How psychoanalytic theory can be used in social policy

Susie Orbach
Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Psychoanalysis has been used to aid social policy thinking in just a handful of occasions.

Sometimes the result is reactionary1  and sometimes it is progressive.2

Here I will suggest how psychoanalysis might be useful to us in terms of social policy today. I want to suggest six different ways that technologies of psychoanalysis can bring to the conversation about social distress. I am going to do this very schematically by applying psychoanalytic thinking to the recent events in banking and the summer riots. I will speculate on the motivations and responses of the bankers, the rioters3 and thirdly, ourselves (the general public).

Firstly, there is what psychoanalysis does. In broad terms it helps people to speak their minds, particularly when what they have to say does or doesn’t fit inside of them very well, or with others. Then there are the tools that my profession has developed, which I think could provide some really useful constructs from a research perspective.

The capacity to listen – going beyond selective hearing

Psychoanalysis represents itself, and is thought of as the talking cure - yet is as  much a listening tool. For ‘talk’ to be of any use it has to be heard and registered. There is plenty of talk radio and Oprah style shows – but is the content ever really heard?

If we apply a listening ear to what happened before and during the riots, we could speculate that very few people were actually listening.  Or to be more generous, what we were hearing was so disturbing and uncomfortable that our emotional shutters came down. We did not know how to take account of the things that we did not know how to process - the reports of kids being stabbed, the failing schools, the gangster rap, and the extreme sexism that was on show.

In the case of the economic situation since the ‘Big Bang’ until very recently,   we lived a delusion. We forgot that money is a social exchange and that it is a relationship of exchange. Money was instead turned into a commodity and we were invited to admire and even be in awe of the extremely wealthy, rather than ask who and how and where did it come from?  We forgot that people making vast sums of money were causing others to lose it.  Yes, we knew there was theft. One example is the case of the former Soviet Union where twenty-first century robber barons or billionaires suddenly appeared and are now, incidentally, propping up sections of our legal profession. But they were sprinkling stardust and glamour so we didn’t really listen and we didn’t really hear.  We didn’t acknowledge the poverty and social dislocation they were creating.

Now, imagine we had listened - obviously we have to imagine, because I have only had a few bankers on my couch, and rioters I have had none, so we don’t have them as subjects. But if one was doing research and bringing in a psychoanalytic methodology - we might listen to what the bankers were saying. Their message was one of ‘you are safe in our hands’; ‘money is the answer, that’s what makes the world go round’. The psychoanalyst would be asking ‘but what is it the answer to?’; ‘What is the problem for which money is the solution?’. Following on from this, if we had asked these questions and listened to the answers, we would have been faced with even greater questions about the current world order.

As a society, we had been seduced and allowed ourselves to be deluded into a situation in which money and excessive salaries are highly valued. I believe it produced feelings of confusion and insecurity The analyst would have suggested that a delusion could be a response to feeling unsafe and that we should listen to those feelings as they are telling us something very real about what is going on in our society. A delusion allows us to rethink and recalibrate.

The testimony from The Guardian and from Gillian Slovo’s play, The Riots tells us that had we listened to those involved in the riots, we might have been alerted that our young people were in trouble.  They were telling us about feeling dispossessed, desperate, angry and under attack and angry.4

If we’d listened to ourselves (let’s call us the ‘haves’ or ‘general public’ for the moment) during and shortly after the riots, we would have heard about our own guilt, concern and confusion, and tremendous shame and despair for not knowing what to do. We would have heard our own fear about social collapse and feelings of helplessness.

As a psychoanalyst I would have thought that although much of this helplessness belonged to us, it might also be a clue to the helplessness of the rioters. Knowing that, perhaps we might have been able to join together to reject this helplessness and build something more positive

Creating the space for feelings and their use in identity making

Psychoanalysis helps with feelings.  It helps the group, or the couple, or the individual to find a place for feelings that may have been flung out, disavowed, exported, repressed, and dissociated. The clinical situation makes space for feelings that in ordinary social intercourse may make us wince or induce hurt or terror or revulsion or disappointment or dismay or anger.

