A Response to “Freud’s Group Psychology Part I,” Hosted by Eric Jobe

How Freud Unites Inception, Hannah Arendt, and QAnon

“Group psychology” is “dream psychology,” and, since dreams are like movies, that might be a problem

Photo by Paul Bulai

Recently, Eric Jobe initiated a discussion on “Freud’s Group Psychology,” which I enjoyed immensely. It was full of great points and contributions from all the participants, and you can find the full talk here. Particularly, the idea that “group psychology” and “individual psychology” are not “different in kind,” only “different in degree,” struck me as critical. Often, we think that “groups” think and act differently than individuals, but really “the psychology” of groups is simply a manifestation of what can be found within each of us. But most of the time that psychology is repressed and hidden: the group just gives us permission to “let it out.”

Why is this important to understand? First, if we think that our minds are “different in groups,” than there is a clean dichotomy between “groups and individuals,” and we can then begin to moralize “the lone individual” as “inherently good” while “groups” become “mobs” (“The Lucifer Effect,” as Dr. Zimbardo calls it, becomes something that has nothing to do with me, only us, and idea which also may uncritically favor Neoliberalism and deconstructing “givens”). By extension, there is only space for “the madness of the mob” in our thinking, when “the wisdom of crowds” is a valid and real category. “Lone individuals” like corrupt CEOs, politicians, parents, etc. can cause just as much horror as can “mobs,” and arguably these “corrupt individuals” cause more trouble than mobs, precisely because they are more “invisible” and protected by the previously mentioned dichotomy. The daily interactions of our parents and neighbors shape us more than a rock concert, and if our close associations are corrupt, we will suffer for it.

Hannah Arendt “On Why You Must Break Your Bubble

Groups are composed of individuals, though it would be foolish to say that groups are “just individuals.” Things happen in groups that don’t happen with “lone individuals” — Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil,” “The Solomon-Asch Conformity Experiment,” etc. — we have lots of evidence that we need to take groups seriously. And yet a critical question lingers: Does a psychology emerge in groups that can’t be located in individuals? Is “group psychology” emergent or is it only collective (which is to ask if groups create “group psychology” or only realize what preexists in individuals)? Yes, the categories of “emergent” and “collective” can prove hard to tell apart, but basically “emergent behavior” is behavior that never occurs among individuals, while “collective behavior” is behavior that can be found within groups and within individuals (though please don’t hold me to maintaining this language throughout all my works — I promise nothing).

Freud argued that “group psychology” entails “collective behavior” more than “emergent behavior,” though this gets us into discussions about what constitutes “a group,” because clearly the free market is emergent, and isn’t that a kind of group? A fair counterpoint, but here we’re basically going to define a group as a collection of people (more than say five) who occupy the same space and time and thus directly relate. “The market” isn’t bound to the same space and time and primarily consists of indirect relations, but it’s fair to say that there are “groups” within “markets” and that at some point a “group” can become a “market,” though it exceeds the scope of this work to explore how, when, and why. Furthermore, please note that we have direct relations over the internet even if they are “disembodied” (and so not “fully direct”), and it is arguably the case that the majority of groups today are “online groups,” but, considering our tentative definition, these are “groups” nonetheless. Yes, in a “physical sense,” internet relations are “indirect” but they are indeed “direct” in the sense needed to establish a group.

Sigmund Freud in his study at Berggasse 19 in Vienna, 1934. (Freud Museum London)

Groups entail “collective behaviors” (versus “emergent”), so what we see a group do is generally what the individual would do if the individual was free of repressions (social, individual, traumatic, etc.). This is critical: Mr. Jobe’s fantastic point is that “the psychology of the group” is “the psychology of the dream,” for both are manifestations of efforts to escape repression (without escaping “too much” and overwhelming us). Personally, Mr. Jobe’s idea blew me away. If Freud is correct that we can generally identify desires and wants which are “repressed” in dreams, and if it’s the case that in groups we can “get away with things” we otherwise couldn’t, then the brilliance of the association becomes clear. As dreams are places of “wish fulfillment,” so are groups: we are free (from ourselves) in both, and it’s like everything holding us back (mainly, ourselves) vanishes.

Now, to take the next step in the argument I want to make, we must accept the premise that “dreams” and “movies” share the same structure. This argument is made by Walter Murch, and there’s even a Wisecrack video that covers the argument by brilliantly exploring Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece, Inception (which is worth finding and watching). The logic of dreams is associational, there are quick scene changes, we’re just “thrown into the middle of events” — once we’re told “dreams” and “movies” are similar, it becomes difficult to understand why this was never obvious to us before. Dreams are full of coincidences, dramatic stakes, and cover vast landscapes, and the same applies to dreams. Now, if we accept that “movies are like dreams,” and if we accept that “group psychology” is like “dream psychology,” then we can make a final jump: “movie psychology” connects with “group psychology”; to be in a group is like being in a movie, and in both we feel permitted to “let ourselves go.”

