Consumed by Consumerism ~ Understanding the Group Mind and the Herd Mentality

Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW

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“The world says: “You have needs — satisfy them. You have as much right as the rich and the mighty. Don’t hesitate to satisfy your needs; indeed, expand your needs and demand more.” This is the worldly doctrine of today. And they believe that this is freedom. The result for the rich is isolation and suicide, for the poor, envy and murder.” ~ Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

In psychological parlance the desire to fulfill our basic biological and psychological urges is known as the pleasure principle (Freud). Freud contended we are designed to seek pleasure and avoid pain. When our needs are not fulfilled anxiety kicks in. What happens next is a vexing conundrum.

Do we logically respond to the reality of our limitations or does deprivation anxiety and the hunger of greed compel us to seek gratification at any cost? Evidence suggests we choose the latter.

Out of control consumerism is cited in Gregory Frantz’s paper, Consumerism, Conformity, and Uncritical Thinking in America.

“Americans now average six hours per week shopping, as opposed to only forty minutes playing with their children. We now have more shopping malls in America than high schools. Prescription drugs are freely dispensed to suppress the urge to rush to the mall for a shopping spree. Such compulsive forays are in part the byproduct of corporate conditioning teaching us to seek salvation in the material.”

This unbridled consumption of goods suggests that our irrational desires trump our capacity to exercise logical restraint. The United States national debt is at an inconceivable $22 trillion. Americans are drowning in debt. In desperation wars are waged to maintain the risky U.S. dollar as the world currency, even if it means the downfall of the human race.

In spite of consumerisms detrimental repercussions to our planet and our mental health, we can’t seem to reorient our way of thinking and way of being.

Social Psychologist Gustave Le Bon (1895 / The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind) described how the collective group mind yields to instincts, resulting in a singular mindset. This phenomenon eradicates individual critical thought and makes ‘subordinate’ members of the group malleable to indoctrination and suggestion by powerful leaders.

Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis expounded on Le Bon’s analysis of the group mind. In “Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego” (1921) Freud proposed that the mental processes of power and safety that are experienced in the collective cannot be achieved in isolation.

Applying these psychological insights to the ideology of consumerism helps explain how the father of Public Relations and Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays manipulated the collective’s subconscious desires.

By capitalizing on the group ethos of the ‘American Dream’, Bernays played to the collective instinctual need for tribal belonging.

For power and profit Bernays devised a psychological blueprint for “engineering consent” from the masses.

This revolutionary form of marketing that harked back to unconscious reminders of the ‘primal horde’ and shared hopes and fears, proved to be tremendously persuasive. Bernays understood that branding, marketing, and advertising can tap into the collective unconscious of the audience so as to generate archetypal narratives that captivate and control.

Advertising became a means to not just sell a product, but an attitude, a call to action, a deep yearning for pleasure and gratification. With Bernays’ tutelage purchasing a car is not just a practical purchase. It is fueled by the publicized lure of status, enhanced sexual prowess and the quest for freedom. Inspired by Bernays PR campaigns continue to utilize identification with race, class, gender, religion, nationality and political ideology to appeal to the group mind. This is what keeps consumerism alive.

Joseph Goebbels, the minister of propaganda for the Third Reich created a Fuhrer cult based on Bernays writings.

Just as disconcerting are the findings of American journalist Vance Packard (1957). Packard discovered that market researcher James Vicary initiated subliminal stimulation, or ‘subthreshold effects’; undetectable brief flashing of short messages in marketing campaigns and mass media that basically tell us what to do and what to purchase.

Likewise, the airbrushing of erotic symbols, and profanity into ice cubes, inserting phallic and vaginally shaped images into seemingly benign ads subliminally seduces the consumer to associate sexual arousal and potency with the advertised product.

Since group identity is so compelling as it offers a sense of potency one cannot experience individually, the corporate media molds our collective mind to believe we are exalted through capitalism and materialistic values. We are distracted by what we think we need, oblivious to the machinations of corporate interests and imperialist motives disguised as humanitarian intervention.

Our moral function (what Freud referred to as the Super-ego) is obfuscated by the values of the crowd. Our primitive need to belong and be guided by a charismatic leader takes precedence over individuality and critical thinking.

“We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of…in almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons…who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind, who harness old social forces and contrive new ways to bind and guide the world.” (Propaganda, Edward Bernays)

Although studies indicate that folks who place a high value on wealth, status, and stuff are more depressed and anxious and less sociable than those who do not (The Culture of Affluence: Psychological Costs of Material Wealth, Suniya S. Luthar) undoing the effects of collective mind control is a tall order.

Undoing the effects of collective mind control is an act of non-conformity that can lead to marginalization and alienation. Ultimately it can also lead to inner peace and the ease of simplicity. To achieve this end we are challenged to contain the instinctual impulse to allay anxiety and achieve pleasure, so as to critically evaluate and assess circumstances.

As the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard expressed, if it isn’t paradox it isn’t truth. Shedding oneself of false delusional collective values is a blessing and a curse. As with everything in life, it comes with a price.

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As a survivor (and thriver) of complex trauma and a seasoned therapist specializing in treating complex trauma, narcissistic abuse syndrome and addictions, I am intent on creating content that affords informative insight, hope and healing from psychological disorders. I aim for my creative content to assist readers with tapping into the resiliency of the human condition while recognizing the countless challenges of being human.

New York City, NY
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