The job of being a psychoanalyst requires one to sit with these very difficult feelings all day long.   In receiving those feelings the analyst is doing several things. Firstly she or he is accepting them and in so doing enables in time the analysand to process such feelings differently. Secondly she or he endeavours to look beyond the surface feelings to see if there are other feelings that have not yet come up for air.  For example, a young man’s visceral response to being stopped and searched might be quite understandably, rage and belligerence. Yet nestled behind that feeling, may be feelings of fear or vulnerability, of being menaced, feelings which he stays away from because they are potentially threatening to his identity and psychological sense of self.

If in time that rage/belligerence button gets pressed too often because it is used to defend the young man’s view of himself, it can become overused.  It becomes a defence mechanism.  If the fear and vulnerability have no breathing space either in his private world or within his social group, then he will come to disdain it in himself and others.  He will therefore view it as weakness, and rage can become his weapon in the world to protect him when the vulnerable side is in danger of being touched.  So being tough becomes a form of agency and self- expression, with the downside being that it is limiting and that it keeps the individual and the group, away from other kinds of feelings.5

What if we had made space for these feelings?

Furthermore, if we had asked the bankers what they were feeling we might also have found feelings that were being disavowed. In showing a bravado and confidence perhaps they were disavowing their knowledge of the fragility of their inventions, and their uncertainty and fear, and dishonesty.

This was not limited to the bankers for there was considerable disavowal by people in general, for whom it became a goal to have, to value and to make money.   Perhaps what we were disavowing was our insecurity as the social contract broke down engendering feelings of loss and confusion in a world where social values had changed drastically.

In relation to the rioters, we can speculate that what we heard were feelings of fear, despair, alienation, having no place, no place to contribute, no acceptance, no recognition, and no belonging, and the understandable fury of being swooped on.  When people are treated as second class, they don’t just feel the injustice, they also absorb the feelings that are being directed towards them. They take them on and they make them their own as a form of protection and an internalisation of hatred visited upon them.  While for those of us falling into the category of ‘haves’ or general public, we were distanced from this experience, leaving us with feelings of impotence, paralysis and incomprehension. The world of good schools, hospitals, job opportunities and better life expectations – meant that we could identify with neither banker nor rioter.

Unconscious meaning and motivation

Psychoanalysis also looks at meaning and motivation. It questions why we act the way that we do in our personal, domestic and work lives. It doesn’t just examine the obviously destructive behaviours but it also looks into what on the surface, seem to be acts of altruism, caring and kindness, to understanding the complexity of motivations involved.  It takes on surface behaviours and tries to make sense of them. However, it also recognises that behaviours in themselves do not represent the totality of meaning so it looks at the influence of unconscious processes which may be at odds with conscious thoughts and how these lead us to do things which contradict our expressed wishes.

We can speculate that the unconscious motivation of the bankers was for security and to transfer resources from the lower middle class to the wealthy.  Money had become divorced from its use value and a way of resolving feelings of insecurity. The greater the accumulation of money, the better. The negative aspects of the forms of acquisition were hidden in new ‘financial instruments’ named  Collateral Debt Obligations, (CDOs) and Structure or Securitised Investment Vehicles (SIVs) which were in essence  the splitting off via a formula of schemes which were meant to hide the danger of the ways that money was being extracted. Greed and hyper danger were thus concealed in formulae which sound esoteric. They give the sense of control and power while concealing what’s going on.

We could say that our unconscious motivation was despair and powerlessness as the free marketeers took over.  We became unconsciously complicit in the new dialogue of shifted values and wealth, where deregulation and the invention of the notion of the individual and his or her personal needs - as opposed to the social - became paramount.  Maggie Thatcher’s neo-liberal agenda crystalised and we became if not its agents, its participants.

If we had listened to the rioters we would know that they felt undervalued and unwanted, and that their actions in rioting were to transform and disturb.  They wanted to impinge back on the status quo, disrupt and insist on their presence by transforming the landscape. They were refusing the invisibility in that moment of rioting. They were being seen by all, not just the police in their local communities.

At the same time, another aspect of the meaning and motivation is that they feel themselves to be done to. Partly, they feel they are troubled, partly victimised able to do nothing more than cause destruction.  But there was also a sense of enormous exuberant power in being able to be trouble.

