Discovering Psychoanalysis as a Business School Student

by Ryan Collins

My exploration of psychoanalysis began with philosophy. Like many people my age, I was seeking answers to certain existential questions: “Who or what governs our behaviors, and are they rational?” Philosophers—from Plato, Aristotle, and Marcus Aurelius to Descartes, Hume, Kant, and beyond—have been asking similar questions for millennia. Although he was not a philosopher, Freud’s founding of psychoanalysis tackled such questions as well. While many of his theories have been challenged and revised, his discovery that our behaviors are often governed by unconscious conflicts between our desires and internalized societal demands remains relevant today. Although Freud continues to be a controversial figure, he critically challenged our belief in human rationality by demonstrating the unconscious and “irrational” nature of most of our behavioral tendencies.

Before realizing any of this, I’d entered Wharton’s undergraduate program with dreams of a job in investment banking. My father had introduced me to the stock market in my freshman year of high school, and in those boom years I became hooked. However, my interests began to change after finishing my initial undergraduate finance and accounting courses. I found little interest in corporate valuations and balance sheets. Instead, I was drawn towards management and operations and their more varied career paths. My courses in these fields felt excitingly exploratory rather than dully scripted. Investment banking seemed increasingly uncreative to me, whereas I sought opportunities for more independent thinking.

On a personal level, I’ve always been introspective. Ironically, however, I’ve always had a difficult time understanding the motivations of others. I’ve also never been very emotional, and I struggle to understand others’ affects. My brother and I are both very logical people with strong wills, and we’ve struggled to understand why so many others don’t share these qualities. So, it was fitting when he gave me a copy of John Bargh’s Before You Know It for Christmas two years ago. Bargh’s book explores our unconscious motivations from three perspectives: past, present, and future. It’s full of anecdotes, stories, and studies that shed light on our hidden motivations. For example, Bargh describes a study by Jennifer Lerner that demonstrates how our purchasing decisions are influenced by recent emotional experiences. Experiences of disgust often lead us to buy low and sell low. Experiences of sadness often cause us to buy high and sell low. As it turns out, the “endowment effect” (our tendency to value an object more if we own it than we would value the same object if we didn’t) is unconsciously influenced by recent experiences of disgust or sadness. As a business student, this piqued my interest by helping more fully to explain the famous correlation between sunshine and stock market performance.

Early in my college career, I front-loaded my Wharton courses because I planned to go abroad. Then COVID-19 hit. With an abundance of electives to fulfill, I decided it would be a good idea to pursue a minor. But which one? I scrolled through the list of minors alphabetically, looking into each minor and its requirements. When I got to “Psychoanalytic Studies,” I thought to myself: “I know what psychology is, and I like to analyze, so I’ll probably like this.” After further research, I found that psychoanalysis is centrally concerned with the unconscious, which was my new-found interest thanks to Bargh’s book. I called Dr. Larry Blum, Co-director of  Penn’s Psychoanalytic Studies program, who offered to set me up with a mentor who was more familiar with the intersection between business and psychoanalysis. I figured it was worth a try.

Since then, I’ve taken three courses on psychoanalysis. In “Introduction to Psychoanalysis,” I was introduced to prominent early theorists such as Freud, Erikson, Winnicott, and Bowlby. Concurrently, I took “Psychoanalysis and Anthropology,” in which I conducted a study on the effects of social media on young adults’ “sense of self.” And, this past spring, I took “Psychodynamic Theory in Clinical Practice,” in which I learned about the clinical implementation of psychoanalytic theory with aspiring social workers in Penn’s Master of Social Work program.

