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'The Mechanical Orange' and its psychological teachings

'The Mechanical Orange' and its psychological teachings

May 23, 2022

The Mechanical Orange is one of the most remembered films of Stanley Kubrik . Its mixture of shocking scenes and social criticism turned it into a controversial work that, nevertheless, has become an icon of the cinema (besides contributing the ingredients for some of the most popular costumes in carnival).

Now, the Mechanical Orange does not stand out only by the spectacular nature of its photography or by criticizing certain aspects of politics. It also contains a reflection that has a lot of value for psychology and that he resorts to a psychological current called behaviorism . Next we will see what this bottom idea consists of.

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Brief review of the plot of the film

A (very) big traits, the argument of The Mechanical Orange is the following.

The protagonist, Alex, is the leader of a gang composed of young people who they usually have fun participating in acts of extreme violence . They like to beat, rape and enter other people's property to destroy what they find.

But this is not the only thing that Alex likes to do; he also feels an almost sickly passion for Beethoven's music, to the point that he even hits one of his classmates when he mocks someone who listens to those pieces of music. This is one of the protagonist's weaknesses, although at that moment it is hardly evident, since Alex is in a place that allows him to dominate others .

However, everything changes when, after murdering a woman, Alex's colleagues betray him so that the police can stop him. At that time the protagonist continues to be challenging and, in his way, continues to exercise control, pretending to be more kind than it really is to receive privileged treatment.

In part, this is why he accepts that his sentence be shortened in exchange for being subjected to an experimental psychological treatment: the Ludovico method, designed so that it does not relapse again in acts of violence. Alex is not interested in changing, but doing what is necessary to be free as soon as possible.

However, the Ludovico treatment not only turns out to be unusually painful and degrading, but also fulfills its purpose. In the following lines I explain how it works and the effects it has on the protagonist.

The technique of Ludovico

In the sessions in which he was obliged to participate, Alex was fastened to a chair that made him constantly look at a screen, while my eyelids were held with rods so that I would not close them. While they were applying drops to his eyes, Alex became a spectator of videos with all kinds of violent contents: mutilations, rapes, scenes of war ...

However, this was not the only thing the protagonist was recording. At the same time, through a needle, it was being supplied a substance that made it feel worse and worse , that I experienced nausea and that I wanted to get out of there at all costs. All this, throughout sessions that lasted several hours in a row.

The Ludovico treatment is a fictitious technique created for the film, and yet it is based on a class of treatments that really existed: therapies based on classical conditioning, used for example to intervene in phobias.

Classical conditioning, described by the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov it is based on the phenomenon that by learning to associate a stimulus that causes well-being or rejection on its own from the beginning with another stimulus that in itself does not generate a significant reaction, it can reach the point where the second stimulus becomes in something as aversive or pleasant as the first.

In this case, the government was trying to get Alex to learn to relate what he likes to an intensely unpleasant experience, so that once he was released, he could not participate in that kind of acts without feeling so bad that he could not do it. His expectations were met when, in a test phase, Alex was unable to attack even though he tried to provoke him.

From executioner to victim

Alex's life turned into hell after his release . His desire to participate in violent actions had not disappeared, the only thing that had changed was that he was not able to satisfy that desire, because every time he tried he suffered an intense malaise.

He had gone from being a tyrant to becoming an incredibly vulnerable victim. This is clear when he finds his former colleagues, turned into police officers, who beat Alex without even being able to defend himself. Something similar happens when one of the indigent attacked by Alex in the past recognizes him and begins to attack him without the protagonist can do more than flee.

The Beethoven effect

But there is another relevant piece in the transformation of the protagonist. In Ludovico's treatment sessions, some of the video cuts they had Beethoven's Ninth Symphony as their soundtrack . When Alex takes refuge in one of the first houses he finds after being the victim of a beating, he does not realize that the house belongs to one of the men he attacked in the past.

At the moment in which the man realizes who his guest is, and after finding out that he has developed aversion to both violence and Beethoven, he locks him in a room and forces him to listen to one of the parts of the Ninth Symphony until it jumps out the window what it ends up doing.

However, Alex survives, and after being admitted to the hospital it becomes an instrument of propaganda for the ruling party , who has lost a lot of support after publicly supporting Ludovico's technique as a reintegration tool and the outcome of the suicide attempt.

The Psychology of Mechanical Orange

The purpose of La Naranja Mecánica is not in itself to criticize the current behaviorist psychology (among other things because behaviorism is not based on simple conditioning and gives more importance to the techniques proposed by psychologists such as BF Skinner), but to offer a reflection about the times that lived at the end of the 20th century. The Ludovico method is the tool that the movie chooses to use to explain how a power that is beyond the individual can transform the latter into a puppet .

This critique is made using two closely related topics: the legitimacy of violence and the degree to which the human being enjoys freedom in liberal democracies.

Legitimate violence

The aspect of the violence that is called attention is the fact that Alex is not the only antisocial element of the film: the government also acts imposing its program, although with a difference: it has the legitimacy to do so.

That is why it is possible to plan and even publicize a treatment as brutal as Ludovico's technique and that is also why Alex's former colleagues they can attack it for no reason without it being noticed that there is something that weakens the State . These are elements that, despite being based on the use of force, do not seem to go against the logic of the State, but in any case they explain how it usually works.

The lack of freedom

The reflection on freedom is perhaps the most interesting from the point of view of psychology. In this film, the government manages to "hack" Alex's mental processes with a very simple objective: to deactivate him as an unpredictable subject and make him fit meekly into the political fabric that has been woven to maintain power.

The welfare of the patient is not sought, but rather to stop being an element capable of generating harmful headlines in newspapers. The clash between pacification and violence does not disappear , simply leaves the public sphere and moves to the body of the protagonist, who experiences in first person the suffering that produces that tension.

A final reflection

After going through Ludovico's technique, Alex is no longer free, since that would entail having more options to choose in which way to be happy; On the contrary, it clearly shows how it happens to be a person marked by the limitations that this treatment has imposed on him. The public problem of having a young man with bloodlust hanging around the streets ceases to exist, but another one appears that is of individual and private scope and that can not even be equated to jail time.

This is the option that, according to the film, liberal democracies can contribute to the elements that put people at risk. Do not do what is possible to expand the horizons of freedom of the people, but to intervene on them by removing from sight that which disfigures the landscape. In short, treating people from the same mechanistic and instrumental perspective that the title of the movie suggests .

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