If we looked at ourselves we could say that unconsciously there was relief. We were not dispossessed or constantly under assault. We had a relatively good standard of living, we had decent schools for our kids, more often than not our work was reasonably interesting so we kept our noses down and instead we went for our own short term interests.

Developmental theories

Psychoanalysis is a clinical practice but it is also a theory of mind and a theory of development. –There is the theory of trauma, often known as post traumatic stress.  There is also Attachment Theory (Bowlby), and the work of the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott. Winnicott examined what criminality was about psychologically, for example asking the question what was the stealing child trying to actually get?  There is a considerable body of theory that looks at what happens in the mind when things do not go right. How does the mind process that? What does the individual do to cope inside of her or himself and so on?

What developmental theories tell us is that if things go wrong we often detach a part of ourselves from the relationship that we need. We search for things that are more reliable and apparently within our grasp to control.  So if we are disappointed in a parent or ourselves, we may shift away from the person, and we may disdain the need we have for them. We turn, instead, towards an object that we can actually manipulate inside of our head.  A significant part of the self is then ‘split off’ and reacts in ways that then sabotages the arrangement – the apparent sequestering of need. These are unconscious processes but they are quite obvious processes once you think about them.

Another process might be that we take on responsibility for things that are actually out of our control. When we suffer at the hands of a bully for example, a part of us holds onto our sense of being unfairly treated, but another part of us, hating the feeling of powerlessness, looks for what’s wrong with us, that may have caused the other to pick on us. In this way we reverse the feeling of powerlessness by imagining if we weren’t the way we were we would not be being bullied or tormented.  So we turn ourselves into the makers of our own trouble, and become responsible for it, and we hate ourselves for being picked on as much as we hate the person who’s doing the bullying.

Thus psychological development theories are another mechanism for thinking about the recession, the riots, us, and how to leverage a different agency.

Let us speculate that for the bankers, money became the stand in for a relationship of need, and in so doing perverted that need. Perhaps for ourselves we swallowed what was bad because the thing we attached to was a substitute and not what we really needed. Yet this was unsatisfying and produced feelings of inadequacy, exclusion and insatiability.

If we turn to the rioters we can see that lack of recognition and respect can propel one to fight for a place and simultaneously, at the same time as fighting for one, destroy the very place, using the very same values of theft and destruction which permeate our social and economic landscape.

For us, our own unmet needs for relationships and a connection with the wider community, (which sounds woolly but I think it’s true), was severed, and I think we were in a kind of denial.  That is to say the feelings of missing connection were split off. Insofar as we were in denial of connection to the broader community, we could not feel for the needs of others since our capacity for empathy was denuded. If we could have cried for our own loss, we could have felt and connected with the pain of others.

Transference, countertransference and enactments

Psychoanalysis has a set of constructs, not just listening constructs or a theory of affects, which is what I've been talking about so far, but constructs that can be usefully applied outside the consulting room. There are three that I think are worth bringing to social policy.  One is Transference, the second is Counter-transference, and the third is Enactment.

In brief, transference is phenomena of transferring onto a current situation the emotional tableau from the past, especially the emotional shape of how we first learnt about relationships which was within the family or family substitute.  To take a crude example: you feel or felt dominated by a parent, and your response was to fight it.  Now you are likely to approach relations of authority in a similar fashion - to see, to transfer onto teachers, bosses, youth leaders, clergy, an experience or an expectation of being dominated.

Alternatively, you may take up a domineering position yourself, in order not to feel dominated. In the consulting room this expectation may uncannily influence the relationship with the therapist in such a way that the therapist may experience him or herself acting out of character and wanting to meet the dominating person, with domination herself. When that occurs we name that phenomenon the Countertransference.

So if the pull to feel dominated, and act either dominated or dominating is actually met by the therapist, who then acts in a dominating manner, then we say an Enactment has occurred.

Such an enactment is considered very valuable in therapy because it gives those involved an in vivo experience of the internal relationships that are shaping the person who has come to therapy.  The therapy is not operating simply at the level of a narrative or a theoretical construct. It is not ‘this is how my mum made me feel, this is how my boss or my teacher made me feel.’-  it is actually being experienced in the room at the time like a force field pulling in both the analyst and the analysand which opens up the possibility to be understood and deconstructed. It is a very important aspect of therapy and the psychoanalytic tool-kit, which might be relevant in looking at what we as a society, may have enacted in relation to both the bankers and the rioters.  An enactment is always the relationship, a representation of what is occurring between at least two minds, two bodies.

If we apply the notion of the enactment we could say that while the banker is expressing greed and omnipotence, we feel the power and dominance and the imperative to buy into this new individualised landscape in which we’d turned ourselves into buyers and sellers.  We come to admire what has oppressed us for its power. We feel small and give even greater power to the dominant group.  We can see this in the way that the government withstands any demand for further regulation.  They buy into the bullying that the bankers (the city, business) will desert us and that Britain will be finished. This threat is then passed to the electorate in a kind of tripartite enactment.

The rioters for their part are enacting their sense of un-entitlement and their exclusion. They demand the fruits of consumerism while at the same time destroy what they cannot have. We judge them full of disdain for not using legitimate means for escaping their situation, for their lack of control and for not having a proper political programme.  But more importantly (and here’s the enactment), they held a mirror to our own appalling acquisitiveness, and ugly consumerism, which we would rather not know about.

We could say that an enactment like this allows us to see the rioters smash and grab behaviour as an enactment of the smash of society, and the smash of our social contract, that has allowed, the bankers to grab everything and subvert what constitutes value.

If we see it in this way then we can move from fear of the riots to empathy with the situation in which we all find ourselves in. The rioters then become less like outsiders we cannot understand, and more a part of our own behaviour that we would rather disown.

Countertransference as interview tool

Alongside listening and enabling feelings is the subjective experience of being with the individual group or family being interviewed.  This is related to the notion of countertransference. It is an often neglected aspect of interviewing but, if left out, one can miss crucial dimensions of what is being said and heard.

When interviewing, one wants to be able to encourage the interviewee to speak some truths for her or himself, and to be reflective. To do this the interviewer needs to be able to hold pauses without jumping in, and not get frightened about what the interviewee is saying. This requires the interviewer to reflect on their own experience, their own processes, to notice when they have heightened emotional arousal, or when they switch off, or when they’re particularly interested, or when they feel inclined to cover over what is being said or to ignore the hot spots.  These disciplines are not part of the training of interviewers at present, but would greatly add to both the information gathered and the experience of the interviewee.

Overview of psychoanalytic methods and processes in understanding behaviour

In summary the psychoanalytic toolkit can be useful in the following ways:

  1. The capacity to listen.
  2. The enabling, exploration and acceptance of disavowed feelings.
  3. Ways of understanding unconscious motivation and behaviour.
  4. The application of developmental theory.
  5. The chance to read what’s being enacted.
  6. The opportunity to pay attention to the researcher or interviewer’s emotional responses.

Psychoanalytic tools can offer an additional layer to social research, providing an analysis of why and how people can often act against their best interests. I hope that in suggesting ways that psychoanalytic considerations can be brought to social policy initiatives you will understand that I am in no way dismissing the very valuable tools already in use. I am simply suggesting that there are tools which could be employed which have yet to be taken up which if they were to be used might provide for an additional layer, of understanding why people often act against their best interests.


1. Two examples: Freudian psychoanalysts were employed to psychologically aid the return of women from the factories to the home after the Second World War in the ‘give us back our wives and sweethearts campaign’.

2. A more progressive example was Donald Winnicott’s work with delinquency and mother baby clinics or by the Internationalist Team of Mental Health Workers led by Marie Langer in Nicaragua in the late 1970s and 1980s.

3. The play The Riots devised by Gillian Slovo from verbatim conversations with participants offers a rare opportunity to hear the many different voices, emotions and perspectives of people involved in the riots.

4. According to The Guardian, in the ‘Reading the Riots’ research project, 85% of interviewees who rioted said ‘policing was an important or very important factor’. 73% of rioters had been stopped and searched in the previous 12 months. They complained of being harassed. ‘They sought revenge by wanting to hurt, intimidate, target and indiscriminately attach officers’.

5. A young man in his mid 20s from North London told the ‘Reading The Riots’ team; ‘These young people are coming out to prove they have an existence, to prove that if you don’t listen to them and take account of our views, potentially this is a destructive force’.  P13.

© Susie Orbach 2012