Many psychologists have proposed theories that try to explain the origins of personality. One highly influential set of theories stems from the work of Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud, who first proposed the theory of psychoanalysis. Collectively, these theories are known as psychodynamic theories. Although many different psychodynamic theories exist, they all emphasize unconscious motives and desires, as well as the importance of childhood experiences in shaping personality.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Freud developed a technique that he called psychoanalysis and used it to treat mental disorders. He formed his theory of psychoanalysis by observing his patients. According to psychoanalytic theory, personalities arise because of attempts to resolve conflicts between unconscious sexual and aggressive impulses and societal demands to restrain these impulses.
Freud believed that most mental processes are unconscious. He proposed that people have three levels of awareness:
Example: The words Dan is reading, the objects in his field of vision, the sounds he can hear, and any thirst, hunger, or pain he is experiencing at the moment are all in his conscious.
Example: Linda’s telephone number, the make of her car, and many of her past experiences are in her preconscious.
Example: Stan’s unconscious might contain angry feelings toward his mother or a traumatic incident he experienced at age four.
Freud believed that information in the unconscious emerges in slips of the tongue, jokes, dreams, illness symptoms, and the associations people make between ideas.
Freud proposed that personalities have three components: the id, the ego, and the superego.
Freud believed that the id, the ego, and the superego are in constant conflict. He focused mainly on conflicts concerning sexual and aggressive urges because these urges are most likely to violate societal rules.
Internal conflicts can make a person feel anxious. In Freud’s view, anxiety arises when the ego cannot adequately balance the demands of the id and the superego. The id demands gratification of its impulses, and the superego demands maintenance of its moral standards.
To manage these internal conflicts, people use defense mechanisms. Defense mechanisms are behaviors that protect people from anxiety. There are many different kinds of defense mechanisms, many of which are automatic and unconscious:
Example: Nate witnessed his mother being beaten by a mugger when he was seven years old. As an adult, he does not remember this incident.
Example: Lisa feels sexually attracted to her roommate’s boyfriend but does not admit this to herself. Instead, she constantly makes very disparaging comments about the boyfriend and feels disgusted by the way he acts.
Example: Mario feels angry toward his father but is not aware of it. Instead, he complains that he cannot be around his father because his father is such an angry man.
Example: Sylvia runs a red light while driving. She justifies this by telling herself she was already in the intersection when the light changed to red.
Example: Seth is angry at his professor for giving him a bad grade. He leaves class and shouts angrily at a passerby who accidentally bumps into him.
Example: Kate’s use of alcohol starts to affect her academic performance, her job, and her relationships. However, she insists that she drinks only to relieve stress and that she does not have an alcohol problem.
Example: When six-year-old Jameel gets less attention from his parents because of a new baby brother, he suddenly starts to wet his bed at night.
Example: Priya deals with her angry feelings toward her family by writing science-fiction stories about battles between civilizations.
Freud believed that personality solidifies during childhood, largely before age five. He proposed five stages of psychosexual development: the oral stage, the anal stage, the phallic stage, the latency stage, and the genital stage. He believed that at each stage of development, children gain sexual gratification, or sensual pleasure, from a particular part of their bodies. Each stage has special conflicts, and children’s ways of managing these conflicts influence their personalities.
If a child’s needs in a particular stage are gratified too much or frustrated too much, the child can become fixated at that stage of development. Fixation is an inability to progress normally from one stage into another. When the child becomes an adult, the fixation shows up as a tendency to focus on the needs that were over-gratified or over-frustrated.
|Stage||Age||Sources of pleasure||Result of fixation|
|Oral stage||Birth to roughly twelve months||Activities involving the mouth, such as sucking, biting, and chewing||Excessive smoking, overeating, or dependence on others|
|Anal stage||Age two, when the child is being toilet trained||Bowel movements||An overly controlling (anal-retentive) personality or an easily angered (anal-expulsive) personality|
|Phallic stage||Age three to five||The genitals||Guilt or anxiety about sex|
|Latency Stage||Age five to puberty||Sexuality is latent, or dormant, during this period||No fixations at this stage|
|Genital stage||Begins at puberty||The genitals; sexual urges return||No fixations at this stage|
During his lifetime, Freud had many followers who praised his theory, but his ideas, particularly his emphasis on children’s sexuality, also drew criticism. Some of Freud’s followers broke away from him because of theoretical disagreements and proposed their own theories. These theorists are called neo-Freudians. Some important neo-Freudians were Carl Jung, Alfred Adler, and object-relations theorists.
Until the 1910s, Carl Jung was a follower and close friend of Freud’s. Like Freud, Jung believed that unconscious conflicts are important in shaping personality. However, he believed the unconscious has two layers: the personal unconscious, which resembled Freud’s idea, and the collective unconscious, which contains universal memories of the common human past.
Jung called these common memories archetypes. Archetypes are images or thoughts that have the same meaning for all human beings. Jung said that archetypes exist in dreams as well as in art, literature, and religion across cultures.
Example: The archetype of the “powerful father” can be seen in the Christian conception of God, the Zeus of Greek mythology, and popular movies such as The Godfather.
Alfred Adler, another follower of Freud and a member of his inner circle, eventually broke away from Freud and developed his own school of thought, which he called individual psychology. Adler believed that the main motivations for human behavior are not sexual or aggressive urges but strivings for superiority. He pointed out that children naturally feel weak and inadequate in comparison to adults. This normal feeling of inferiority drives them to adapt, develop skills, and master challenges. Adler used the term compensation to refer to the attempt to shed normal feelings of inferiority.
However, some people suffer from an exaggerated sense of inferiority, or an inferiority complex, which can be due either to being spoiled or neglected by parents. Such people overcompensate, which means that rather than try to master challenges, they try to cover up their sense of inferiority by focusing on outward signs of superiority such as status, wealth, and power.
The object-relations school of psychoanalysis emerged in the 1950s, led by a group of psychoanalysts that included D. W. Winnicott and Melanie Klein. The term object relations refers to the relationships that people have with others, who are represented mentally as objects with certain attributes. Object-relations theorists believe that people are motivated most by attachments to others rather than by sexual and aggressive impulses. According to these theorists, the conflict between autonomy and the need for other people plays a key role in shaping personality.
Freud’s original ideas have little popularity today, but many psychologists do adhere to neo-Freudian ideas. However, other psychologists criticize psychodynamic theories for various reasons: