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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