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Psychodynamic Theories

Personality Traits

Behaviorist Theories

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.

Sigmund Freud’s Theory of Psychoanalysis

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.

The Conscious, the Preconscious, and the Unconscious

Freud believed that most mental processes are unconscious. He proposed that people have three levels of awareness:

  • The conscious contains all the information that a person is paying attention to at any given time.

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.

  • The preconscious contains all the information outside of a person’s attention but readily available if needed.

Example: Linda’s telephone number, the make of her car, and many of her past experiences are in her preconscious.

  • The unconscious contains thoughts, feelings, desires, and memories of which people have no awareness but that influence every aspect of their day-to-day lives.

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.

The Id, the Ego, and the Superego

Freud proposed that personalities have three components: the id, the ego, and the superego.

  • Id: a reservoir of instinctual energy that contains biological urges such as impulses toward survival, sex, and aggression. The id is unconscious and operates according to the pleasure principle, the drive to achieve pleasure and avoid pain. The id is characterized by primary process thinking, which is illogical, irrational, and motivated by a desire for the immediate gratification of impulses.
  • Ego: the component that manages the conflict between the id and the constraints of the real world. Some parts of the ego are unconscious, while others are preconscious or conscious. The ego operates according to the reality principle, the awareness that gratification of impulses has to be delayed in order to accommodate the demands of the real world. The ego is characterized by secondary process thinking, which is logical and rational. The ego’s role is to prevent the id from gratifying its impulses in socially inappropriate ways.
  • Superego: the moral component of personality. It contains all the moral standards learned from parents and society. The superego forces the ego to conform not only to reality but also to its ideals of morality. Hence, the superego causes people to feel guilty when they go against society’s rules. Like the ego, the superego operates at all three levels of awareness.

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.

Defense Mechanisms

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:

  • Repression: keeping unpleasant thoughts, memories, and feelings shut up in the 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.

  • Reaction formation: behaving in a way that is opposite to behavior, feelings, or thoughts that are considered unacceptable.

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.

  • Projection: attributing one’s own unacceptable thoughts or feelings to someone else.

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.

  • Rationalization: using incorrect but self-serving explanations to justify unacceptable behavior, thoughts, or feelings.

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.

  • Displacement: transferring feelings about a person or event onto someone or something else.

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.

  • Denial: refusing to acknowledge something that is obvious to others.

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.

  • Regression: reverting to a more immature state of psychological development.

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.

  • Sublimation: channeling unacceptable thoughts and feelings into socially acceptable behavior.

Example: Priya deals with her angry feelings toward her family by writing science-fiction stories about battles between civilizations.

Psychosexual Stages of Development

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.

Freud’s Psychosexual Stages of Development
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.

Carl Jung’s Analytical Psychology

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’s Individual Psychology

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.

Object-Relations Theories

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.

Criticisms of Psychodynamic Theories

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:

  • Some critics argue that psychodynamic theories are not falsifiable (see pages 8-–9) and therefore unscientific. In response to this criticism, proponents of psychodynamic theories point out that empirical evidence does support some psychodynamic concepts. For example, empirical research shows that there are unconscious mental processes, that people have mental representations of other people, and that people use unconscious defense mechanisms to protect themselves from unpleasant emotions such as anxiety.
  • Other critics argue that psychodynamic theories are made by generalizing from a small number of patients to the whole human population. Relying only on case studies can lead to faulty conclusions.
  • Still others argue that most psychodynamic theories are not based on studies that fol low people from childhood to adulthood. Instead, psychodynamic theorists listen to descriptions o f an adult patient’s past and draw conclusions about the relevance of childhood experiences. However, as described on pages 172–174, memories are not always reliable.

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