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Psychodynamic Approach

published, updated 2017


The psychodynamic approach includes all the theories in psychology that see human functioning based upon the interaction of drives and forces within the person, particularly unconscious, and between the different structures of the personality.

Freud’s psychoanalysis was the original psychodynamic theory, but the psychodynamic approach as a whole includes all theories that were based on his ideas, e.g. Jung (1964), Adler (1927) and Erikson (1950).

The words psychodynamic and psychoanalytic are often confused. Remember that Freud’s theories were psychoanalytic, whereas the term ‘psychodynamic’ refers to both his theories and those of his followers. Freud’s psychoanalysis is both a theory and a therapy.

Sigmund Freud (writing between the 1890s and the 1930s) developed a collection of theories which have formed the basis of the psychodynamic approach to psychology.  His theories are clinically derived - i.e. based on what his patients told him during therapy. The psychodynamic therapist would usually be treating the patient for depression or anxiety related disorders.

Basic Assumptions

Our behavior and feelings are powerfully affected by unconscious motives:

The unconscious mind comprises mental processes that are inaccessible to consciousness but that influence judgements, feelings, or behavior (Wilson, 2002).

According to Freud (1915), the unconscious mind is the primary source of human behavior. Like an iceberg, the most important part of the mind is the part you cannot see.

Our feelings, motives and decisions are actually powerfully influenced by our past experiences, and stored in the unconscious.

Our behavior and feelings as adults (including psychological problems) are rooted in our childhood experiences:

Psychodynamic theory states that events in our childhood have a great influence on our adult lives, shaping our personality. Events that occur in childhood can remain in the unconscious, and cause problems as adults.

Personality is shaped as the drives are modified by different conflicts at different times in childhood (during psychosexual development).

All behavior has a cause (usually unconscious), even slips of the tongue. Therefore all behavior is determined:

Psychodynamic theory is strongly determinist as it views our behavior as caused entirely by unconscious factors over which we have no control.

Unconscious thoughts and feelings can transfer to the conscious mind in the form of parapraxes, popularly known as Freudian slips or slips of the tongue. We reveal what is really on our mind by saying something we didn't mean to.

Freud believed that slips of the tongue provided an insight into the unconscious mind and that there were no accidents, every behavior (including slips of the tongue) was significant (i.e. all behavior is determined).

Personality is made up of three parts (i.e. tripartite): the id, ego and super-ego:

The id is the primitive and instinctive component of personality. It consists of all the inherited (i.e. biological) components of personality present at birth, including the sex (life) instinct – Eros (which contains the libido), and the aggressive (death) instinct - Thanatos.

The ego develops in order to mediate between the unrealistic id and the external real world. It is the decision making component of personality.

The superego incorporates the values and morals of society which are learned from one's parents and others.

Parts of the unconscious mind (the id and superego) are in constant conflict with the conscious part of the mind (the ego). This conflict creates anxiety, which could be dealt with by the ego’s use of defence mechanisms.


History of The Psychodynamic Approach

  • Anna O a patient of Dr. Joseph Breuer (Freud's mentor and friend) from 1800 to 1882 suffered from hysteria.
  • In 1895 Breuer and his assistant, Sigmund Freud, wrote a book, Studies on Hysteria. In it they explained their theory: Every hysteria is the result of a traumatic experience, one that cannot be integrated into the person's understanding of the world. The publication establishes Freud as “the father of psychoanalysis.
  • By 1896 Freud had found the key to his own system, naming it psychoanalysis. In it he had replaced hypnosis with "free association."
  • In 1900 Freud published his first major work, The Interpretation of Dreams, which established the importance of psychoanalytical movement.
  • In 1902 Freud founded the Psychological Wednesday Society, later transformed into the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society.
  • As the organization grew, Freud established an inner circle of devoted followers, the so-called "Committee" (including Sàndor Ferenczi, and Hanns Sachs (standing) Otto Rank, Karl Abraham, Max Eitingon, and Ernest Jones). freud wednesday society
  • Freud and his colleagues came to Massachusetts in 1909 to lecture on their new methods of understanding mental illness. Those in attendance included some of the country's most important intellectual figures, such as William James, Franz Boas, and Adolf Meyer.
  • In the years following the visit to the United States, the International Psychoanalytic Association was founded. Freud designated Carl Jung as his successor to lead the Association, and chapters were created in major cities in Europe and elsewhere. Regular meetings or congresses were held to discuss the theory, therapy, and cultural applications of the new discipline.
  • Jung's study on schizophrenia, The Psychology of Dementia Praecox, led him into collaboration with Sigmund Freud.
  • Jung's close collaboration with Freud lasted until 1913. Jung had become increasingly critical of Freud's exclusively sexual definition of libido and incest. The publication of Jung's Wandlungen und Symbole der Libido (known in English as The Psychology of the Unconscious) led to a final break.
  • Following his emergence from this period of crisis, Jung developed his own theories systematically under the name of Analytical Psychology. Jung's concepts of the collective unconscious and of the archetypes led him to explore religion in the East and West, myths, alchemy, and later flying saucers.
  • Anna Freud (Freud's daughter) became a major force in British psychology, specializing in the application of psychoanalysis to children. Among her best known works is The Ego and the Mechanism of defense (1936).

Psychodynamic Summary

Basic Assumptions
The major causes of behavior have their origin in the unconscious.
Psychic determinism: all behavior has a cause/reason.
Different parts of the unconscious mind are in constant struggle.
Our behavior and feelings as adults (including psychological problems) are rooted in our childhood experiences.

