How Psychology is Used to Control the Masses – Edward Bernays

When something important happens, look at it as a chess game, where every piece is a group of people…

You might have an important role like the queen. Or, you might be a pawn used to serve the more powerful players.

No matter the role you play… no matter whether you know you are playing… you are on the “chessboard.” You are part of the game.

Those who move the pieces are people like Edward Bernays.

Edward Bernays is known as the father of public relations.

What’s more interesting is that he was the double nephew of Sigmund Freud.

And he used Freud’s psychoanalytic principles to develop techniques for influencing public opinion.

Even though most people don’t know him, he shaped consumer culture in America and beyond.

To put it simply, he’s the reason people buy things they don’t need.

Bernays tactics can also be used to improve the image of a public figure or win an election.

Here I’m going to cover the crucial elements of public opinion.

And how people like Bernays manipulate our behavior in ways that when we understand what happened, it’s too late.

Conscious, Pre-conscious, and Unconscious

Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, singled out three levels of awareness: conscious, unconscious, and pre-conscious.

The conscious mind comprises all the perceptions and experiences we are aware of. All the things people know they know.

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The unconscious comprises thoughts, feelings, instincts, motives, and conflicts outside of conscious awareness.

There are also repressed facts and conflicts that we don’t want to activate or remember.

An example is childhood traumas.

All of these form the unconscious… what the individual doesn’t know.

Freud’s theory of the unconscious is very deterministic – meaning it plays a big role in determining the whole human psyche.

Our unconscious can influence our behavior, even if we aren’t aware of its influence.

The Pre-conscious comprises experiences for which the person can become conscious with little attempt.

It serves as a bridge from the unconscious to the conscious.

A good example is when we suddenly remember something we had forgotten about it.

We suddenly become conscious of something that lived within us, and we didn’t know.

ID, Ego, and Superego

Freud stated that the structure of the human personality has three parts – Id, Ego, and Superego.

These parts interact with each other and greatly influence how you act.

Let’s start with ID.

The entirety of the unconscious forms ID.

It’s made up of instincts.

ID doesn’t know what’s good and wrong, what can be done and what can’t, and knows no limits.

It only wants to fulfill its instincts because it releases pleasure.

For example, the baby is entirely ID. The baby only wants to fulfill its needs.

As the child grows up, the part of ID that comes into contact with the environment through the senses learns that reality doesn’t allow you to fulfill the needs quickly.

This forces ID to modify itself, turning into a structure called ego.

Ego is realistic, conscious, and rational.

One of the primary functions of the ego is to satisfy the needs of ID in a realistic and socially acceptable way.

The ego uses defense mechanisms to do its job.

Defense mechanisms are methods to face our impulses and what we consider dangerous.


Then the child learns from authority figures (parents, teachers, media heroes…) that certain behaviors are unacceptable.

There are rules he needs to follow. And if he breaks them, they’ll punish him.

Since reality not only doesn’t let you do what you want, but it also gives you traditions, habits, and judgments and requires that you respect them, a part of the ego modifies itself and turns into the superego.

Superego contradicts ID.

Superego strives to act socially appropriately while ID wants immediate gratification.

By developing the superego, humans have developed several moral standards.

Superego can take control over the blind instincts of ID and the realistic goals of the ego.

Here’s a simple example of how ID ego and superego interact:

Let’s say that you are in a fast-food restaurant, and in front of you there’s a delicious meal.

The problem is that you are trying to lose weight.

ID tells you to hell with dieting. We need to eat this delicious meal because you will feel great.

Ego tells you that this kind of food is harmful to your health and it will hurt the progress you’ve made so far with losing weight.

Superego will tell you, “If you eat this meal you’ll get fatter and people will have a negative opinion of you.”

This vision of Freud about the human psyche is entirely original – till then, it was thought that humans were utterly rational beings who know what they do, what they believe, and what they feel.

Bernays was the first who used psychoanalysis to understand people’s inner desires and motivations to sell them pretty much everything.

During 80 years as a PR counsel, he worked with different clients from artists to corporations to politicians.

Gustave Le Bon: The Psychology of Crowds

Bernays was also influenced by Le Bon’s book, The Crowd: A study of the popular mind.

Le Bon offered advice on the usefulness of images and theatrics as tools of persuasion and referred to the unconscious powers of suggestion.

He argued that the popular mind wasn’t driven by reason but by illogical and primitive forces.

What I want to focus on is this quote from the book:

“The masses have never thirsted after the truth. They turn aside from evidence that is not their taste, preferring to deify error if error seduces them.

Crowds have always undergone the influence of illusions. Whoever can supply them with illusions is easily their master.

Whoever attempts to destroy their illusions is always their victim.”

Let me give you a simple example from my life.

I had an anxiety disorder for many years. And here’s how it works:

It starts with…

Irrational thoughts.

That is turned into irrational beliefs.

Then the brain responds by building defense mechanisms – meaning that I consider normal situations as dangerous, and I have a powerful urge to walk away.

I built a new perception consequently about myself and the world.

And it comes to the point that I live on Illusions.

The most problematic thing is that I spend most of my time processing thoughts, and I don’t act. It’s like I’m in the middle of the ocean on a small boat, and there’s no land in sight. There’s no progress whatsoever.

I got into that situation because I accepted those irrational thoughts and beliefs without questioning them. Basically, I indoctrinated myself.

Of course, my life got complicated. And I went to therapy because I desperately wanted to change.

Session after session, the therapist helped me think rationally, the defense mechanisms rose less and less, my perception changed, the illusion I had built fell, and I started to act.

Sure my life changed, and it was awesome, but it’s worth pointing out how I reacted to these attempts at first.

At the beginning of therapy, I was bitter, angry, and many times rude to her.

Think about it for a moment.

Even though those illusions I was holding on to were harmful and I wanted to change… Still, it took a lot of work to break them.

The main reason is that living on illusions is easy. It’s something we know. 

Even though we might feel miserable in that zone, we have learned to live with it.

A similar thing is with the masses.

They create certain illusions about certain situations or people. And if you feed their illusions, then they’ll accept you, and you can influence them. 

But if you try to destroy their illusions, even if it is beneficial for them, you’ll face incredible resistance.

Theories of Walter Lippmann on Public Opinion

Walter Lippmann was among the most influential journalists of the early 20th century.

After he graduated from Harvard, he helped found “The New Republic” magazine and was an advisor to President Woodrow Wilson.

In the 1930s, he became a syndicated columnist, where he won a broad audience and two Pulitzer prizes.

He wrote several well-respected books throughout his long career, but the most influential one was Public Opinion.

The central idea of his book was that the public mind needed to be understood and managed by an educated elite.

Two of Lippmann’s arguments were significant as Bernays honed his craft.

The first argument was that public opinion consists of pictures in their head, and these pictures often mislead people in their dealings with the world outside. 

Living with daily problems and minimal access to facts, most people’s sense of reality is shaped by what he termed “pseudo-environments.”

“People form a mental image of events they do not experience and attach emotions to those images.

Casual facts combine with man’s creative imagination and his will to believe to create the fictions on which he acts.

The analyst of public opinion must thus begin by recognizing the triangular relationship between – the scene of action, the human picture of that scene, and the human response to that picture working itself out upon the scene of action”.

– Public Opinion, Walter Lippmann

In other words, we create a model of our environment in our mind because it’s simpler for us to understand it and act.

You and I watch the same event, but our perception of it might be different.

The reason is that we attach emotions to the event. Remember what we learned about the unconscious mind.

And we will behave based on that perception.

Human perception is a collection of:

  • Feelings we have about past experiences
  • Stereotypes
  • Symbols
  • Rationalizations
  • Fantasies

If you can understand your audience’s patterns of perception, you could engineer their “pseudo-environments”.

The second argument was about stereotypes.

Lippmann defined it as a “distorted picture or image in a person’s mind, not based on personal experience, but derived culturally.”

The pattern of stereotypes largely determines what group of facts we shall see and in what light we shall see them.

“For the most part, we do not first see, and then define, we define first and then see.

In the great blooming, buzzing confusion of the outer world, we pick out what our culture has already defined for us, and we tend to perceive that which we have picked out in the form stereotyped for us by our culture.”

    – Public Opinion (Page 81)

Bernays agreed with his argument and stated that the PR counsel creates new stereotypes.

And you can build these stereotypes based on understanding the fundamental instincts of the people you are trying to reach.