These courses gave me an important grounding in the field. But it’s my business-focused mentorship with Dr. Steven Rolfe that I’ve found most valuable. Dr. Rolfe is an Executive Coach for Wharton’s McNulty Leadership Program and applies a psychoanalytic perspective in his work as a psychodynamic management consultant for the Boswell Group. He introduced me to the work of Harry Levinson, Michael Maccoby, Manfred Kets de Vries, and other pioneers in the application of psychoanalytic concepts to the world of business. They’ve found links between psychoanalytic theories and organizational change or crisis situations. For example, Harry Levinson found that “the fundamental psychological conflict in family business is rivalry” (2). The company’s founding entrepreneur sees the business as a psychological extension of themselves, which can make giving up power feel like a loss of self. The expected successor desires power and feels hostility towards the founder who stands in their way, yet simultaneously might feel guilty for that hostility. In his work, Michael Maccoby analyzed why many great leaders have what some psychoanalysts would diagnose as a “narcissistic personality type,” and why some of these leaders lose their effectiveness over time (2004a: 2). Narcissists may have great vision and command large groups of followers due to their excessive confidence, but they can also be overly sensitive to criticism and often lack empathy. A narcissistic leader might refuse to accept sound advice from others because it threatens his ego, and this could have disastrous effects on the business. Since Levinson, Maccoby, and Kets de Vries were all practicing psychoanalysts and esteemed management consultants, their insights have added validity to the idea of using a psychoanalytic perspective to identify problems in the world of business.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, my decision to minor in psychoanalysis has been met with some skepticism. After telling a mentor of mine of my newfound interest, he responded: “I wish you had told me earlier, so I could’ve talked you out of it.” Indeed, there are many misconceptions about psychoanalysis. Some of these include: that psychoanalytic concepts aren’t supported empirically; that every concept is sexual, or aggression-based; and that everything psychoanalytic must also be “Freudian.” I can’t address all these misconceptions, but I’ve been successful at demonstrating to various interviewers and business school peers how psychoanalytic ideas can explain interpersonal and group dynamics in the business world. For example, a manager’s subordinates might see them as a parental figure, via the phenomenon Freud called “transference” (Maccoby 2004b: 2). Subordinates will work particularly hard to please their manager if they see them as a caring and protective parental figure. If, however, they see the manager as a merciless or combative parental figure, workplace conflicts are likely to ensue. Studying psychoanalysis has helped me appreciate these workplace dynamics.

In what feels like a capstone to my undergraduate study of psychoanalysis, I will be helping with the creation of a course on “Psychoanalysis and Money” with Dr. Sudev Sheth and Dr. Behdad Bozorgnia, which will be taught at Penn the year after I graduate. I will be reviewing possible reading assignments and providing an undergraduate perspective as we determine how to best structure the course and maximize comprehension. The first half of the course will focus on the history of money, while the second half will connect the idea of money to psychoanalytic concepts including envy, disgust, greed, and desire. This course is exciting because it explores and promotes the practical applications of psychoanalysis, and places less emphasis on its controversial founder. I hope that this upcoming course will lay the groundwork for other courses to come. I also hope that my example will encourage other undergraduates to explore the Psychoanalytic Studies minor and the many cross-disciplinary applications waiting to be discovered.


Works cited

Bargh, John A. 2019. Before You Know It: The Unconscious Reasons We Do What We Do. New York: Atria Paperback.

Levinson, Harry. 1971. “Conflicts That Plague Family Businesses.” Harvard Business Review 49.2: 90-98.

Maccoby, Michael. 2004a. “Narcissistic Leaders: The Incredible Pros, the Inevitable Cons.” Harvard Business Review 82.1: 92-101.

—. 2004b. “The Power of Transference.” Harvard Business Review 82.9: 76-85.


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Psychoanalysis as Argo: A Podcast Setting Sail in the Virtual Classroom

by Anneleen Masschelein and Yael Segalovitz

It was June 2020, about two months into the whirlpool, which—we then had no way of knowing—would swallow up our lives for many more months to come. In Israel, Yael was at home with her two young boys (who couldn’t fathom why the playgrounds were empty and cordoned off by yellow tape), rushing to meet the deadline for an article on autotheory and psychoanalysis. In Belgium, Anneleen was in a similar situation: torn between the demands of her child, her teaching, and her research during the early stages of what would become a seemingly endless lockdown.

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Teaching Psychoanalysis with Children’s Literature *

by Lawrence D. Blum

I’ve designed a syllabus for a novel way to teach basic psychoanalytic principles and child development. Although originally developed with undergraduates in mind, a course based on this syllabus has been taught with great success to candidates at the Psychoanalytic Center of Philadelphia by my friend and colleague, Dr. Susan Adelman. I’m posting here about the course both to encourage others to use it as the basis for possible courses of their own and to solicit from readers (students and teachers alike!) suggestions for improving or expanding it.

