I began studying psychology in 1969, as a Freshman in college. I had a predisposition to being interested in human behavior. I felt the same about psychology as I imagine a lot of people do about chemistry, engineering, nutrition, or medicine. I felt psychology held the keys to understanding and improving the quality of life for everyone. During my Sophomore year I changed my major to psychology (it had been music).
As time went on, I found myself in a wide range of environments, exposed to just about the full gamut of human behaviors. All through this time I have had the good fortune to be exposed to instruction ranging from the cutting edge, the esoteric, the eclectic and the classic trains of thought. My life has pretty much revolved around working to understand why we humans do what we do. I am happy and grateful to report that, on the whole with information coming from a plethora of fields of study, we humans have garnered a very great deal of knowledge about ourselves.
We know much about what we need to have healthy, full, wholesome, complete lives. However, as a race, there has possibly been no other time in recorded history, in which we, as a species, have ignored so much available information. I would add: not only are we widely ignoring so much available knowledge, some working to advantage their own wealth and power, around the world, are perverting and abusing much of the knowledge that we do have. I don’t think there’s any field of study more widely abused right now than psychology.
The “powers that be” within industry and government, very early on recognized the potential the information coming from the field of psychology offered for manipulating people. Not for informing and leading people to understand ourselves, make wise decisions, and have healthy, full lives. But for manipulating people to do the things “they” want to see people doing. Buying things “they” want people to buy. Believing things “they” want people to believe. Behaviors that enrich their lives, not ours.
The contemporary, industrial use of psychology as a tool for manipulation of the public began manifesting as: advertising, which evolved into public relations, which has evolved into engineering consent. Engineering consent is currently the art of controlling what people perceive so that their/our reactions will pave the way for the fulfillment of the controllers’ agenda(s). We used to simply call it “lying”, and that definition still applies. But the current manipulative efforts are happening in such a sophisticated and technological manner, being done in service of people whose agendas are so totally based in egoism, so devoid of consideration for those who are the targets of the manipulation, that merely calling it “lying” doesn’t do justice to the depths of depravity these manipulative efforts emanate from.
Back in the early twentieth century, one of the seminal people in this dark trend was Edward Bernays. A nephew of Sigmund Freud, His efforts contributed heavily to women getting into smoking tobacco and fluoridation of public water. He is often referred to as “the father of spin”. I would say his title should more appropriately have to do with mastering the art of betrayal of trust.
What began as, and still is, a science with so much promise for improving the quality of life for humanity (which is how most sciences get started) is going through a time of profound perversion. Mental health services are, I think, the most common interface between the general public and psychological expertise. However mental health in many cases has become just another sales outlet for the pharmaceutical companies.
The reality of the evolution of the science of psychology is that what we have learned can show us much of what is needed to establish personal and sociologic well-being. One example is Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” which provides a basic template for personal and collective well-being. But these aspects of the science of psychology, the aspects relating to the general population becoming healthy and whole, seem to be truly frightening to those who have been using psychology for manipulation and exploitation.
Restating the situation briefly: the science of human behavior contains great deal of understanding of what we need to be whole, as individuals and as a culture. What we know about what we need to be whole and healthy, as individuals and as a culture, is often directly contradictory to what many in positions of industrial and political power, around the world, want us to believe. What we need for health and wholeness often informs us to behave in ways those currently holding the reins of industrial and political power do not want to see us behaving in. Ways that do not primarily serve them and their egoistic agendas.
Very often today the field of mental health is viewed with skepticism. The results frequently experienced by those accessing mental health services, and seen by those around them, tends to cast mental health services as a marginally effective service at best. To a very significant extent, this is a result of what I call the unidirectional nature of how mental health knowledge and services are most often applied. Every challenge to our mental health is occurring within a context. To try to resolve the issues by only addressing the dynamics within the person experiencing the challenges (mental-emotional distress, maladjustment, mental illness) without simultaneously addressing any pathological dynamics within the context, the society, the person lives within, is to simply ask a person to be healthy within an unhealthy culture. It is a unidirectional approach to mental health.
(There is a similar unidirectional phenomenon happening with laws and law enforcement in the U.S. But that is another story for another time.)
There is a saying: “Culture is to people as water is to fish.” The fact is, a human being cannot be whole and healthy within an unhealthful culture any more than a fish can be whole and healthy within a polluted lake.
The best that can be hoped for is to compensate as well as possible until the challenges with their accompanying stress finally take their toll. Physical illness, and/or mental illness, and eventually a hastened death are not an uncommon result. One coping option, one which some have been using for centuries, is that an individual, or a group, can try to escape the hellish dynamics too often present in society at large by attempting to live in a self-contained society. Monks and Nuns have sought refuge in such an attempt at controlling a micro-environment for centuries. In the U.S. small communes have experienced varying degrees of success. However, such efforts come at a price. That price is the seclusion itself. While those opting for such a lifestyle may genuinely feel that the benefit is worth the cost, such a system is not a viable answer for everyone.
So where does all this leave us? Exactly where we are right now. We are a species too often turned upon itself. Narrowly defined self interest expressed in predatory financial practices, an absence of consideration for others and even an absence of consideration for our natural environment itself, is genuinely threatening to extinguish us as a species. We are on a spaceship called Earth. You would think that even the most narrowly self-centered among us would have consideration for the natural life-support systems we all rely upon. But, as widespread pollution and destruction of essential habitat and species shows, that isn’t the case. Right now, the fact is, there are some extraordinarily short-sighted, narrowly focused, inconsiderate, egoistic, ignorant (by default or by design) people running too much of what is going on. And we’re letting them.
As I’m writing this, April 1, 2020, much of the U.S. and the world is quarantined due to the coronavirus pandemic. As someone has put it: It’s like mother nature has sent us to our rooms to think about what we’re doing. Will we? Will we, across the globe, use some of this time to consider our own thinking, our own behaviors, and rejoin the world at large better for it? Will our individual and collective well-being be prioritized higher than corporate profit, corporate well-being? We’ll see.
Will we, can we, as a species, realize our interconnectedness (as demonstrated graphically by the current pandemic) and apply this awareness to the betterment of our collective well-being? It’s all up to us. Part of what a genuine recovery will entail, is the realization of how pervasively our cultures have been being manipulated by those with narrow, self-serving agendas.
Too often we are being manipulated to hate and fear those who are different in some way from ourselves. We are being manipulated to believe that pursuing narrow self-interest is what we should be doing. We are being manipulated to believe that those who are the most successful at narrowly pursuing their own self-interest are the successes in life. That we should look up to them, emulate them.
As a species, ultimately, we cannot survive, we absolutely cannot ever thrive, with such a mindset. But if we truly grasp our interconnectedness and act in ways which, in every way, further our personal well-being and our collective well-being, we have the potential to experience a quality of life beyond what many have imagined.