Freud’s psychoanalysis is the best known of all personality theories because it (1) postulated the primacy of sex and aggression—two universally popular themes; (2) attracted a group of followers who were dedicated to spreading psychoanalytic doctrine; and (3) advanced the notion of unconscious motives, which permit varying explanations for the same observations (Tallis 669).
Sigmund Freud initially formulated psychoanalysis during the latter part of the nineteenth century. The essence of psychoanalytic technique is the investigation of repressed trauma by means of dream interpretation, transference and free association. Freud built his theory on observations from history, art, and literature, but his primary source of data came from his clinical experiences with neurotic patients whose dreams and slips of the tongue he analyzed as part of his psychotherapy. His psychoanalytic theory has been applied to psychotherapy, dream interpretation, and Freudian slips.
A. Freud’s Early Therapeutic Technique
During his early years as a therapist, Freud used a very aggressive technique whereby he strongly suggested to patients that they had been sexually seduced as children. He later abandoned this technique, along with his belief that most patients had been seduced during childhood. The current frequency with which therapy patients accuse their parents or other adults of criminal sexual acts has prompted some investigators to look at the validity of these claims.
B. Freud’s Later Therapeutic Technique
Beginning in the late 1890s, Freud adopted a much more passive type of psychotherapy, one that relied heavily on free association, dream interpretation, and transference. The goal of Freud’s later psychotherapy was to uncover repressed memories, and the therapist uses dream analysis and free association to do so. With free association, patients are required to say whatever comes to mind, no matter how irrelevant or distasteful. Successful therapy rests on the patient’s transference of childhood sexual or aggressive feelings onto the therapist and away from symptom formation. Patients’ resistance to change is seen as progress because it indicates that therapy has advanced beyond superficial conversation.
C. Dream Analysis
“In interpreting dreams, Freud differentiated the manifest content (conscious description) from the latent content (the unconscious meaning of the dream that lies hidden from the dreamer). Nearly all dreams are wish-fulfillments, although the wish is usually unconscious and can be known only through dream interpretation. Dreams that are not wish-fulfillments follow the principle of repetition compulsion and often occur after people have had a traumatic experience” (Bouveresse and Cosman 34-35). ‘To interpret dreams, Freud used both dream symbols and the dreamer’s associations to the dream content” (Bouveresse and Cosman 37).
D. Freudian Slips
Freud believed that “parapraxes—that is, slips of the tongue or pen, misreadings, incorrect hearings, misplacing of objects, and temporary forgetting of names or intentions—are not chance accidents but reveal a person’s unconscious intentions” (Freud 227).
Although Freudian theory has generated much related research, it rates low on falsifiability because most research findings can be explained by other theories. Throughout the years, however, many researchers have investigated hypotheses inspired by psychoanalytic theory.
A. Defense Mechanisms
George Valliant has added to the list of Freudian defense mechanisms and has found evidence that some of them are neurotic (reaction formation idealization, and undoing), some are immature and maladaptive (projection, isolation, denial, displacement, and dissociation), and some are mature and adaptive (sublimation, suppression, humor, and altruism). Valliant found that neurotic defense mechanisms are successful over the short term; immature defenses are unsuccessful and have the highest degree of distortion; whereas mature and adaptive defenses are successful over the long term, maximize gratification, and have the least amount of distortion (Flott 13).
B. Oral Fixation
“Some recent research has found that aggression is higher in people who bite their finger nails than it is in non-nail biters, especially in women. Other research found that people who are orally fixated tend to see their parents more negatively than do people who are less orally fixated” (Bravo 47-49).
Critique of Freud
Freud regarded himself as a scientist, but many present-day critics consider his methods to be outdated, unscientific, and permeated with sexual bias. On the six criteria of a useful theory, “psychoanalysis is rated high on its ability to generate research, very low on its falsifiability, and average on organizing knowledge, guiding action, and being parsimonious. Because it lacks operational definitions, we rated psychoanalysis low on internal consistency” (Tallis 670-671)
Bouveresse, Jacques and Cosman, Carol. Wittgenstein Reads Freud: The Myth of the Unconscious. Princeton University Press, 1995.
Bravo, Irene M. “The Impact of Early Loss on Depression Dynamic Origins and Empirical Findings.” Psychoanalytic Social Work. Volume: 8 Issue: 3/4 . 9 January, 2001.
Flott, A. “Last Laugh”. UNO ALUM. Fall, 1998. 26 February, 2007 http://www.unoalumni.org/wfdata/frame6478-190/fall1998.pdf.
Freud, S. “The psychopathology of everyday life.” SE, Vol. 6, 1901.
Tallis, R. “Burying Freud.” Lancet, 347(1996): 669-671.