One of the most
unusual persons making the sporting scene these days is a little, jaunty,
balding psychologist named Ernest Dichter. Dr. Dichter—the title comes from a
Ph.D. earned in Vienna in Freud's heyday—is the acknowledged father of
motivational research, a relatively new and spooky specialty using depth
interviews, word-association tests and psychodramas to discover the hidden
desires lurking in our minds. It is the doctor's job to probe the mass psyche
for manufacturers who want to know how to sell products, and this has led on a
surprising number of occasions to a study of the subconscious in sport. The
doctor has, for instance, investigated the "emotional factors"
inhibiting attendance at harness races, the significance of the term home in
baseball (think about that for a while) and the impact of Esther Williams'
personality on swimming pools. Personality is a big thing with the doctor. He
once compared the "personalities" of an orange and a grapefruit and
found, among other things, that the orange "evokes association of
friendliness" whereas the grapefruit exudes "elegant reserve."
Dichter is not the only psychologist interested in sport (in the spring issue
of Psychoanalysis and the Psychoanalytic Review, Arnold Beisser, an analyst who
was once a ranking tennis player, discusses Oedipal conflict at Wimbledon) he
certainly has made the most from it financially. He commands a personal
consultation fee of $500 a day, and his Institute for Motivational Research,
staffed by 25 anthropologists, economists and sociologists, grosses $800,000 a
year. The doctor is, in the words of a critic, "the most prominent retailer
of Freud going today."
As one might
expect of a man who puts much by images, the main office of the institute is a
26-room castlelike mansion set on top of lonely, wind-swept Prickly Pear Hill
overlooking the Hudson at Croton, N.Y. The castle is the perfect setting for a
mad scientist—one half expects to find Bela Lugosi working over a corpse in the
library—but the doctor dismisses the suggestion with a chuckle. "I just
don't like to commute to New York," he says. Similarly, the huge stone
phallic symbol on the lawn is the handiwork of "a previous owner."
(Recently the doctor got so irked at being twitted about the column—or
"decoration," as he calls it—that he threatened to demolish it with a
Dr. Dichter lives
near by on an estate in Ossining. There he conducts some of his most important
research in The Living Laboratory, a deceptively innocent-looking guesthouse.
Here "guests"—consumers under study—relax while the doctor records
their conversation with hidden microphones and observes them in the living room
through a one-way mirror in the wall. On occasion, he pops out in person to
direct the guests in a psychodrama. Once, for example, he asked a squad of
Little Leaguers to pretend they were buying a baseball glove in a store. As the
kids performed their playlet, the doctor noted their preferences for a major
sporting goods company.
Dichter is—up at the castle, down at the lab, behind the mirror, jetting around
the world—he is a hard man to reach. An army of aides keeps interviewers at
bay. "The doctor is trusting," explains Alex Gochfeld, a sociologist
and vice-president of the institute. "Reporters may sensationalize what he
says. They may embarrass him." To protect the doctor, Gochfeld may sit in
on the interview. As Dr. Dichter warms to a subject ("The hot rodders are
rrraaaping Mother Earth!"), Gochfeld will raise an arm in alarm and cry,
"Careful, Doctor! He's writing that down!"
generally begins a motivational research project by sitting back in his office
chair and thinking out loud about possible psychological answers to the problem
at hand. The doctor is a great idea man. In a recent "ad lib" interview
on sports, he offered the hypothesis that bowlers are actually "knocking
down people—little men, women, I don't know," and that golfers are flying
along in the air with the ball. "Watch their expressions," he said.
"They're putting themselves into the ball. Superman thing. 'We just fly and
soar into the blue sky!' "
One of Dr.
Dichter's biggest sporting projects was a study of boat buyers in 1955. In a
way, it's a wonder the doctor ever managed to finish it: the word boating
itself, he reported, had "such a tremendous emotional impact on respondents
(regardless of age or sex) that they poured forth an endless stream of
emotional material." But whereas another "whiskers"—the Madison
Avenue term for types like the doctor—might have drowned in this endless
stream, Dr. Dichter hung on and traced the outpouring back to "pleasant
memories of one's first childhood experiences via a toy sailboat—with Mother
Nature." These memories give boating "a deep, underlying emotional
sounded peachy, Dr. Dichter warned the boating industry it faced the
considerable "psychological task" of converting this emotion into cash.
"Optimism is not enough to realize the future's potentialities," was
the doctor's dictum. "Sound psychological know-how must be applied to the
zip and zest the entire boating industry is now showing....
"We find that
prior to the age of abundance boats were owned by wealthy men who were also
knowledgeable regarding boatcraft and prideful of their reputation as old
salts. Today the people who contribute the most heavily to boat and motor sales
are the average man and woman....
indicate that today's boat buyer is first of all making an emotional investment
when he decides to walk into a boat store and look over the fleet. He wants to
belong to a leisure club, either imaginary or real, rather than a leisure
class. He, therefore, expects the dealer to cater to his ambition and not to
snub him because of his lack of expert boating knowledge."