Bernaysian manipulation of the human psyche

Edward Bernays was the master of influencing and shaping public opinion who developed upon the ideas of earlier social psychologists and the work of his uncle, Sigmund Freud, in order to create techniques to manipulate the subconscious desires of the masses. 

Throughout his 103-year lifespan, the “father of public relations” was at the pinnacle of his field advising US Presidents Coolidge, Eisenhower, Hoover and Wilson, as well as inventor Thomas Edison, US industrialist Henry Ford and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. He also reportedly refused invitations by Hitler and Franco to work on fascist propaganda campaigns in Europe. 

At the end of World War 1 Bernays served as a propagandist for America before going on to work with various government departments and corporations throughout his lifetime, including: the US Department of State, CBS, Procter and Gamble, and the American Tobacco Company, as well as designing the propaganda campaign for the United Fruit Company which led to the CIA coup against the Guatemalan President Jacobo Árbenz in 1954. 

Bernays combined the work of people such as the French social psychologist Gustave Le Bon to create techniques which appeal to the subconscious emotions of the public, as opposed to engaging the public in rational and intellectual debate. Le Bon studied the mental characteristics and the behaviour of the crowd, believing that when part of a mass, individuals are subordinate to the crowd mind and that a human behaves in a more emotive, irrational manner. Bernays observed that if a propagandist could understand the “motives of the group mind”, they would possess the ability to “control and regiment the masses”:

The systematic study of mass psychology revealed to students the potentialities of invisible government of society by the manipulation of the motives which actuate man in the group. Trotter and Le Bon, who approached the subject in a scientific manner, and Graham Wallas, Walter Lippmann, and others who continued with searching studies of the group mind, established that the group has mental characteristics distinct from those of the individual, and is motivated by impulses and emotions which cannot be explained on the basis of what we know of individual psychology. So the question naturally arose: If we understand the mechanism and the motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing of it?” (Bernays, 1928, p.71)

Bernays continues to reveal the growing ability of the propagandist to understand and successfully alter “public opinion” way back in the 1920s, long before television sets were in every household and the sophisticated modern media techniques of today:


The recent practice of propaganda has proved that it is possible, at least up to a certain point and within certain limits. Mass psychology is as yet far from being an exact science and the mysteries of human motivation are by no means all revealed. But at least theory and practice have combined with sufficient success to permit us to know that in certain cases we can effect some change in public opinion with a fair degree of accuracy by operating a certain mechanism, just as the motorist can regulate the speed of a car by manipulating the flow of gasoline. (Bernays, 1928, p.71 & p.72)

The basic premise of Bernays thesis is that humans are “rarely aware” of the true motivations and desires powering their actions, and if certain individuals could uncover the real desires of the mass mind, the public could be influenced and manipulated without their knowledge of it:

Men are rarely aware of the real reasons which motivate their actions . . . It is chiefly the psychologists of the school of Freud who have pointed out that many of man’s thoughts and actions are compensatory substitutes for desires which has been obliged to suppress. A thing may be desired not for its intrinsic worth or usefulness, but because he has unconsciously come to see it as a symbol of something else, the desire for which he is ashamed to admit to himself…. This general principle, that men are very largely actuated by motives which they conceal from themselves, is as true of mass as of individual psychology. It is evident that the successful propagandist must understand the true motives and not be content to accept the reasons which men give for what they do . . . Human desires are the steam which makes the social machine work. Only by understanding them can the propagandist control that loose-jointed mechanism which is modern society. (Bernays, 1928, p. 74, p.75 & p.76)

The study of mass psychology and herd behaviour were important areas which had to be understood to intelligently manipulate the public:

The whole basis of successful propaganda is to have an objective and then to endeavour to arrive at it through an exact knowledge of the public and modifying circumstances to manipulate and sway that public (Bernays, 1928, p.126). But clearly it is the intelligent minorities which need to make use propaganda continuously and systematically . . . Small groups of persons can, and do, make the rest of us think what they please about a given subject. (Bernays, 1928, p.57)

In ancient times, leaders of a tribe, group or society processed tremendous power over the rest of the people especially if they are skilled in the art of persuasion. Political leaders in modern times have the ability to shape and mould the psychology of their followers in a truly profound manner, especially if they have the ability to use propaganda effectively:

The voice of the people expresses the mind of the people, and that mind is made up for it by the group leaders in whom it believes and by those persons who understand the manipulation of public opinion. Fortunately, the sincere and gifted politician is able, by the instrument of propaganda, to mould and form the will of the people. (Bernays, 1928, p. 109)

Bernays reveals the power propagandists have to manipulate and control the “public mind” through understanding the techniques of managing the public:

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organised habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds moulded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of . . . Whatever attitude one chooses toward this condition, it remains a fact that 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 a relatively small number of persons – a trifling fraction of our hundred and twenty million – 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. (Bernays, 1928, p.37 & p.38)


Edward Bernays – Propaganda 1928

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