Sigmund Freud’s Psychoanalysis

Overview of Freud’s Psychoanalytic Theory

         Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis has endured because it  (1) postulated the primacy of sex and aggression—two universally popular themes, (2) attracted a group of followers who were dedicated to spreading psychoanalytic doctrine, and (3) advanced the notion of unconscious motives, which permit varying explanations for the same observations.

Biography of Sigmund Freud

         Born in the Czech Republic in 1856, Sigmund Freud spent most of his life in Vienna. Early in his professional career, Freud believed that hysteria was a result of being seduced during childhood by a sexually mature person, often a parent or other relative.  In 1897, however, Freud abandoned his seduction theory and replaced it with his notion of the Oedipus complex, a concept that remained the center of his psychoanalytic theory.  Near the end of his life and to escape Nazi rule, Freud moved to London where he died in 1939.

III.  unctioning as operating on three levels—unconscious, preconscious, and conscious.


         The unconscious includes drives and instincts that are beyond awareness but that motivate most human behaviors.  Freud believed that unconscious drives can become conscious only in disguised or distorted form, such as dream images, slips of the tongue, or neurotic symptoms.  Unconscious processes originate from two sources: (1) repression, or the blocking out of anxiety-filled experiences and (2) phylogenetic endowment, or inherited experiences that lie beyond an individual’s personal experience.

Preconscious.          The preconscious contains images that are not in awareness but that can become conscious either quite easily or with some level of difficulty.

Conscious. Consciousness plays a relatively minor role in Freudian theory.  Conscious ideas stem from either the perception of external stimuli  (our perceptual conscious system) or from the unconscious and preconscious after they have evaded censorship.

Provinces of the Mind

         Freud conceptualized three regions of the mind—the id, the ego, and the superego.

The Id.        The id, which is completely unconscious, serves the pleasure principle and contains our basic instincts. It operates through the primary process.

The Ego.     The ego, or secondary process, is governed by the reality principle and is responsible for reconciling the unrealistic demands of the id and the superego.

The Superego.        The superego, which serves the idealistic principle, has two subsystems—the conscience and the ego-ideal.  The conscience results from punishment for improper behavior whereas the ego-ideal stems from rewards for socially acceptable behavior.

Dynamics of Personality

         Dynamics of personality refers to those forces that motivate people.


         Freud grouped all human drives or urges under two primary instincts—sex (Eros or the life instinct) and aggression (the death or destructive instinct). The aim of the sexual instinct is pleasure, which can be gained through the erogenous zones, especially the mouth, anus, and genitals.  The object of the sexual instinct is any person or thing that brings sexual pleasure.  All infants possess primary narcissism, or self-centeredness, but the secondary narcissism of adolescence and adulthood is not universal.  Both sadism (receiving sexual pleasure from inflicting pain on another) and masochism (receiving sexual pleasure from painful experiences) satisfy both sexual and aggressive drives. The destructive instinct aims to return a person to an inorganic state, but it is ordinarily directed against other people and is called aggression.


         Only the ego feels anxiety, but the id, superego, and outside world can each be a source of anxiety.  Neurotic anxiety stems from the ego’s relation with the id; moral anxiety is similar to guilt and results from the ego’s relation with the superego; and realistic anxiety, which is similar to fear, is produced by the ego’s relation with the real world.

Defense Mechanisms

  •          Defense mechanisms operate to protect the ego against the pain of anxiety.
  1. Repression involves forcing unwanted, anxiety-loaded experiences into the unconscious.  It is the most basic of all defense mechanisms because it is an active process in each of the others.
  2. Reaction Formation is marked by the repression of one impulse and the ostentatious expression of its exact opposite.
  3. Displacement takes place when people redirect their unwanted urges onto other objects or people in order to disguise the original impulse.
  4. Fixation develop when psychic energy is blocked at one stage of development, making psychological change difficult.  Some adults may remain fixated on the anal stage of psychosexual development.
  5. Regression occur whenever a person reverts to earlier, more infantile modes of behavior. Some adults may return to the oral stage as a means of reducing anxiety.
  6. Projection
  •          Projection is seeing in others those unacceptable feelings or behaviors that actually reside in one’s own unconscious. When carried to extreme, projection can become paranoia, which is characterized by delusions of persecution.
  1. Introjection take place when people incorporate positive qualities of another person into their own ego to reduce feelings of inferiority.
  2. Sublimation involve the elevation of the sexual instinct’s aim to a higher level, which permits people to make contributions to society and culture.

VII.  Stages of Development

         Freud saw psychosexual development as proceeding from birth to maturity through four overlapping stages.

