Institutional economics and psychoanalysis: how can they collaborate for a better understanding of individual-society dynamics? Arturo hermann* may 2005



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Work and Leisure
In contemporary society, one of the most difficult dilemmas of human life is the following: what is the best division of time between work, and social and family life (referred to here as “leisure”)?

As shown by psychoanalytic studies, the decision-making process involved in these issues central to human life can be easily driven, to varying degrees, by neurotic conflicts.

In fact, on one hand, the choice of overworking may be stimulated by greed as well as by a related and more or less unconscious feeling of guilt; on the other hand, the same could apply to the choice of not working. In this case, greed can be expressed by the wish to live on the income of others and the related feeling of guilt by the avoidance of the prospective advantages attainable through work.

However, also a “normal” allocation of time between work and leisure may be, to varying degrees, neurotic-driven56. In short, any decision regarding this issue might express the individual’s neurotic conflicts.

However, if neurotic conflicts can be expressed in any potential choice, what does determine the choice really made by the person?

One element is a combination of the characteristics and intensity of the individual’s neurotic conflicts.

However, as already observed, individuals affected by neurotic conflicts can make different or even opposing choices between work and leisure. Apart from cases of evident psychological disturbances, it is not easy to associate a given choice to the type and severity of neurosis, also because the individual’s decision-making process is partly influenced by the ISEF. A given ISEF influences the decision-making process in many relevant ways, as it represents a significant set of values and norms for the individual; in this sense, the ISEF constitutes what “society” is thought to require from the individual in order that he or she comply with these values and norms.

These remarks lead us to stress the importance for the individual of the symbolic and unconscious meaning of choices made.

Thus, little can be said about the reasons for a choice between work and leisure without knowing the meanings that society attaches to work, on one hand, and social and familiar activities, on the other.

Indeed, for an individual the choice of how much to work can have different meanings, depending on what work “represents” for his or her groups and society.

We can illustrate these points through the following example. Let us suppose that a person, you or me, have to decide how to spend time next afternoon. In this case, there is first the major choice between work and leisure and then a second choice about how to effect the first choice, that is, how to work or how to use leisure.

Supposing that we choose not to work, we need to make a choice among the available alternatives. At this stage, both emotional and intellectual factors are likely to be very important, since a decision-making process that concerns, for instance, theatre, reading, movie, or other social and family activities is influenced by a wide variety of factors including intellectual and emotional elements, values, personal situation and so on. In this case it is very difficult to assess the reasons underlying choices without a fairly detailed picture of all the factors influencing the individual concerned. For example, if we choose to read a difficult book, this choice does not necessarily reflect a genuine interest but could also be due to a hidden feeling of guilt about being away from work—because we can consider reading more similar to work.

Once one of the available alternatives has been chosen, there arises the problem of choosing the most appropriate means to reach it.

Let us assume we choose to visit a particular place, the problem now is to select the shortest way to go there. If, however, we choose a longer way, this does not necessarily imply that we have not made a sound choice. There could be three main hypotheses:


1) We have not chosen the shortest way because of lack of information, myopia and so on.

2) We have not chosen the shortest way because we feel guilty (more or less unconsciously) about not being at work, and so want to punish ourselves by delaying the visit.

3) We have not chosen the shortest way because, although aware of all the available alternatives, we prefer the longer way (may be because it is more panoramic).
However, even if we choose the shortest way, this would not be sufficient to warrant the “optimality” of our choice, for instance because we could have made that choice only out of conformism even though, actually, we would prefer the longer way.

What we would like to stress by this example is the great difficulty in assessing the true reasons for individual choices without carrying out a careful analysis of all the psychological, social and economic factors which may impinge on the individual’s decision-making process. In this regard, as observed before, institutional economics and psychoanalysis may contribute to cast more light on the complexity and multifariousness of these phenomena.





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