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There is a lovely line in the film Good Will Hunting where the character played by Robin Williams ends a college class on psychotherapy by saying: "See you Monday. We'll be talking about Freud, and why he did enough cocaine to kill a small horse."

There is a lovely line in the film Good Will Hunting where the character played by Robin Williams ends a college class on psychotherapy by saying: "See you Monday. We'll be talking about Freud, and why he did enough cocaine to kill a small horse."

Freud is widely quoted, often derided, and rarely appreciated. If you want to understand his work, don't surf the net or buy a secondary text. Try reading him in the original, and you'll realise why, small horses aside, he was such a heavyweight.

One of his major ideas concerns the structure of the psyche.  I remember Robert Rowland Smith gave a particularly lucid overview of the idea when he spoke at the RSA, but my dramatised version goes as follows (analytical psychologists look away now).

The psyche is comprised of das Es(Id), das Ich(Ego) and das Über-Ich(super-ego). Crudely, the Id is your libidinous, desire-ridden, status conscious self. The Super-ego is your conscience, your tempered reason, your empathetic other-regarding self. And the Ego is your everyday sense of self, the part of you that you refer to when you say "I".

One way of looking at the psyche is that the ego tries to navigate through life while facing upward pressure from the Id and downward pressure from the Super-ego. In RSA terms, we might say the Id is anti-social (disregarding the feelings of others) the super-ego is pro-social(actively supporting and shaping positive social norms) and the ego is typically a-social (permissively accepting pervasive social norms but doing nothing to pro-actively create them).

So far, so contentious, but let's try to diagnose the world's problems with the following argument. The reason anti-social and a-social behaviour are so pervasive is that the Id has a natural ally in the advert. The super-ego, meanwhile, has lost its institutional moorings and needs an alternative to the church. The ego has become imbalanced because while the Id is bombarded by the Ad, the super-ego lacks an equivalent medium through which to communicate.

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I offer a hat-tip to Michael Foley for linking the Ad to the Id, and commend his extremely funny and insightful book, The Age of Absurdity: Why Modern Life makes it hard to be happy. The following extract from page 19 gives some idea of the basic claim:

"So the ad woos the id in the traditional way- by impressing, flattering and stimulating...

The AD: Regard the mighty vault soaring to Heaven.

The ID: SHEEZ!

The AD: Now regard the many shiny prizes.

The ID: WANT!

The AD: All of this is for you.

The ID: ME!

THE AD: You are indeed uniquely wonderful

The ID: Lights! Cameras! Put me on Prime-time!

The AD: Nor need to concern yourself with others, but be an infant till you die.

The ID(Scowling): Don't you mean, be an infant forever?

The AD: I said, be an infant for eternity.

The ID: WHOOP-DE-DOO!

The AD: Never shall your desires diminish or your appetites abate.

The ID: MORE!"

Foley wisely counsels that rather than trying to defeat the ad(not easy given that the average American, for instance is subject to 3000 ads a day) we would be wiser to work on controlling the id but:

"This is not easy either. The contemporary Id is rampant and in no mood to be tamed. Never have so many wanted to so much so badly. Never has the Id been so flattered and indulged. This is the golden age of the id." (p21)

Two thoughts:

1) As Matthew Taylor recently reiterated, a large part of the RSA's new mission is to foster pro-social behaviour. We cannot be a substitute church. Instead we be the kind of institution that actively promotes collaborative pro-social behaviour that might act as a counterweight to the relatively selfish desires of the Id.

2) As spiritual traditions have recognised for thousands of years, what is required to tame the Id  is not ideas, projects or policy, but sustained personal/spiritual practice. We need to be still, and look closely at our own natures from the inside. Hence the need for techniques like Mindfulness, an issue we will be discussing at the RSA on Thursday.

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