The Power of Symbols

In 1929 George Hill, the President of American Tobacco, asked Bernays to persuade women to smoke outdoors.

Back then, it was acceptable for women to smoke at home, but women smoking in public were seen negatively.

Bernays understood they were up against a social taboo, but he wasn’t sure how they could overcome it.

So they paid a hefty fee to Dr. A. A. Brill, a psychoanalyst and disciple of Freud.

Dr. Brill advised:

“It is perfectly normal for women to want to smoke cigarettes.

The emancipation of women has suppressed many of their feminine desires.

More women now do the same work as men do. Many women bear no children; those who do bear have fewer children.

Feminine traits are masked. Cigarettes, which are equated with men, become torches of freedom.”

   – Biography of an Idea, Edward Bernays

The last sentence inspired Bernays.

Why not organize a parade of prominent women lighting “torches of freedom”?

And he decided to do it on Easter Sunday on Fifth Avenue.

He gathered a list of 30 debutantes from his friend who worked for Vogue.

And he sent each of them a telegram signed by his secretary, Bertha Hunt.

Bertha posed as a women’s rights advocate trying to gather supporters for the torches of freedom campaign.

On Easter Sunday, ten young women marched down Fifth Avenue, and after the signal, they lit cigarettes.

Bernays notified the press beforehand that he had heard a group of women activists was preparing to protest by lighting what they called “torches of freedom.”

As Pat Jackson, a PR advisor and a friend of Bernays, explains:

“He knew that all the photographers would be there to capture this moment and so he was ready with a phrase… torches of freedom. Here you have a symbol, young women smoking a cigarette in public with a phrase that means… anybody who believes in equality, pretty much has to support them in the ensuing debate about this.”

Everything was carefully scripted. How should debutants look? How would they behave? Where would they go?

But most importantly, Bernays took steps to conceal that he and American Tobacco were behind this campaign.

He hid that “torches of freedom” was nothing more than a promotion for Lucky Strikes.

Maybe this campaign is why brands try to link their product to a social cause.

In my opinion, a situation that fully captures Bernays’ approach is this:

A PR man advised George Hill to change the Lucky Strike package to a neutral color because surveys showed women do not prefer its green package.

They thought it crashed with their favorite clothing.

Hill didn’t like this strategy because they had spent millions advertising the package.

Then Bernays said, “If you won’t change the color of the package, change the color of fashion… to green.”

Imagine that… Trying to change an entire nation’s taste of color, which he did, by the way.

Bernays’ approach was indirect…

He created seemingly spontaneous events that generated news and linked to his clients’ products or ideas.

He didn’t slap facts on your face about why buy a particular product; he shaped your environment in a way that purchasing the product or taking a certain action felt like a reasonable thing to do.

That you were acting all on your own.

Third-Man Technique

On Jan 17, 1991, President George H. W. Bush announced the start of Operation Desert Storm…

A war against Iraq in response to Iraq’s invasion and annexation of Kuwait.

Three months earlier, a 15-year-old nurse named Nayirah gave this emotional testimony before congress…

For three months, this testimony was repeated again and again by the media. Even the president himself mentioned the story.
This story shocked the US public and convinced them to take military action against Iraq.
The coalition of countries led by the US defeated Iraq within a month.
One year later, it was found that the story of Nayirah was fabricated.
In fact, she was the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the US.

Nijirah al-Sabah (left), the daughter of Kuwait’s ambassador to the United States Saud Nasir Al-Sabah

And the mastermind behind this campaign was the world’s largest PR firm, Hill & Knowlton.
The Kuwaiti government paid them $11 million.

Bernays, still working at the time, was not involved in this campaign, but he must have recognized it for what it was because they were using his strategies:

1. Exploit their emotions – in this case, fear, anger, and disgust.

2. Create the narrative – Iraqi soldiers embody evil, and Kuwait, a young democratic country, needs help from the US and the world.

3. Use the 15-year-old “nurse” to symbolize Kuwaiti’s struggle.

4. And the most crucial element is to create news.

As Bernays explained in his book:

“The public relations counsel must lift startling facts from his whole subject and present them as news. He must isolate ideas and develop them into events so that they can be more readily understood and so they can claim attention as news.”

– Crystalizing Public Opinion, Edward Bernays
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