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 psychodynamictheories. 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.

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