Erich Fromm’s Humanistic Psychoanalysis

Summary Outline

  1. Overview of Fromm’s Humanistic Psychoanalysis

Erich Fromm’s humanistic psychoanalysis looks at people from the perspective of psychology, history, and anthropology.  Influenced by Freud and Horney, Fromm developed a more culturally oriented theory than Freud and a much broader theory than Horney.


  1. Biography of Erich Fromm

Erich Fromm was born in Germany in 1900, the only child of orthodox Jewish parents.   A thoughtful young man, Fromm was influenced by the bible, Freud, and Marx, as well as by socialist ideology.  After receiving his PhD, Fromm began studying psychoanalysis and became an analyst by virtue of being analyzed by Hanns Sachs, a student of Freud.  In 1934, Fromm moved to the United States and began a psychoanalytic practice in New York, where he also resumed his friendship with Karen Horney.  Much of his later years were spent in Mexico and Switzerland.  He died in 1980.


III.       Fromm’s Basic Assumptions

Fromm believed that humans have been torn away from their prehistoric union with nature and left with no powerful instincts to adapt to a changing world.  But because humans have acquired the ability to reason, they can think about their isolated condition—a situation Fromm called the human dilemma.


  1. Human Needs

Our human dilemma cannot be solved by satisfying our animal needs.  It can only be addressed by fulfilling our uniquely human needs, an accomplishment that moves us toward a reunion with the natural world.  Fromm identified five of these distinctively human or existential needs. 


  1. Relatedness

            First is relatedness, which can take the form of (1) submission, (2) power, or (3) love.  Love, or the ability to unite with another while retaining one’s own individuality and integrity, is the only relatedness need that can solve our basic human dilemma.

  1. Transcendence

Being thrown into the world without their consent, humans have to transcend their nature by destroying or creating people or things.  Humans can destroy through malignant aggression, or killing for reasons other than survival, but they can also create and care about their creations.

  1. Rootedness

Rootedness is the need to establish roots and to feel at home again in the world.  Productively, rootedness enables us to grow beyond the security of our mother and establish ties with the outside world.  With the nonproductive strategy, we become fixated and afraid to move beyond the security and safety of our mother or a mother substitute.


  1. Sense of Identity

The fourth human need is for a sense of identity, or an  awareness of ourselves as a separate person.  The drive for a sense of identity is expressed nonproductively as conformity to a group and productively as individuality.

  1. Frame of Orientation

By frame of orientation, Fromm meant a road map or consistent philosophy by which we find our way through the world.  This need is expressed nonproductively as a striving for irrational goals and productively as movement toward rational goals.


  1. The Burden of Freedom

As the only animal possessing self-awareness, humans are the freaks of the universe.  Historically, as people gained more political freedom, they began to experience more isolation from others and from the world and to feel free from the security of a permanent place in the world.  As a result, freedom becomes a burden, and people experience basic anxiety, or a feeling of being alone in the world.

  1. Mechanisms of Escape

To reduce the frightening sense of isolation and aloneness, people may adopt one of three mechanisms of escape: (1) authoritarianism, or the tendency to give up one’s independence and to unite with a powerful partner; (2) destructiveness, an escape mechanism aimed at doing away with other people or things; and (3) conformity, or surrendering of one’s individuality in order to meet the wishes of others.

  1. Positive Freedom

The human dilemma can only be solved through positive freedom, which is the spontaneous activity of the whole, integrated personality, and which is achieved when a person becomes reunited with others.


Vi.       Character Orientations

People relate to the world by acquiring and using things (assimilation) and by relating to self and others (socialization), and they can do so either nonproductively or productively.

  1. Nonproductive Orientations

Fromm identified four nonproductive strategies that fail to move people closer to positive freedom and self-realization. People with a receptive orientation believe that the source of all good lies outside themselves and that the only way they can relate to the world is to receive things, including love, knowledge, and material objects. People with an exploitative orientation also believe that the source of good lies outside themselves, but they aggressively take what they want rather than passively receiving it.  Hoarding characters try to save what they have already obtained, including their opinions, feelings, and material possessions.  People with a marketing orientation see themselves as commodities and value themselves against the criterion of their ability to sell themselves.  They have fewer positive qualities than the other orientations because they are essentially empty.

  1. The Productive Orientation

Psychologically healthy people work toward positive freedom through productive work, love. and reasoning.  Productive love necessitates a passionate love of all life and is called biophilia.


VII.     Personality Disorders

Unhealthy people have nonproductive ways of working, reasoning, and especially loving.  Fromm recognized three major personality disorders: (1) necrophilia, or the love of death and the hatred of all humanity; (2) malignant narcissism, or a belief that everything belonging to one’s self is of great value and anything belonging to others is worthless; and incestuous symbiosis, or an extreme dependence on one’s mother or mother surrogate.


VIII.    Psychotherapy

The goal of Fromm’s psychotherapy was to work toward satisfaction of the basic human needs of relatedness, transcendence, rootedness, a sense of identity, and a frame of orientation.  The therapist tries to accomplish this through shared communication in which the therapist is simply a human being rather than a scientist.


  1. Fromm’s Methods of Investigation

Fromm’s personality theory rests on data he gathered from a variety of sources, including psychotherapy, cultural anthropology, and psychohistory.

  1. Social Character in a Mexican Village

Fromm and his associates spent several years investigating social character in an isolated farming village in Mexico and found evidence of all the character orientations except the marketing one.

  1. A Psychohistorical Study of Hitler

Fromm applied the techniques of psychohistory to study several historical people, including Adolf Hitler—the person Fromm regarded as the world’s most conspicuous example of someone with the syndrome of decay, that is, necrophilia, malignant narcissism, and incestuous symbiosis.


  1. Related Research

Although Fromm’s writings are brilliant and insightful, his theory ranks near the bottom of personality theories with regard to stimulating research.  Reasons for this may be Fromm’s broad approach, and that his ideas are more sociological than psychological in many ways.  However, topics of interest to Fromm, such as alienation from culture and nature in general, can be studied psychologically at the individual level and can have implications for well-being.  For example, Mark Bernard and his colleagues found, as they predicted, that perceived discrepancies between one’s values and those of society lead to feelings of estrangement, and that these feelings of estrangement lead to anxiety and depression (Bernard, Gebauer, & Maio, 2006).  These findings support Fromm’s ideas.  Another area of research influenced by Fromm’s ideas is that of political beliefs.   Jack and Jeanne Block (2006) made a longitudinal study, first assessing the personality types of preschoolers, then following up almost 20 years later on the political beliefs of the participants, who were now young adults.  They found that children described as easily offended, indecisive, fearful, and rigid were more likely to be politically conservative in their 20s, and those described as self-reliant, energetic, somewhat dominating, and relatively under-controlled were more likely to be politically liberal in their 20s.  This research not only shows how people deal differently with their “burden of freedom,” but also how powerfully predictive personality types are, even when measured at very early ages.


  1. Critique of Psychoanalytic Social Theory

The strength of Fromm’s theory is his lucid writings on a broad range of human issues.  As a scientific theory, however, Fromm’s theory rates very low on its ability to generate research and to lend itself to falsification; it rates low on usefulness to the practitioner, internal consistency, and parsimony.  Because it is quite broad in scope, Fromm’s theory rates high on organizing existing knowledge.


XII.  Concept of Humanity

Fromm believed that humans are the “freaks of nature,” because they lack strong animal instincts while possessing the ability to reason.  In brief, his view is rated average on free choice, optimism, unconscious influences, and uniqueness; low on causality; and high on social influences.



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