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The Century of the Self

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The Century of the Self
Title screen
Written byAdam Curtis
Directed byAdam Curtis
Country of originUnited Kingdom
Original languageEnglish
No. of episodes4
Executive producerStephen Lambert
  • Adam Curtis
  • Lucy Kelsall
  • David Barker
  • William Sowerby
Running time240 mins (in four parts)
Production companies
Original release
NetworkBBC Two
Release2002 (2002)

The Century of the Self is a 2002 British television documentary series by filmmaker Adam Curtis. It focuses on the work of psychoanalysts Sigmund Freud and Anna Freud, and PR consultant Edward Bernays.[1] In episode one, Curtis says, "This series is about how those in power have used Freud's theories to try and control the dangerous crowd in an age of mass democracy."


No Title Broadcast Date Notes
1 "Happiness Machines" 17 March 2002 [2]
2 "The Engineering of Consent" 24 March 2002 [3]
3 "There is a Policeman Inside All Our Heads; He Must Be Destroyed" 31 March 2002 [4]
4 "Eight People Sipping Wine in Kettering" 7 April 2002 [5]


Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, changed our perception of the mind and its workings. The documentary explores the various ways that governments, global organizations and corporations have used Freud's theories. Freud and his nephew Edward Bernays, who was the first to use psychological techniques in public relations, are discussed in part one. His daughter Anna Freud, a pioneer of child psychoanalysis, is mentioned in part two. Wilhelm Reich, an opponent of Freud's theories, is discussed in part three.

To many in politics and business, the triumph of the self is the ultimate expression of democracy, where power has finally moved to the people. Certainly, the people may feel they are in charge, but are they really? The Century of the Self tells the untold and sometimes controversial story of the growth of the mass-consumer society. How was the all-consuming self created, by whom, and in whose interests?

BBC publicity.[6]

Along these lines, The Century of the Self asks deeper questions about the roots and methods of consumerism and commodification and their implications. It also questions the modern way people see themselves, the attitudes to fashion, and superficiality.

The business and political worlds use psychological techniques to read, create and fulfill the desires of the public, and to make their products and speeches as pleasing as possible to consumers and voters. Curtis questions the intentions and origins of this relatively new approach to engaging the public.

Where once the political process was about engaging people's rational, conscious minds, as well as facilitating their needs as a group, Stuart Ewen, a historian of public relations, argues that politicians now appeal to primitive impulses that have little bearing on issues outside the narrow self-interests of a consumer society.

The words of Paul Mazur, a leading Wall Street banker working for Lehman Brothers in 1927, are cited: "We must shift America from a needs- to a desires-culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed. [...] Man's desires must overshadow his needs."[7]

In part four the main subjects are Philip Gould, a political strategist, and Matthew Freud, a PR consultant and the great-grandson of Sigmund Freud. In the 1990s, they were instrumental to bringing the Democratic Party in the US and New Labour in the United Kingdom back into power through use of the focus group, originally invented by psychoanalysts employed by US corporations to allow consumers to express their feelings and needs, just as patients do in psychotherapy.

Curtis ends by saying that, "Although we feel we are free, in reality, we—like the politicians—have become the slaves of our own desires," and compares Britain and America to 'Democracity', an exhibit at the 1939 New York World's Fair created by Edward Bernays.




Nominated for:

  • Best Documentary Series, Royal Television Society[10]
  • Best Documentary Series, Grierson Documentary Awards
  • Best Documentary, Indie Awards


  1. ^ Adams, Tim (10 March 2002). "How Freud got under our skin". The Observer. Retrieved 13 January 2013.
  2. ^ "The Century of the Self - BBC Two England - 17 March 2002". BBC Genome. No. 4071. 14 March 2002. p. 86. Retrieved 19 October 2015.
  3. ^ "The Century of the Self - BBC Two England - 24 March 2002". BBC Genome. No. 4072. 21 March 2002. p. 80.
  4. ^ "The Century of the Self - BBC Two England - 31 March 2002". BBC Genome. No. 4073. 28 March 2002. p. 82.
  5. ^ "The Century of the Self - BBC Two England - 7 April 2002". BBC Genome. No. 4074. 4 April 2002. p. 70.
  6. ^ "BBC Four Documentaries - The Century of the Self". BBC Online. Archived from the original on 14 May 2011.
  7. ^ Note: the quote is from a 1927 article by Mazur in the Harvard Business Review.
  8. ^ "BBC cleans up at Broadcast Awards 2003". Broadcast. Retrieved 22 October 2015.
  9. ^ Furtado, Peter (March 2003). "Back to Narrative at the History Today Awards". History Today. Archived from the original on 24 September 2015. Retrieved 22 October 2015.
  10. ^ "Programme Awards Winners 2002". Royal Television Society. 14 March 2011.[permanent dead link]

External links[edit]