How many times have you heard people part of “big events” say, “I felt like I was in a movie?” Watching the mass crowd praising a world leader, does it “look” like a movie? Yes, yes, perhaps the movies were made like these events because these gatherings were so important — correlation doesn’t necessitate causation (though it’s a useful sign that an investigation into the data is justified and even unjustified to avoid) — but what if instead “an underlying psychology” is why there is a parallel? What if there is something in our psychology that wants to be in groups and “feel like we are in a movie?” What if we are attracted to groups and movies for the same reason: to be free of our repressions for a little while?

If we’re in a large marathon, it can “feel like a movie”; if we’re celebrating the 4th of July in a stadium, it can “feel like a movie”; even 9/11 is arguably an example of “group psychology” (though it was a mixture of direct and indirect relations), for the entire world “experienced it together,” and, indeed, 9/11 “felt like a movie.” Where there is a large gathering of people doing or “toward” something together, something cinematic and “epic” feels like it’s underway. But there’s no obvious reason for this bias, seeing as there are plenty of movies about “lone individuals” taking on grave challenges and fights, and yet we don’t readily associate the “lone person” with “being in a movie” (such language certainly doesn’t “slip from our tongue” very naturally). It would seem like there is a (subconsciously recognized) “structural mismatch”: “group psychology” is “movie psychology,” and though both are on the same gradient as “individual psychology,” movies tend to be about “intense events,” as “giant groups” tend to involve “intense events.” In fact, “lone individuals” on journeys tend to be associated with “journeys of enlightenment” or experiences of “finding oneself,” as if we subconsciously know that “the journey toward truth” is a journey we must mostly do alone. We associate “groups with movies,” and “individuals with journeys,” and why we do this might suggest truths about psychological structures and parallels (that we subconsciously understand).¹

Pic by ActionVance

Movies can be associated with “escapism,” with trying to project ourselves into bigger stories and circumstances than we find our lives in. We might watch Lord of the Rings because we can imagine ourselves as Aragon; we may watch Westerners to feel like Clint Eastwood; and so on. No, these are not the only reasons we watch movies, but “freedom from our constrains” can suggest a reason why movies are alluring. When we watch a film, it’s “as if” we are free of living under Neoliberal Capitalism and back in “The Shire.” We’re transported, carried away — free.

Dreams are also associated with “escapism,” with not being burdened by reality or all the stresses of everyday life. We can suddenly fly or enter romantic relationships that otherwise would be impossible; we’re allowed to “be who we otherwise would be if not for society” (which suggests points that Slavoj Žižek made about videogames being where our “true self” could be found because reality doesn’t stop our minds); and so on. Both dreams and movies entail wish-fulfillment, and I don’t think that’s a new idea — many have discussed that and know it from experience — but what’s critical is linking dreams, movies, and groups and claiming they are all manifestations of “individual psychology when free of repressions.” Movies, groups, and dreams are all places where we can, generally speaking, “do what we want.” Unfortunately, what we want is not always good.

In January 2021, protestors stormed The Capitol in the United States of America, videos of which can be found online. The costumes, the antics, the weaponry, the emotions — feels like a movie, right? That’s the easy connection, but, as discussed by Eric Jobe, doesn’t it also resemble a dream? There’s suddenly a man dressed like a buffalo; suddenly invaders are in Congressional chambers — random and chaotic imagery that’s hard to make sense of that we’re just “thrown into the middle of.” And, regarding the protestors, don’t they look like they’re “letting themselves go?” Social convention isn’t holding them back anymore, as aren’t any social “givens” regarding what should or shouldn’t be done. In other words, the protestors aren’t “repressing” but overcoming “repressions”: they are fulfilling their wishes to “save America” or “keep Trump in office,” and nothing will hold them back. The group makes real the dreams of Freud: it’s not by chance that afterwards people spoke about The Capitol Riot like “being in a dream” or “being in a daze.” Repressions collapsed, and confusion naturally followed (seeing as we tragically need repressions to organize our lives coherently).

Where people feel like they are “in a movie,” they tend to be in a group, and hence groups are where dreams are lived. Groups, dreams, and movies seem to share psychological structure in that they empower us to “release” what we have repressed, seemingly all products of wish-fulfillment. In groups, we can’t be singled out as “responsible” for what happens — we can always hide behind others — we can be “carried away” by the emotions and pressures of the group to ignore “givens” and “social conventions” that we otherwise wouldn’t ignore; we do not feel “a concentrated focus of responsibility” on us, which otherwise accompanies freedom, and so arguably feel too free. And so all the troubles traditionally associated with “the mob” begin to emerge — there’s no need to rehash all those here — but, again, the great insight of Mr. Jobe is that “the individual psychology and group psychology are not different in kind.” Considering this, we ourselves are “mobs,” a “legion.”

