karen Horney’s Psychoanalytic Social Theory

Summary Outline

  1. Overview of Horney’s Psychoanalytic Social Theory

Karen Horney’s psychoanalytic social theory, assumes that social and cultural conditions, especially during childhood, have a powerful effect on later personality.  Like Melanie Klein, Horney accepted many of Freud’s observations, but she objected to most of his interpretations, including his notions on feminine psychology.

  1. Biography of Karen Horney

Karen Horney, who was born in Germany in 1885, was one of the first women in that country admitted to medical school.  There, she became acquainted with Freudian theory and eventually became a psychoanalyst and a psychiatrist.  In her mid-40s, Horney left Germany to settle in the United States, first in Chicago and then in New York.  She soon abandoned orthodox psychoanalysis in favor of a more socially oriented theory—one that had a more positive view of feminine development.  She died in 1952 at age 67.

III.       Introduction to Horney’s Psychoanalytic Social Theory

Although Horney’s writings deal mostly with what she called neuroses and neurotic personalities, her theories are also appropriate to normal development.  She agreed with Freud that early childhood traumas are important, but she placed far more emphasis on social factors.

  1. Horney and Freud Compared

Horney criticized Freudian theory on at least three accounts: (1) its rigidity toward new ideas, (2) its skewed view of feminine psychology, and (3) its overemphasis on biology and the pleasure principle.

  1. The Impact of Culture

Horney insisted that modern culture is too competitive and that competition leads to hostility and feelings of isolation.  These conditions lead to exaggerated needs for affection and cause people to overvalue love.

  1. The Importance of Childhood Experiences

Neurotic conflict stems largely from childhood traumas, most of which are traced to a lack of genuine love.  Children who do not receive genuine affection feel threatened and adopt rigid behavioral patterns in an attempt to gain love.

  1. Basic Hostility and Basic Anxiety

All children need feelings of safety and security, but these can be gained only by love from parents.  Unfortunately, parents often neglect, dominate, reject, or overindulge their children, conditions that lead to the child’s feelings of basic hostility toward parents.  If children repress basic hostility, they will develop feelings of insecurity and a pervasive sense of apprehension called basic anxiety.  People can protect themselves from basic anxiety by (1) affection, (2) submissiveness, (3) power or prestige, and (4) withdrawal.  Normal people have the flexibility to use any or all of these approaches, but neurotics are compelled to rely rigidly on only one.

  1. Compulsive Drives

Neurotic individuals are frequently trapped in a vicious circle in which their compulsive need to reduce basic anxiety leads to a variety of self-defeating behaviors; these behaviors then produce more basic anxiety, and the circle continues.

  1. Neurotic Needs

Horney identified 10 neurotic needs that mark neurotic people in their attempt to reduce basic anxiety.  These include (1) needs for affection and approval, (2) needs for a partner (3) needs to restrict one’s life within narrow borders, (4) needs for power, (5) needs to exploit others, (6) needs for social recognition or prestige, (7) needs for personal admiration, (8) needs for ambition and personal achievement, (9) needs for self-sufficiency and independence, and (10) needs for perfection and unassailability.

  1. Neurotic Trends

Later, Horney grouped these 10 neurotic needs into three basic neurotic trends; (1) moving toward people, (2) moving against people, and (3) moving away from people. Each of these trends can apply to both normal and neurotic individuals in their attempt to solve basic conflict.  However, whereas neurotic people are compelled to follow only one neurotic trend, normal individuals are sufficiently flexible to adopt all three.  People who move neurotically toward others adopt a compliant attitude in order to protect themselves against feelings of helplessness;  people who move against others do so through aggressive behaviors that protect them against perceived hostility from others; and people who move away from others do so in a  detached manner that  protects them against feelings of isolation by appearing arrogant and aloof.

  1. Intrapsychic Conflicts

People also experience inner tensions or intrapsychic conflicts that become part of their belief systems and take on lives of their own, separate from the interpersonal conflicts that created them.

  1. The Idealized Self-Image

People who do not receive love and affection during childhood are blocked in heir attempt to acquire a stable sense of identity.  Feeling alienated from self, they create an idealized self-image, or an extravagantly positive picture of themselves.  Horney recognized three aspects of the idealized self-image:(1) the neurotic search for glory, or a comprehensive drive toward actualizing the ideal self; (2) neurotic claims, or a belief that they are entitled to special privileges; and (3) neurotic pride, or a false pride based not on reality but on a distorted and idealized view of self.

  1. Self-Hatred

Neurotic individuals dislike themselves because reality always falls short of their idealized view of self.  Therefore, they learn self-hatred, which can be expressed as: (1) relentless demands on self, (2) merciless self-accusation, (3) self-contempt, (4) self-frustration, (5) self-torment or self-torture, and (6) self-destructive actions and impulses.




VII.     Feminine Psychology

Horney believed that psychological differences between men and women are not due to anatomy but to culture and social expectations.  Her view of the Oedipus complex differed markedly from Freud’s in that she insisted that any sexual attraction or hostility the child feels for the parent would be the result of learning and not biology.

VIII.    Psychotherapy

The goal of Horney’s psychotherapy was to help patients grow toward self-realization, give up their idealized self-image, relinquish their neurotic search for glory, and change self-hatred to self-acceptance.  Horney believed that successful therapy is built on self-analysis and self-understanding.

  1. Related Research

Most research on neuroticism highlights its negative side.  Neuroticism is associated with setting avoidance goals rather than approach goals (Elliot & Thrash, 2002).  Horney’s view (1942) was that neurotics compulsively protect themselves against anxiety, and this defensive strategy traps them in a negative cycle.  While the negative view of neuroticism is understandable, recent researchers have begun looking at some benefits of neuroticism.  A study by Michael Robinson and colleagues asked how one could be a “successful neurotic” (Robinson, Ode, Wilkowski, & Amodio, 2007).  They found that for those predisposed toward neuroticism, the ability to react adaptively to errors while assessing threat was related to less negative mood in daily life.  The conclusion was that many neurotic people, while they cannot change their personalities and stop being neurotic, often develop great skill at avoiding negative outcomes, and that their successful avoidance of these outcomes improves their mood, making them feel better on a daily basis.

  1. Critique of Horney

Although Horney painted a vivid portrait of the neurotic personality, her theory rates very low in generating research, low on its ability to be falsified, to organize data, and to serve as a useful guide to action.  Her theory is rated about average on internal consistency and parsimony.

  1. Concept of Humanity

Horney’s concept of humanity is rated very high on social factors, high on free choice, optimism, and unconscious influences, and about average on causality versus teleology and on the uniqueness of the individual.


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