Clockwork Orange’ and its psychological teachings

Clockwork Orange' and its psychological teachings

Clockwork Orange is one of Stanley Kubrik’s most remembered films . Its mix of shocking scenes and social criticism made it a controversial work that has nevertheless become an icon of cinema (as well as providing the ingredients for some of the most popular carnival costumes).

However, Clockwork Orange is not only notable for its spectacular photography or for criticizing certain aspects of politics. It also contains a reflection that has great value for psychology and that resorts to a psychological current called behaviourism . We will now see what this idea consists of.

Brief review of the film’s plot

In (very) broad terms, the argument of Clockwork Orange is as follows.

The protagonist, Alex, is the leader of a gang composed of young people who usually enjoy participating in acts of extreme violence . They like to beat, rape and enter other people’s properties 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 makes fun of someone who listens to those pieces of music. This is one of the main character’s weaknesses, although at that moment it is hardly evident, since Alex is in a place that allows him to dominate the others .

However, everything changes when, after killing a woman, Alex’s partners betray him so that the police can arrest him. At that point the protagonist continues to defy and, in his own way, to exercise control, pretending to be more caring than he really is in order to receive privileged treatment.

This is partly why he accepts a shortened sentence in exchange for experimental psychological treatment: the Ludovico method, designed to prevent recidivism in acts of violence. Alex is not interested in changing, but in doing what is necessary to be free as soon as possible.

However, Ludovico’s treatment not only proves 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.

Ludovico’s technique

In the sessions in which I was forced to participate, Alex was held to a chair that forced him to constantly look at a screen, while my eyelids were held together with some rods so that I didn’t close them. As he had drops applied to his eyes, Alex became a spectator of videos with all kinds of violent content: mutilations, rapes, scenes of war…

However, this was not the only thing the protagonist was recording. At the same time, by means of a needle, he was given a substance that made him feel worse and worse , that made him feel nauseous and wanted to get out of there at all costs. All this, over the course of sessions that lasted several hours in a row.

The Ludovico treatment is a fictional 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 on phobias.

The classical conditioning, described by the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov 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 does not in itself generate a significant reaction, it is possible to reach the point where the second stimulus becomes as aversive or pleasant as the first.

Clockwork Orange is one of Stanley Kubrik’s most remembered films . Its mix of shocking scenes and social criticism made it a controversial work that has nevertheless become an icon of cinema (as well as providing the ingredients for some of the most popular carnival costumes).

However, Clockwork Orange is not only notable for its spectacular photography or for criticizing certain aspects of politics.
It also contains a reflection that has great value for psychology and that resorts to a psychological current called behaviourism .
We will now see what this idea consists of.

Brief review of the film’s plot

In (very) broad terms, the argument of Clockwork Orange is as follows.

The protagonist, Alex, is the leader of a gang composed of young people who usually enjoy participating in acts of extreme violence .
They like to beat, rape and enter other people’s properties 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 makes fun of someone who listens to those pieces of music. This is one of the main character’s weaknesses, although at that moment it is hardly evident, since Alex is in a place that allows him to dominate the others .

However, everything changes when, after killing a woman, Alex’s partners betray him so that the police can arrest him. At that point the protagonist continues to defy and, in his own way, to exercise control, pretending to be more caring than he really is in order to receive privileged treatment.

This is partly why he accepts a shortened sentence in exchange for experimental psychological treatment: the Ludovico method, designed to prevent recidivism in acts of violence.
Alex is not interested in changing, but in doing what is necessary to be free as soon as possible.

However, Ludovico’s treatment not only proves 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.

Ludovico’s technique

In the sessions in which I was forced to participate, Alex was held to a chair that forced him to constantly look at a screen, while my eyelids were held together with some rods so that I didn’t close them.
As he had drops applied to his eyes, Alex became a spectator of videos with all kinds of violent content: mutilations, rapes, scenes of war…

However, this was not the only thing the protagonist was recording.
At the same time, by means of a needle, he was given a substance that made him feel worse and worse , that made him feel nauseous and wanted to get out of there at all costs. All this, over the course of sessions that lasted several hours in a row.

The Ludovico treatment is a fictional 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 on phobias.

The classical conditioning, described by the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov 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 does not in itself generate a significant reaction, it is possible to reach the point where the second stimulus becomes as aversive or pleasant as the first.

The reflection on freedom is perhaps the most interesting from the point of view of psychology. In this film, the government manages to hack into 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 aim is not the well-being of the patient, but to stop him/her from being an element capable of generating harmful headlines in the newspapers. The clash between pacification and violence does not disappear , it simply leaves the public sphere and moves to the body of the protagonist, who experiences in first person the suffering produced by this tension.

A Final Reflection

After going through Ludovico’s technique, Alex is no longer free, since that would entail having more options to choose how to be happy; on the contrary, it clearly shows how he becomes a person marked by the limitations that this treatment has imposed on him. The public problem of having a young man with blood lust on the streets no longer exists, but another one appears that is individual and private and that cannot even be equated to a prison sentence.

This is the option that, according to the film, liberal democracies can bring to the elements that put people at risk. Not to do anything to broaden people’s horizons of freedom, but to intervene in them by removing from view what ails the landscape. In short, treating people from the same mechanistic and instrumental perspective that the film’s title suggests .

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