place where thinking about psychology in depth not only happens in the consultation room, but outside it as well. It is a place where we intend to bring psychodynamic and other insight-oriented approaches to bear on real world social problems, not just individual ones.
Psychodynamics are full of compelling concepts that can help us to understand the less rational motivations of human beings - often helping us to comprehend our less humanitarian motivations. While I don't advocate replacing economic or political theory with psychodynamic theory, I do believe that integrating more psychodynamic thinking into the way we understand our rapidly changing world is crucial. We have to accept the non-rational unconscious motivations of people if we are to better engage with people in our international social and political systems.
Dr. Aaron Balick is a psychotherapist, cultural theorist, author and the Director of Stillpoint Spaces London, a new psychological hub for events, contemporary cultural reflection and psychotherapy opening in March 2017.