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The Psychology of Occupy Wall Street

The Psychology of Occupy Wall StreetSome people will see anything they want to see in any particular movement or demonstration. Movements like Occupy Wall Street are like a Rorschach Inkblot Test — although it’s just ink on a piece of paper, you can see the future and the past in every blot.

Psychologist and psychoanalyst Todd Essig sees what he wants to see in the movement. When contrasting it with the Tea Party, he idealizes the motivations and focus of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators, as though they were all joined together in a common cause (other than the cause to agitate for change, something President Obama actually started more than 4 years ago).

What I have a hard time wrapping my head around is to understand how people who have such a deep understanding of psychology and insight can’t see how they turn such demonstrations into their own personal Rorschach test.

For the record, I’m not a proponent of either the Tea Part of Occupy Wall Street. While they both have important things to say (Smaller government? You bet! Get rid of corporate greed and tax loopholes? Who among average Americans would be against that?), neither is particularly attractive to me. I’m a small business owner who grapples with the daily realities of the economy, an unfair tax burden (I probably pay a greater percentage in taxes than any large corporation), and an inability to hire people in a tough economy because of an uncertain future. And don’t even get me started about the obscene amount I spend in healthcare premiums each month.

Unlike Todd Essig, I don’t see the Tea Party as a group of people who are about “exclusion.” They are, from my understanding, a group that is about limiting the intrusive reach of government into every component of our daily lives. In that way, I have to agree with some of what the Tea Party is for, because they speak more to my Libertarian leanings. Get government out of our personal lives, where it has little business belonging. That’s not “exclusion” in any normal sense of the word — that’s respecting individual freedoms and personal rights. You know, those things that this country was built on.

Xenophobia is nothing new, and the Tea Party hasn’t invented it. Cultures since the beginning of time have had fear of “outsiders.” It’s no wonder — they bring strange ideas (some good, some bad), new ways of looking at life, and often challenge the status quo. Virtually everyone in America (except Native Americans) is an immigrant, yet that doesn’t stop us from pretending that new immigrants are somehow inferior to older immigrants.

I think I lose Todd Essig right about here in his cultural Rorschach rant:

Everyone is included, everyone gets to have a say. Rather than policy they have process. The “we” of OWS is worldwide, a globalized, networked “we” full of good and bad existing simultaneously and everywhere. The messier the better; better to let in those you don’t want then miss out on including those you do. Of course, inclusion can be a big problem because people say and do lots of really stupid things.

Ummm, okay. How is that different than a representative democracy — you know, the one we live in in America today? You elect representatives to do you bidding in our society. Did that change while I was sleeping??

And how can an “occupation” — possession, settlement, or use of land or property, often with the connotation of doing so under military authority — be something about “inclusion”? Do occupiers generally say to the people they’re occupying, “Hey, no problem, we can all live here together in peace and harmony?” (I don’t think the Poles or the French — amongst many others — would agree with you when it came to their being occupied by Nazi Germany.)

Of course not. The occupying force seeks to overrrun the native people with their culture and ideas. And while that may have been fine for Wall St. (where few actual Wall St. firms actually have offices, ironically enough), it seems to me to be less fine as it spreads to dozens of other cities worldwide.

What does ‘Occupy Boston’, for instance, stand for? I’m a citizen of the greater Boston area, so I get a little fearful that people want to occupy the very city I now call home. Are they coming for me in the middle of the night? Do they want my property, my home, my family??

How is this a movement of “inclusion” when the very terms they’ve chosen — occupy and occupation — are those of an invading army? If they wanted to be seen as a group of “inclusionary” people, they could’ve chosen far more neutral terms, no?

But nevermind, Todd Essig believes these folks are all peaceful people who have no harmful intentions in mind:

What becomes clear through a psychological lens is the optimism of cooperation and relationship, of being imperfect together, of searching for repair as community even while knowing no repair is perfect.

That lens, of course, is Todd Essig’s lens. It is not the lens of the leaderless Occupy Wall Street movement. That lens has no focus since it has no leaders.

And that’s the problem.

The American Revolution wasn’t led by a group of anonymous patriots who wanted to remain leaderless while they forwarded their radical ideas of the day. Leaders rose from the ranks to speak clearly and forcefully for their list of grievances (so well-documented in the Declaration of Independence).

That’s where the Occupy Wall Street movement falls flat. Because of their lack of leaders and vision, they share little in common with our Founding Fathers. People who took the extreme risk of putting their names in ink on a document that instantly branded them traitors to the Crown.

In doing so, they made it clear — here is what we stand for, here is what we want, and yes, we’re willing to wage war if necessary to attain our demands. Oh, and by the way — here are our names. That is truly exhilarating in its grandeur, audacity and scope.

I’m not sure what Occupy Wall Street has in common with these people. Protesting is as old as America, so there is that. But what is clear is that others will use this movement for whatever purpose they want. To forward whatever political or economic agenda that helps that individual.

Me? I’m going to continue sitting here what I do day in and day out — try and run my small business in an increasingly competitive environment. And in an economy that does little to reward hard work.

What choice do I have? I live in the greatest society on Earth right now. For that, I am eternally grateful for the opportunities made available to me.

Read the full article: The Contrasting Psychologies of ‘Occupy Wall Street’ and the ‘Tea Party’

The Psychology of Occupy Wall Street

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). The Psychology of Occupy Wall Street. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 1, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 16 Oct 2011)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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