Clarifying the basic principles of freuds theories

it is important to be clear about the meanings of certain terms that you may come across and throughout the handout you will find footnotes clarifying certain terms. Firstly though, a word about the terms psychoanalysis and psychodynamics. Psychoanalysis refers to both Freud’s original attempt at providing a comprehensive theory of the mind and also to the associated treatment. The term encompasses both Freudian theory and therapy. You will also come across the term psychodynamics. This term is used to denote the approach which began with psychoanalysis but which has now broadened into a much more diverse collection of theories and models developed by other psychologists, all of which nevertheless retain some of the main ideas of Freud’s original theory.

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Sigmund Freud was born in 1856 in Moravia, which was then part of the Austrian Empire and is now in the Czech Republic. He spent most of his life in Vienna, from where he fled, in 1937, when the Nazis invaded. Neither Freud (being Jewish) or his theories were very popular with the Nazis and he escaped to London where he died in 1939.

He had wanted to be a research scientist but anti-Semitism forced him to choose a medical career instead and he worked in Vienna as a doctor, specialising in neurological disorders (disorders of the nervous system). He constantly revised and modified his theories right up until his death but much of his psychoanalytic theory was produced between 1900 and 1930.

Freud originally attempted to explain the workings of the mind in terms of physiology and neurology …(but)… quite early on in his treatment of patients with neurological disorders, Freud realised that symptoms which had no organic or bodily basis could imitate the real thing and that they were as real for the patient as if they had been neurologically caused. So he began to search for psychological explanations of these symptoms and ways of treating them.

In 1885 he spent a year in Paris learning hypnosis from the neurologist Charcot; he then started using hypnosis with his patients in Vienna. However, he found its effects to be only temporary at best and it did not usually get to the root of the problem; nor was everybody capable of being hypnotised. Meanwhile Breuer, another Viennese doctor, was developing another method of therapy which he called the cathartic method, where patients would talk out their problems. Freud adopted Breuer’s method and called it free association which became one of the three fundamental tools of psychoanalysis.

Freud began his self-analysis during the 1890s and in 1900 published The Interpretation of Dreams, in which he outlined his theory of the mind, followed by The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1904), A Case of Hysteria and Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905).

Two of Freud’s closest colleagues, Carl Jung and Alfred Adler, helped him form the psychoanalytic movement and the first International Psychoanalytic Congress was held in Salzburg in 1908. The Journal of Psychoanalysis was first published in 1909 and, in that year, Freud and Jung made a lecture tour of the USA (From Gross, R (1996) Psychology, The Science of Mind and Behaviour, page 508)


Freud compared the human personality to an iceberg. The small part that shows above the surface of the water represents conscious experience ; the much larger mass below the water level represents the unconscious – a storehouse of impulses, passions, and inaccessible memories that affect our thoughts and behaviour. It is this portion of the mind that Freud sought to explore with the use of free association.

Freud also believed that personality was composed of three major systems: the id, the ego and the superego. Each system has its own functions but the three interact to govern behaviour.

(a)     The id

The id is the most primitive part of the personality and the first to develop. It is present in the newborn infant. It is located in the unconscious and it is from the id that the ego and the superego later develop.

The id consists of the basic biological impulses (or drives): the need to eat, drink, eliminate wastes, avoid pain and gain sexual pleasure. Freud also believed that aggression was a basic biological drive.

The id seeks immediate gratification of these impulses. Like a young child, the id operates on the pleasure principle : it endeavours to avoid pain and obtain pleasure regardless of the external circumstances.

(b)     The ego

As the child develops it learns that their impulses cannot always be immediately gratified. Some must be delayed (for example, hunger must wait until someone provides food) and some (for example, hitting someone) may be punished.

A new part of the personality, the ego, develops as the young child learns to consider the demands of reality. The ego constitutes our conscious self and obeys the reality principle : It is essentially the part of personality that decides what actions are appropriate and which id impulses will be satisfied in what manner. The ego mediates among the demands of the id, the realities of the world and the demands of the superego.

(c)     The superego

The superego, is the internalised representation of the values and morals of society as taught to the child by the parents and others. It is essentially the individuals conscience. The superego decides whether an action is right or wrong. Initially, parents control a child’s behaviour directly by reward and punishment. Through the incorporation of parental standards into the superego, behaviour is brought under self-control. The superego develops in response to parental rewards and punishments.

In summary, the id seeks pleasure, the ego tests reality and mediates, the superego constrains and strives for perfection. Not surprisingly, the three components of personality are in constant conflict: the ego postpones the gratification the id wants immediately and the superego battles with both because behaviour often falls short of the moral code it represents.


In order to deal with this conflict, the ego develops a series of defence mechanisms which allow it to protect itself from the pressures of the id, the real world and the superego. Examples are:

Repression – burying a memory so thoroughly that it is not recalled at all – “it never happened”.

Projection – attributing own unwanted “bad” feelings or ideas to another person.

Rationalisation – making up a reasonable excuse for unacceptable behaviour and really believing it.

Suppression – forgetting a shocking event on purpose: (consciously in this case) putting it out of one’s mind.

Denial – refusing to acknowledge something because it is so distressing.

Displacement – transferring feelings from one person or object to another.

Identification – imitating someone who is admired and modelling oneself on them.

Reaction-Formation – consciously substituting the opposite emotion for true feelings about someone/something.

Freud believed that conflict is inevitable and all behaviour is a compromise. Conflict is the primary cause of human anxiety and unhappiness. Defence mechanisms are one way we have of dealing with our inner conflict; neurotic symptoms and dreaming are the other major forms of compromise.


