What do psychoanalysis and bacon have in common?
Two words which have nothing in common happened to cross each other’s history one century ago. This is the story of Edward Bernays and the birth of the American breakfast.
WHO IS MR. EDWARD BERNAYS?
Mr. Bernays was born in Vienna, Austria in 1891. He was nothing less than the nephew of the founder of the psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud. Grown-up in the United States and taken a degree in Agriculture he started its carrier as a journalist and then quickly moved to the advertising sector. Although, he exploited its relationship with the notorious uncle to improve its status he was a brilliant man and excellent writer. He was even recognised, later, as one of the 100 men most influent in the US for the 20th century. In his carrier he worked primarily in the private sector although he was often close to the public. He was, for instance, member of the “Committee on Public Relation”, a huge propaganda lab sponsored by the government aiming to mobilise the public opinion on joining the World War I. This experience was crucial for the young Edward since it opened his mind on the potential and techniques of “regimenting the public mind”.
After the war, in the 1920s, Bernays was hired by the Beech-Nut Packing Company, business which offered a wide range of pork products. In the specific, as a consultant, he was asked to define a way of increasing the consumption and sales of bacon.
The strategy adopted was quite straightforward. Bernays went to the company interior doctor and asked him whether a heavier rather than lighter breakfast was desirable. The doctor, facing obvious conflict of interest signed a document stating that a substantial breakfast is highly beneficial for human health. He then sent the paper to thousands of other doctors around the country, every time stating that “Hundreds of physicians already agreed that a heavy breakfast is healthy”. Many doctors when receiving the letter did not make too much effort in challenging the opinion of thousands of their colleagues and ended up endorsing the study themselves.
After a while, more than five-thousands doctors had already signed the paper. The report was published in some of the major newspapers and magazines of the time, encouraging the consumption of eggs and bacon in the morning. Bacon sales rose sharply and the American breakfast as we all know today aggressively entered in the average American household diet.
THE POWER OF NUDGE
Bernays exploited some typical kinds of human behaviours. The first concerns the fact that an individual tends to accommodate and even give up some his own ideas in order to be accepted by people around him or her. Many studies support the fact that only a small portion of the population tends to challenge authorities of any kind. Although people have different ideas, they commonly share them in private and are usually reluctant to expose themselves and defend them publicly. They fear the fact that others might judge, criticise, and humiliate them. In order to avoid such troubles and uncomfortable situations the vast majority follow the lead or preserve the status quo.
In a famous experiment involving electric shocks and learning, Doctor Milgram concluded that people obey either out of fear or out of a desire to appear cooperative even when acting against their own better judgment and desires (Milgram 1974).
We use the decisions of others as a heuristic, or mental shortcut, to navigate our lives. English philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead once said, “Civilisation advances by extending the number of operations we can perform without thinking about them." (Rob Henderson, 2017)
Propaganda is indeed very effective, not merely because it brainwashes people but because it is a catalyst of attention. When a message is repeated many times it becomes the status quo, the norm and starts to be widely accepted. Group thinking is very dangerous if exploited for bad objectives specially if the source of the message is a status quo itself as a public authority or a government. For policy makers and companies is then not important what they do but how things are dealt with, and how they are communicated to the public.
In our case the doctors signing the document did not want to enter a discussion and criticize the statement signed by colleagues all over the country. They renounced to their personal right of disagreement. They aligned themselves to what unknown others already defined although no one forced them to do so and there was no compensation and rewards for their collaboration.
Here is where nudge and behavioural economics want to give its contribution. Persuasion and group thinking are strong tools in current debates and people should be aware of their existence in order to monitor both public and private agents to do their job diligently with less need for short-cut and old-style propaganda. What the Bernays method teaches us is that marketing campaigns do not necessarily require massive investments in advertising and mediatic coverage to be successful. By knowing nudges and people behaviour, companies can save money and be even more effective and capillary in terms of market penetration. By exploiting groupthink and status quo a single man working for a small company was able to shape the diet of hundred million of American. In a world of fake news, being able to process and filter outside information is becoming increasingly crucial.
Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. New York: Harper and Row. An excellent presentation of Milgram’s work is also found in Brown, R. (1986). Social Forces in Obedience and Rebellion. Social Psychology: The Second Edition. New York: The Free Press.
Rob Henderson. (2017, May 24). Psychologytoday.com. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/after-service/201705/the-science-behind-why-people-follow-the-crowd