It’s been said that all of us have a little fascist inside of us (a point stressed in “Everybody Wants to be a Fascist” by Félix Guattari, for example), and it is perhaps in groups that this reality is given permission to “come out.” But how strange to think though that our “innate fascism” might be empowered where “dream structures” are present, for who dreams of being a fascist? No one directly, but, indirectly, perhaps we do dream to be “free of repressions,” and achieving that dream might require gaining enough power that we can destroy “the repressions” holding us back. This might entail deconstructing political structures, exiling ethnicities that existentially destabilize us, and worse, all of which we know to say we are against, but that “the logic of our subconscious minds” will propel us toward, if only our conscious and socialized minds will “get out of the way.” And in groups and dreams, at least somewhat, that seems to be what occurs.

All this also suggests why there is truth to what Leo Strauss called “German Nihilism,” for we can want a life of grandeur and heroic values or else “burn it all down.” German Nihilism helped give rise to fascism, which suggests that fascists want a world where ‘life is but a dream.’² To accomplish this goal, Germans joined a group, and then what could stop them? They felt like they “were in a movie,” after all.

Perhaps “movies” being widespread increases the likelihood of fascism being a problem? Why? Because the feeling of “being in movie” is more prevalent, which means more people may instantly “connect with” the feelings they find “in a group”: today, people might be more habituated and prepared for those feelings, as dreams train us to accept the logic of movies (as discussed by Walter Murch). Hitler was famous for tapping into the new “media technologies” of his day, and perhaps this was not by chance? On the other hand, perhaps the growing popularity of “movies” makes it easier to associate the Nazis with “acting out fictions,” thus making it easier to “call them out” as “living out dreams?” Perhaps the truth falls in the middle: perhaps it’s easier to join a Nazi party but also easier to recognize a “Nazi performance?” I’m not sure, but hopefully at least recognizing “the dream structure” shared by both “groups” and “movies” will generally help stop fascism.

Illustration of a printing press and a composing stick from the first edition (1768–71) of the Encyclopædia Britannica, vol. 3, plate CXLVII, figure 1.

Perhaps even books, in separating “the signifier” from “the signified,” become a “space” where “repressions can be escaped” (like in dreams), but movies and the internet seem to take this problem to a whole new level. In the internet and influence of media basically everywhere all the time now (“the real is dead,” as Baudrillard put it), everything is a potential dream, for groups can be formed anywhere anytime, and groups are where it seems we feel like we can accomplish our dreams. And if dreams are tied to hopes, and if indeed we need hopes to get through life, who would dare to quell our hopes?

The problem with groups is that they are too small to be a “market” that can generate positive “emergent results,” but they are also too big to force individuals to face themselves existentially, say in forcing them to take responsibility for their choices. Groups occupy a problematic middle zone, a “dream structure” concentrated in a point where we feel free of repressions and “focused responsibility.” And in this being “a dream state,” which is akin to “a movie state,” it could be suggested that evil is found where people feel like they are in a movie. But heroes too, yes? Perhaps. Always perhaps.

Black Mirror Scene Analysis of White Christmas

The connection of “groups,” movies, and dreams, through the thinking of Freud, provides reason to believe that great evils in history may have sometimes resulted from people feeling like they were in films. Like the episodes of Black Mirror in which simulations are abused and mistreated because, after all, they are just simulations, so it is the case that when we are “in a movie” everyone and everything can become a simulation, and we can’t mistreat dreams, can we? And even if we could, you see, we only did it because everyone else was doing it too. Normally, we’re an entirely different person — can we really be blamed for what we do while we’re asleep? Where’s the justice?

Commenting on Eric Jobe’s presentation, Mads brilliantly pointed out that “The spectator of the Depersonalisation/Derealisation movie seems to be an individual who is not really an individual but a crowd.” I thought this was wonderful, as was the point, “What the group generally seems to offer is a safe false kind of ego death.” I loved this, for it suggests that “not all ego deaths are equal,” and that simply “losing ourselves” is not enough. How we lose ourselves, how our egos vanish, is just as important as assuring that our egos don’t have the last say. As I hope this work has made clear, feeling like we are “in a movie” is not a true ego death, but a way that the ego seems to vanish by becoming “all consuming,” like air. Practically omnipresent, the ego becomes incredibly powerful, and then what can stop it but us, those who have dissipated into legions?

Photo by Cullan Smith

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Notes

¹How does “the Stanford Prison Experiment” fit into this schema? Assuming that experiment was valid (which is questioned these days), how does that fit into the picture? Well, the guards had roles, like actors, and “the group of the guards” was poised against “the group of the prisoners” (suggesting a possible mixture of “group psychology” with “scapegoating”). To those in the experiment, it easily felt like a dream or something people “could get lost in,” and certainly everyone found themselves “acting a role” they ceased being able to dissociate themselves with (as in dreams we find ourselves “in roles” we can’t imagine we’re “not actually”).

²Allusion to “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”

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