Strengths
It has given rise to one of the first “talking cure”, psychoanalysis, on which many psychological therapies are now based.
It could be argued that Freud was the first person to highlights the importance of childhood in mental health and this is an idea extensively used today.
The Psychodynamic approach takes into account both sides of the Nature/Nurture debate.

Freud claimed that adult personality is the product of innate drives- i.e. natural motivations or urges we are born with- and childhood experiences- i.e. the way we are raised and nurtured.

Areas of Application
Limitations
Ignores mediational processes (e.g. thinking)
The psychodynamic approach places too much emphasis on the psychological factors, without considering the biological/genetic factors that influence and contribute to mental health problems.
Too deterministic (little free-will)
Unfalsifiable (difficult to prove wrong)
Case Studies - Subjective / Cannot generalize results
Simplifying the human mind into the id, ego and superego and the five psychosexual stages makes the approach reductionist.

Critical Evaluation

The greatest criticism of the psychodynamic approach is that it is unscientific in its analysis of human behavior.  Many of the concepts central to Freud's theories are subjective, and as such, difficult to test scientifically.

For example, how is it possible to scientifically study concepts like the unconscious mind or the tripartite personality?  In this respect it could be argued that the psychodynamic perspective is unfalsifiable as its theories cannot be empirically investigated.

However, cognitive psychology has identified unconscious processes, such as procedural memory (Tulving, 1972), automatic processing (Bargh & Chartrand, 1999; Stroop, 1935), and social psychology have shown the importance of implicit processing (Greenwald & Banaji, 1995). Such empirical findings have demonstrated the role of unconscious processes in human behavior.

Kline (1989) argues that the psychodynamic approach comprises a series of hypotheses, some of which are more easily tested than others, and some with more supporting evidence than others. Also, whilst the theories of the psychodynamic approach may not be easily tested, this does not mean that it does not have strong explanatory power.

Nevertheless, most of the evidence for psychodynamic theories is taken from Freud's case studies (e.g. Little Hans, Anna O). The main problem here is that the case studies are based on studying one person in detail, and with reference to Freud the individuals in question are most often middle aged women from Vienna (i.e. his patients). This makes generalizations to the wider population (e.g. the whole world) difficult.

Another problem with the case study method is that it is susceptible to researcher bias. Reexamination of Freud's own clinical work suggests that he sometimes distorted his patients' case histories to 'fit' with his theory (Sulloway, 1991).

The humanistic approach makes the criticism that the psychodynamic perspective is too deterministic. Freud suggests that all thoughts, behaviours and emotions are determined by our childhood experiences and unconscious mental processes. This is a weakness because it suggests we have no conscious free will over our behavior, leaving little room for the idea of personal agency (i.e. free will).

Finally, the psychodynamic approach can be criticized for being sexist against women. For example, Freud believed that females' penis envy made them inferior to males. He also thought that females tended to develop weaker superegos and to be more prone to anxiety than males.

References

Adler, A. (1927). Understanding human nature. New York: Greenburg.

Bargh, J. A., & Chartrand, T. L. (1999). The unbearable automaticity of being. American psychologist, 54(7), 462.

Erikson, E. H. (1950). Childhood and society. New York: Norton.

Freud, A. (1936). Ego & the mechanisms of defense.

Freud, S., & Breuer. J. (1895). Studies on hysteria. In Standard edition (Vol. 2, pp. 1–335).

Freud, S. (1896). Heredity and the etiology of the neuroses. In Standard edition (Vol. 3, pp. 142–156).

Freud, S. (1900). The interpretation of dreams. In Standard edition (Vols. 4 & 5, pp. 1–627).

Freud, S. (1909). Notes upon a case of obsessional neurosis. In Standard edition (Vol. 10, pp. 153–249).

Freud, S. (1909). Analysis of a phobia of a five year old boy. In The Pelican Freud Library (1977), Vol 8, Case Histories 1, pages 169-306

Freud, S. (1915). The unconscious. SE, 14: 159-204.

Greenwald, A. G., & Banaji, M. R. (1995). Implicit social cognition: attitudes, self-esteem, and stereotypes. Psychological review, 102(1), 4.

Jung, C. G. (1907). Ueber die Psychologie der Dementia praecox. Psychological Bulletin, 4(6), 196-197.

Jung, C. G. (1912). Wandlungen und Symbole der Libido: Beiträge zur Entwicklungsgeschichte des Denkens. F. Deuticke.

Jung, C. G., et al. (1964). Man and his Symbols, New York, N.Y.: Anchor Books, Doubleday.

Kline, P. (1989). Objective tests of Freud's theories. Psychology Survey, 7, 127-45.

Stroop, J. R. (1935). Studies of interference in serial verbal reactions. Journal of experimental psychology, 18(6), 643.

Sulloway, F. J. (1991). Reassessing Freud's case histories: The social construction of psychoanalysis. Isis, 82(2), 245-275.

Tulving, E. (1972). Episodic and semantic memory. In E. Tulving & W. Donaldson (Eds.), Organization of Memory, (pp. 381–403). New York: Academic Press.

Wilson, T. D. (2004). Strangers to ourselves. Harvard University Press.


How to reference this article:

McLeod, S. A. (2017). Psychodynamic approach. Retrieved from www.simplypsychology.org/psychodynamic.html


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