Freud believed that the individual, during the first five years of life, progresses through several developmental stages that affect personality. Applying a broad definition of sexuality, he called these periods psychosexual stages. During each stage, the pleasure-seeking impulses of the id focus on, and derive pleasure from, a particular area of the body and on activities connected with that area.

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Freud called the first year of life the oral stage of psychosexual development. During this period, infants derive pleasure from nursing and sucking; in fact, they will put anything they can reach into their mouth.

During the second year of life, the anal stage, as children have their first experience with imposed control in the form of their toilet training.

In the phallic stage, from about age 3 to age 6, children focus on their genitals. They observe the differences between males and females and may direct their awakening sexual impulses toward the parent of the opposite sex. It is at this stage that children have to resolve the Oedipus and Electra complexes.

A latency period follows the end of the phallic stage, during which children become less concerned with their bodies and turn their attention to the skills needed for coping with the environment.

The last stage, the genital stage, occurs during adolescence, during which young people begin to turn their sexual interests toward others and to love in a more mature way.

Freud felt that special problems at any stage could arrest (or fixate) development and have a lasting effect on the individual’s personality. The libido would remain attached to the activities appropriate for that stage. Thus a person who was weaned very early and did not have enough sucking pleasure might become fixated at the oral stage. As an adult, this person may be excessively dependent on others and overly fond of such oral pleasures as eating, drinking and smoking. Such a person is called an “oral” personality. The person fixated at the anal stage of psychosexual development may be abnormally concerned with cleanliness, orderliness, and saving.


Later psychoanalysts felt that Freud placed too much emphasis on the instinctive and biological aspects of personality and failed to recognise that people are products of the society in which they live. The neo-Freudians including Alfred Adler, Erich Fromm, Karen Horney, Carl Jung and Harry Stack Sullivan, considered personality to be shaped more by the people, society, and culture surrounding the individual than by biological needs. They placed less emphasis on the controlling power of the unconscious, believing that people are more rational in their planing and decisions than Freud thought.


The aim of psychoanalytic therapy is to bring about a fundamental change in the patient’s personality so that he is released from his neurotic disorders. Freud believed that neurosis was caused by the repression of disturbing feelings and emotions associated with conflicts established in early childhood. These conflicts result from the impulses of the id or the strictures of an over demanding superego. He assumed that the patient’s ego was too weak to cope with such conflicts and defended itself by repressing them into the unconscious. However, conflicts do not go away; they find expression through the symptoms and neurotic behaviour of the patients. The aims of psychoanalysis are to remove the infantile conflict from the unconscious and help the patient deal with it at a conscious level.

Psychoanalytic therapy normally has two stages:

1.     the release of repression, thereby allowing the conflict to enter consciousness, and,

2.     the redirection of the emotional energy (libido) associated with the repression thereby allowing the patient’s ego to gain control of the conflict.

Freud developed various techniques for getting round the controlling forces of the defence mechanisms to reveal the unconscious material which is trying to gain expression. One of the original methods employed by Freud was hypnosis, but as has already been mentioned, he found this technique unsatisfactory and soon began using free association. Later Carl Jung, one of Freud’s students developed a similar technique known as word association , and both methods are still widely used in present-day psychoanalysis.

Another technique for getting at unconscious material is the interpretation of dreams . Another route into the unconscious is via the errors of everyday life, so-called Freudian slips.

Present day psychoanalysts also regard certain physiological cues such as posture, blushing or pallor and changes in the timbre of the patient’s voice as important expressions of unconscious motives and feelings.

1.8.7          AN EVALUATION OF THE PSYCHOANALYTIC                     APPROACH

Psychoanalytic theory has had an enormous impact on psychological and philosophical conceptions of human nature. Freud’s major contributions are his recognition that unconscious needs and conflicts motivate much of out behaviour and his emphasis on the importance of early childhood experiences in personality development. His emphasis on sexual factors led to an awareness of their role in adjustment problems. But Freud made his observations during the Victorian period when sexual standards were very strict; so it is understandable that many of his patient’s conflicts centred on their sexual desires. Today, feelings of guilt about sex are much less frequent, yet the incidence of mental illness remains about the same. Sexual conflicts are not the only cause of personality disturbances – and may not even be a major cause.

Some critics also point out that Freud’s theory of personality is based almost entirely on his observations of emotionally disturbed patients and may not be an appropriate of the normal, healthy personality. In addition, many of Freud’s ideas were decidedly sexist. For example, his theory that female psychosexual development is shaped by “penis envy” and feelings of unworthiness due to the lack of such equipment is certainly inadequate in view of our current awareness of the role that social factors play in gender identification. It was probably not her brother’s penis that a little girl during the Victorian era envied but his greater independence power and social status.

Although psychoanalysis has exerted a powerful influence on our thinking about human nature, it has been seriously questioned as a scientific theory.

Freud’s constructs are ambiguous and difficult to define. He does not specify, for example, what behaviours indicate that a child is fixated at the anal stage of psychosexual development and what behaviours indicate that he or she is not fixated. For any body of theory to be accepted as a valid scientific perspective, its consequences must be statable. The hypothesis that fixation at the anal stage can lead to stinginess (or to the opposite, generosity) is evidently not refutable; whatever the outcome, the theory can account for it. To that extent the psychoanalytic approach fails to meet the criteria of a scientific theory.

Because some important aspects of psychoanalytic theory cannot be proven experimentally, some psychologists claim that it has no value either as psychology or as science (Eysenck 1972). However, many others claim that experimental validity is an inappropriate yardstick for evaluating psychodynamic theory and that the theory is verified in practice in the analyst-patient interview.



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