The Science of Thought Control


The Century of the Self is a four-part BBC documentary that delves deeply into the life and work of Sigmund Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays. Bernays was the first to perfect the science of thought control. In the political sphere, he referred to mass psychological manipulation as “engineering consent.” When he used propaganda and psychological manipulation to sell corporate products, he called it “public relations.” Parts 1 and 2 focus on the Freudian theories underpinning the early public relations movement.

The Century of the Self

BBC Documentary (2005)

Film Review

Part 1 (Happiness Machines) and Part 2 (Engineering of Consent)

The Transformation from Citizen to Consumer

The twentieth century is frequently referred to as the selfish century. This documentary lays the blame for this at the feet of Sigmund Freud and his nephew Edward Bernays.

Prior to World War I politicians and businesses used facts and information to win votes or to persuade people to buy their products. When Woodrow Wilson hired him to run his Committee for Public Information to produce pro-World War I propaganda, Bernays incorporated Sigmund Freud’s theory that human behavior was based on unconscious instinctual drives. By appealing to these unconscious and irrational feelings, he succeeded in selling World War I to a profoundly isolationist American public

 As well as his pivotal role in engineering corporate and government propaganda, Bernays was also responsible for popularizing Sigmund Freud’s work by emphasizing its sexual content.

 The Shift from a Needs to a Desire Based Culture

Curious whether similar techniques would also work in peace time, Bernays hired himself out to corporations to help them improve their sale of consumer products. His goal was to shift US society from a needs culture, where people only bought what they needed, to a desire culture, where they purchased products to make them feel better. Aware that the word propaganda had an extremely negative connotation, Bernays coined the term “public relations.”

Bernay’s stunning success gave birth to 1920s “consumptionism” and was largely responsible for the economic bubble that resulted in the 1929 crash. Already by 1927, social critics were concerned that Americans were no longer citizens but consumers. Confident of their ability to engineer consumer demand, banks funded national expansion of department store chains and hired Bernays to persuade ordinary people to borrow money to buy shares in the stock market.

Driven to record levels by borrowed money, the stock market collapsed.

During the Great Depression, Bernays shifted gears to focus more on influencing public political views. Neither Freud nor Bernays believed in the equality of man. Frightened by the rise of fascism in Europe, both believed that democracy was a fundamentally unsafe form of government (due to human beings’ dangerous unconscious drives).

Both believed that people must be controlled – that mass democracy could only work if popular consent was engineered. Bernays was also convinced that the best way to control people in a mass democracy was to render them passive consumers – by triggering a continuous irrational desire to consume and satisfying it with consumer goods.

Roosevelt Tries to Rein in Business

Unlike Freud and Bernays, Franklin Roosevelt believed that people were capable of knowing what they wanted and relied on the new science of public opinion polling (pioneered by George Gallup) to ascertain what people were thinking. His response to the Great Depression was to grant himself extensive executive power and subject business to central economic planning, which they hated.

In 1936, the National Association of Manufacturers hired Bernays to initiate an ideological campaign against the New Deal (and the rise of unionism as Alex Carey mentions in Taking the Risk Out of Democracy.

When World War II ended, the CIA hired Bernays to advise them on how to control the “irrational aggression” of the masses. In his CIA role, Bernays devised a campaign for the Eisenhower administration to convince the American public they were under imminent threat from Soviet Communism.

As part of this campaign, Bernays mobilized public and congressional support for the 1954 coup against Guatemala’s democratically elected president Jacobo Arbenz. Bernays also worked for the United Fruit Company, which was concerned about Arbenz’s plans for land reform, i.e. breaking up their extensive Guatemalan banana plantations.

The First Focus Groups

Meanwhile the public relations industry hired psychoanalysts to set up focus groups to use advertising more effectively to improve consumer demand for corporate products. These early focus groups employed psychoanalytic techniques to help advertisers improve sales by secretly appealing to unconscious needs and insecurities.

photo credit: Saint Iscariot via photopin cc

Originally posted in Veterans Today

18 thoughts on “The Science of Thought Control


    29 November 1963



    1. A meeting was held in General Carter’s office on 29 November 1963 to discuss the subject program. Those present, in addition to General Carter, were Messrs. Helms, Kirkpatrick, xxxxxxxx, Gottlieb and Earman. The main thrust of the discussion was the testing of certain drugs on unwitting U.S. citizens. Dr. Gottlieb gave a brief history of the MKULTRA program which was not in any way at variance with the IG report of August 1963 on this subject.

    2. Messrs. Gottlieb and xxxxxxxx argued for the continuation of unwitting testing, using as the principal point that controlled testing cannot be depended upon for accurate results. General Carter, Mr. Kirkpatrick, and I do not disagree with this point. We also accept the necessity for having a “stable of drugs” on the shelf and the requirement for continued research and development of drugs — not only for possible operational use but also to give CIA insight on the state of the art in this field and in particular to alert us to what the opposition is or might be expected to do in the R&D and employment of drugs.

    3. xxxxxxxxxx noted that there was no disagreement with the recommendations of the IG survey on MKULTRA with the exception of the unwitting testing problem. In response to a query from General Carter, he stated that since the IG report such testing has been held in abeyance.

    4. General Carter made it clear that he understood the necessity for research and development of all types of drugs, to include their testing. However, he was troubled ty the “unwitting aspect”. This led to a brief discussion on the possibility of unwitting tests on foreign nationals, but according to xxxxxxxx this had been ruled out as a result of several conversations he recently had with senior chiefs of stations — too dangerous and the lack of controlled facilities. (This seemed an odd conclusion to me since the same dangers exist in the U.S. and from what we were able to find out during our survey, the facilities we have for uncontrolled testing leave much to be desired — I made a point of this.)

    5. After further discussion, it was agreed:

    a. That the charter of MKULTRA would be revised along the lines recommended in the IG Survey.

    b. The procedures for testing drugs are to be reviewed and new alternative proposals submitted.

    c. If it is concluded by the DD/P that unwitting testing on American citizens must be continued to operationally prove out these drugs, it may become necessary to place this problem before the Director for a decision.

    6. I made the point that the IG survey had found other problems with the MKULTRA program in addition to the unwitting testing, but stated if the charter is rewritten along the lines recommended, I believe these problems would be corrected.

    7. NOTE: the IG Survey of MKULTRA was handed to xxxxxxxx after the meeting for his use in redrafting the charter.


    J. S. Earman
    Inspector General


    • Thanks for posting this memo. The whole world of MK-Ultra represents an even uglier facet of what I call “mind control” as opposed to “thought control.” It involved the unwitting experimentation on hundreds of individuals with drugs, electroshock, hypnosis, neurolinguistic programming – and in the case of the Monarch Program deliberate sexual and physical abuse of children.


  2. Very interesting article. I will have to read more about Edward Bernays. The way you describe his thought reminded me of phrases Noam Chomsky has used to refer to propaganda, specifically “manufacturing consent.”

    Incidently, I have just written a review on a new book on Freud which uses visual illustration. If interested I can post the link. For all the controversy of Freud, Bernays sounds even more controversial form this article.


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  6. Just to reiterate how wonderful this post and blog is. I’ve cited it twice without realizing they were both by the same author (you). Thank you.


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