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Teaching Winnicott: On Listening and More Than Listening

by Jordan Alexander Stein

We teachers don’t always know how to walk the line separating the pedagogical from the extra-pedagogical.  Years ago, when I was fairly new to the job, I found myself in office hours listening to a student in some amount of pain.  I gave her a hearing, brokered an accommodation, and sent her on her way.  But as the day went on, I began to fret that I hadn’t done enough––that I could and should have been more encouraging, or at least told her I recognized the bravery that comes with asking for help.  So I turned to friends for advice, and one memorably emailed to say “Therapy is 95% listening and 5% things you’re not qualified to do.”  Their point was that, in doing no more than listening, it may well be that I’d done enough.

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Impossible Professions: Teaching Literature and Psychoanalysis

by Emma Lieber

In “Analysis Terminable and Interminable,” Freud famously claimed that psychoanalysis is one of the three “impossible professions”—the others being education and government. The recent political environment in America certainly gives us a lens onto the impossibility of the latter, and perhaps what “impossible” means in these contexts, though the high drama of the Trump administration may also obscure what’s at stake. What is the aporia—the irreducible, unassimilable gap—at the heart of these vocations? What are their desires and aims, and what within them challenges, not so much the achievement of those aims, but any conventional notion of what achievement means? In what way do these pursuits underscore what Lacan for one designates as the impossibility of desire? And how might recognizing the impossibility of these endeavors influence the aims and techniques of their practitioners?

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The Use of a (Cinematic) Object: Emotional Experience with Film

by Kelli Fuery

Psychoanalysis and the field of cinema and media studies have shared a long, if turbulent, history. From the mid 1970s to the late 1980s, both Freudian and Lacanian approaches contributed to the method that became known as psychoanalytic film theory, serving as the cornerstone of cinematic apparatus theory as developed by Jean-Louis Baudry (1974) and Christian Metz (1974, 1982). Cinematic apparatus theory sought specifically to examine the interrelated structures of cinematic space, screen, and spectacle within the predominantly linguistic frame of Lacanian psychoanalysis. During the same period, psychoanalytic film theory expanded to include theories of spectatorship, feminist film theory (de Lauretis 1984, 1987; Doane, 1987, 1991; Mulvey 1975; Penley 1989), and cinematic textual analysis.

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How Psychoanalysis Helped Me Rethink Police Brutality

by H. N.

This article addresses sensitive political matters regarding the Hong Kong/mainland China relationship. The author has decided to not provide their full name or contact information to avoid running afoul of Beijing’s national security law for Hong Kong.

“Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our time!” “Five demands, not one less!” “Corrupted cops, may your whole family die!” These chants of protestors penetrated me as I marched with a million peaceful demonstrators. I was initially hesitant to join in the cursing of the families of corrupted cops, wondering how spreading further hatred could be helpful at all. But the urgent cries for justice brought back images of police brutality; rage seemed to infiltrate and spur me, and I found myself, too, chanting fiercely the words of hatred: “Corrupted cops, may your whole family die!”

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War Neuroses on the Twenty-First-Century College Campus

by Michael McAndrew

The United States has been engaged in the “Long War” of post-9/11 conflicts for eighteen years. If that war were a person, it might be getting ready to go to college. Indeed, many of the almost three million veterans who have served in the post-9/11 conflicts are also returning to college—though many may be significantly older than eighteen, as they now begin or continue their college educations.

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Race and Psychoanalysis: Some Resources for Undergraduate Education and Counseling

by Max Cavitch, Ph.D.

Note: There are terrific posts by Kelli Fuery, Michael McAndrew, H.N., and others awaiting publication—please be on the lookout for them in the coming weeks and months. In the meantime, given our extraordinary present circumstances and—as educators, students, and clinicians—our need to adapt to them as we prepare for an uncertain new academic year, it seems important to jump the queue with this selected bibliography of resources—to which readers are welcome and encouraged to contribute in the “Comment” section.

Many of us will be spending the summer preparing to resume teaching in a world transformed, not only by Covid-19, but also by the revitalized struggle against systemic assaults on black bodies and minds. The psychic fallout of state-sponsored violence—including racially motivated police brutality and the extrajudicial murder of black men, women, and transgender folk—has scarcely begun to be calculated, much less adequately addressed, by the psychoanalytic community. How might those of us who teach psychoanalysis at the undergraduate level, or provide psychodynamic therapy to college students, do a better job of centering black lives—and matters of race even more broadly—in our classrooms and counseling facilities?

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