  1. Infantile Period
  •          The infantile stage encompasses the first 4 to 5 years of life and is divided into three subphases: oral, anal, and phallic. During the oral phase, an infant is primarily motivated to receive pleasure through the mouth.  During the 2nd year of life, a child goes through an anal phase.  If parents are too punitive during the anal phase, the child may adopt an anal triad, consisting of orderliness, stinginess, and obstinacy.  During the phallic phase, boys and girls begin to have differing psychosexual development. At this time, boys and girls experience the Oedipus complex in which they have sexual feelings for one parent and hostile feelings for the other.  The male castration complex, which takes the form of castration anxiety, breaks up the male Oedipus complex and results in a well-formed male superego. For girls, however, the castration complex takes the form of penis envy, precedes the female Oedipus complex, leads to a gradual and incomplete shattering of the female Oedipus complex and results it a weaker and more flexible female superego.
  1. Latency Period.      Freud believed that psychosexual development goes through a latency stage—from about age 5 years until puberty—in which the sexual instinct is partially suppressed.
  2. Genital Period. The genital period begins with puberty when adolescents experience a reawakening of the genital aim of Eros.  The term “genital period” should not be confused with “phallic period.”
  3. Maturity.    Freud hinted at a stage of psychological maturity in which the ego would be in control of the id and superego and in which consciousness would play a more important role in behavior.
  • VIII. Applications of Psychoanalytic Theory.
  •          Freud erected his theory on the dreams, free associations, slips of the tongue, and neurotic symptoms of his patients during therapy.  But he also gathered information from history, literature, and works of art.
  1. Freud’s Early Therapeutic Technique
  •          During the 1890s, Freud used an aggressive therapeutic technique in which he strongly suggested to patients that they had been sexually seduced as children.  He later dropped this technique and abandoned his belief that most patients had been seduced during childhood.
  1. Freud’s Later Therapeutic Technique
  •          Beginning in the late 1890s, Freud adopted a much more passive type of psychotherapy, one that relied heavily on free association, dream interpretation, and transference.  The goal of Freud’s later psychotherapy was to uncover repressed memories, and the therapist uses dream analysis and free association to do so.  With free association patients are required to say whatever comes to mind, no matter how irrelevant or distasteful.  Successful therapy rests on the patient’s transference of childhood sexual or aggressive feelings onto the therapist and away from symptom formation.  Patients’ resistance to change is seen as progress because it indicates that therapy has advanced beyond superficial conversation.
  1. Dream Analysis
  •          In interpreting dreams, Freud differentiated the manifest content (conscious description) from the latent content (the unconscious meaning). Nearly all dreams are wish-fulfillments, although the wish is usually unconscious and can be known only through dream interpretation. To interpret dreams Freud used both dream symbols and the dreamer’s associations to the dream content.
  1. Freudian Slips
  •          Freud believed that parapraxes—now called Freudian slips—are not chance accidents but reveal a person’s true but unconscious intentions.
  1. Related Research
  •          Although Freudian theory has generated much related research, it rates low on falsifiability because most research findings can be explained by other theories. In recent years, however, many researchers have investigated hypotheses inspired by psychoanalytic theory.  This research includes such topics as (1) unconscious mental processing, (2) pleasure and the id: inhibition and the ego, (3) the defense mechanisms, and (4) dreams.
  1. Unconscious Mental Processing
  • In recent years, neuroscience has been investigating the brain during a variety of cognitive and emotional task, and much of this work relates to Freud’s notion of unconscious motivation.   For example, one pair of reviewers (Bargh & Chartrand, 1990) concluded that 95% of human behaviors are unconsciously determined, and that Freud’s metaphor of the iceberg was probably accurate.  In addition Mark Solms (2000, 2004; Solms & Turnbull, 2002) argued that many Freudian concepts are consistent with modern neuroscience research.  These include unconscious motivation, repression, and the pleasure principle.
  1. Pleasure and the Id /Inhibition and the Ego
  •         Some research (Solms, 2001; Solms & Turnbull, 2002) has established that the pleasure-seeking drives have their neurological origins in two brain structures, namely the brain stem and the limbic system.
  1. Repression, Inhibition, and Defense Mechanisms
  •         Solms (2004) reported cases from the neuropsychological literature demonstrating repression of information when damage occurs to the right-hemisphere and if this damaged region becomes artificially stimulated the repression goes away; that is, awareness returns.
  1. Research on Dreams
  •          Research by Wegner and colleagues (Wegner, Wenzlaff, & Kozak, 2004) tested Freud’s hypothesis that wishes repressed during the day will find their way into dreams during the night.  Results showed that people dreamed more about their repressed targets than their non-repressed ones; that is, they were more likely to dream about people they spend some time thinking about, a finding quite consistent with Freud’s hypothesis.
  1. Critique of Freud
  •          Freud regarded himself as a scientist, but many critics consider his methods to be outdated, unscientific, and permeated with gender bias.  On the six criteria of a useful theory, psychoanalysis we rate its ability to generate research as high, its openness to falsification as very low, and its ability to organize data as average.  We also rate psychoanalysis as average on its ability to guide action and to be parsimonious.  Because it lacks operational definitions, we rate it low on internal consistency.
  1. Concept of Humanity
  •          Freud’s concept of humanity was deterministic and pessimistic.  He emphasized causality over teleology, unconscious determinants over conscious processes, and biology over culture, but he took a middle position on the dimension of uniqueness versus similarity of people.

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