Personality Chapter 3: A Psychodynamic Theory: Freuds Psychoanalytic Theory of
Behaviour is interpreted as a result of the dynamic interplay among motives, drives, needs and
conflicts. The research consists mainly of clinical investigations as shown in an emphasis on the
individual, in the attention given to individual differences, and in attempts to assess and understand
the total individual.
1) Why Study Freud?
Many contemporary scientists reject significant aspects of psychoanalytic theory. So, why study
1) Freuds work has had an enormous impact on the intellectual life of our culture. Freuds impact
has been large primarily because his ideas were starling. They disrupted commonly accepted
views of human nature and society.
2) It is difficult to appreciate fully any other personality theories without first considering the
strengths and limits of psychoanalysis. This is because most of the other theories were
developed, at least in part, as a reaction against psychoanalytic theory. People perceived
limitations in Freuds work and this inspired them to develop novel theories of their own.
3) There are some topics that are central to human experience, that were addressed directly by
Freud, but that receive relatively little coverage in frameworks other than psychodynamic
theory. Freud proposed a theory of extraordinary breadth and boldness. He tackled phenomena
that are extremely difficult to study.
Psychoanalytic theory developed from therapeutic work. Freud concluded that his patients
problems had complex psychological causes that involved conflicts among mental forces. From this
basic insight, Freud developed an overall view of personality in which behaviour is a result of
struggles among drives and needs that inevitably conflict. Because of these conflicts, overt
behaviour may be more complicated than it appears. These psychological functions occur at
different levels of awareness, with individuals often being unaware of the forces underlying their
2) Sigmund Freud (1856-1939): A View of The Theorist
In medical school, Freud received training that profoundly shaped the personality theory he
developed later in life. A particular influence was Ernst Brucke, a physiologist who was the leader in
an intellectual movement of the time that was known as mechanism. The mechanist movement
argued that the principles of natural science could explain not only the behaviour of physical
objects, but human thought and behaviour as well. People could be understood in terms of physical
and chemical mechanisms that are the causes of experience and behaviour.
After earning his medical degree, Freud worked in the field of neurology. He concluded that the
earliest brain structures persist and are never buried, a view that was a precursor to his later views
of personality development.
Catharsis refers to a release and freeing of emotions by talking about ones problems. In the
cathartic technique that Breuer developed in his work with a patient, the person being analysed is
encouraged to relive traumatic psychological events that are the original source of their emotional
distress. By reliving them, the pent-up emotions associated with the events could be released. A
key point is that before catharsis, the person is not consciously aware of the source of their
In the free-association technique, the person being analysed allows all of his or her thoughts to
come forth without inhibition or falsification of any kind. For Freud, the free association technique
was not only a treatment method but a scientific method. It provided the primary evidence for his
theory of personality. In 1900, Freud published his most significant work, The Interpretation of Dreams. He began to
develop a theory of the mind, that is, a theory of the basic structures and working principles of the
Out of the historical context of World War I, Freud developed his theory of the death instincta
wish to die, which is in opposition to the life instinct or a wish for survival.
3) Freuds View of the Person and Society
At the heart of the psychoanalytic view of the person is that the human is an energy system. Freud
postulated a system in which energy flows, gets sidetracked or becomes dammed up. There is a
limited amount of energy, and if it is used in one way, there is much less of it to be used in another
way. If there energy is blocked from one channel of expression, it finds another, generally along the
path of the least resistance. The goal of all behaviour is pleasure, that is, the reduction of tension
or the release of energy.
The assumption that the mind is an energy system is traceable to the 19 century physicist
Helmholtzs principle of the conservation of energy: matter and energy can be transformed but not
A second feature of Freuds view of persons is the notion that humans are driven by sexual and
aggressive drives, or instincts. To Freud, sexual and aggressive drives are an instinctual feature of
human nature. Along with the aggressive drive, Freud placed great emphasis on the sexual drive
and the conflict between the expression of sexuality and social prohibitions. People function
according to a pleasure principle; they seek unbridled gratification of all desires. This conflicts with
the demands of society, which of course prohibit people from freely expressing sexual desires
whenever and however they wish.
Freud believed that the child is born with sexual and aggressive drives. Society curbs those desires,
teaching children to inhibit them.
Humans, like animals, are driven by instincts or drives and operate in the pursuit of pleasure.
People operate as energy systems, building, storing, and releasing, in one form or another,
basically the same energy. All behaviour is determined, much of it by forces outside of awareness.
In the end, psychoanalysis sides with the instincts and seeks a reduction in the extent to which the
instincts are frustrated.
4) Freuds View of the Science of Personality
Freuds observations were based on the analysis of patients. He relied on clinical case study
evidence. Freud cared little about efforts to verify psychoanalytic principles in the laboratory.
There has been considerable criticism of the uncontrolled nature of Freuds observations and the
way he reported them.
Current Questions: What Price the Suppression of Exciting Thoughts?
Freud suggested that the price of progress in civilization is increased inhibition of the pleasure
principle and a heightened sense of guilt.
Recent research suggests that the suppression of exciting thoughts may be involved in the production
of negative emotional responses and the development of psychological symptoms such as phobias
(irrational fears) and obsessions (preoccupation with uncontrollable thoughts).
The effort to suppress exciting thoughts about sex led to the intrusion of these thoughts into
consciousness and the reintroduction of surges of emotion. This was not found when subjects were
given the opportunity to think about sex.
The researchers suggest that the suppression of exciting thoughts can promote excitement; that is,
the very act of suppression may make these thoughts even more stimulating than when we
purposefully dwell on them.
5) Psychoanalysis: A Theory of Personality
a) The Concept of the Unconscious and Levels of Consciousness
The concept of the unconscious suggests that there are aspects of our functioning of which we
are not fully aware. They psychoanalytic theory of personality suggests that much of ourbehaviour, perhaps the majority of it, is determined by unconscious forces, and that much of
our psychic energy is devoted either to finding acceptable expression of unconscious ideas or
to keeping them unconscious.
i) Levels of Consciousness
There are three levels of awareness:
1) The conscious level involves phenomena of which we are aware at any given moment.
2) The preconscious refers to mental contents of which we could become aware if we
attended to them (ex: your phone number).
3) The unconscious mental contents are parts of the mind that we are unaware of and
cannot become aware of except under special circumstances.
A fundamental idea of psychoanalytic theory is that we have the goal of protecting
ourselves against the anxiety associated with some of our thoughts and desires, and that
we accomplish this goal by keeping these ideas outside of consciousness, storing them
instead in the unconscious.
Through the analysis of dreams, slips of the tongue, neuroses, psychoses, works of art and
rituals, Freud attempted to understand the properties of the unconscious. The unconscious
is alogical (opposites can stand for the same thing), disregards time (events of different
periods may coexist), and disregards space (size and distance relationships are neglected
so that large things fit into small things and distant places are brought together). It is in the
dream that the workings of the unconscious become most apparent. Here we are exposed
to the world of symbols, where many ideas may be telescoped into a single word, where a
part of any object may stand for many things.
ii) The Motivated Unconscious
Psychoanalytic theory suggests that much of our behaviour is motivated by unconscious
influences. The suggestion is that some thoughts, feelings and motives exist in the
unconscious for motivated reasons. If these ideas were to enter conscious awareness, they