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Psychodynamic Theory

Psychodynamic Perspectives on the Structure of the Mind

Psychodynamic theory suggests that the mind is composed of the id, ego, and superego, with most mental activity taking place outside conscious awareness.

Sigmund Freud, a medical doctor, is often considered the father of psychology. Freud developed the concept of psychodynamics, the interaction between conscious and unconscious motivations that influences behavior and personality. Freud's psychodynamic approach saw human functioning as the result of internal conflicts. He focused on the interaction between mostly unconscious drives within an individual. He believed these interactions shaped behavior and personality, each person's unique pattern of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

Freud believed that people are only aware of about ten percent of their mind's activities. He believed the other 90 percent remains hidden in their unconscious. According to Freud, the unconscious mind restrains socially unacceptable desires and ideas, such as sexual or aggressive urges, through a process called repression. Freud believed that everything in a person's unconscious can affect behavior. Repressed urges can surface through slips of the tongue, commonly called Freudian slips. For example, someone hosting a relative they don't enjoy might intend to say, "I'm glad you're here," but instead, they might let "I'm sad you're here" slip out. The unconscious mind also holds in past traumas and painful memories.

Freud theorized that the mind is composed of three complementary parts: the id, ego, and superego. The id is the unconscious part of the mind that wants immediate gratification for primitive urges, such as hunger, thirst, and sex. Freud believed the id is present from birth. It operates on the pleasure principle, or the instinctive drive to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Social interactions lead to the development of the ego and superego, to control the instinctual id. The superego is the part of the mind that acts as the conscience and moral compass; it tells a person how to behave, strives for perfection, and judges behavior. The superego produces feelings of pride in accomplishments and guilt about shortcomings.

In Freud's model, the id and the superego act as two conflicting forces. The third part of the mind is the ego, or the self, the rational part of a person seen by others. Freud believed the ego operates on the reality principle, attempting to satisfy the demands of the id by balancing internal urges with behavior that works in the real world. The ego finds a middle path between the id's primal desires and the judgement and guilt from the superego. These three aspects of personality are dynamic and are always interacting within a person to influence his or her personality and behavior. For example, the id might say, "I'm hungry, I need to eat now!" The superego argues, "You can't do that, you are in the middle of class right now," and the ego compromises, "I will drink some water and chew a stick of gum and eat after class."

Freud's division of the mind into the id, ego, and superego does not align with modern understanding of the brain and behavior. However, his view of the mind has had a profound influence on the development of the field of psychology.

Freud's Model of the Conscious and Unconscious

Freud related the mind to an iceberg. The small tip of the iceberg visible above water represents the conscious mind. The bulk of the iceberg below water represents the 90 percent of the mind filled with unconscious desires.

Defense Mechanisms

According to psychodynamic theory, people experience anxiety due to conflicts between the id and the superego. Defense mechanisms are unconscious attempts to manage that anxiety.

According to Freud, a healthy personality requires a strong ego able to balance the demands of the id and the judgement of the superego. Imbalances lead to unhealthy behaviors and neurosis, a tendency to experience negative emotions. An overactive id leads to impulsivity, whereas a weak id leads to denial of needs. A dominant superego leads to crippling guilt, while a weak superego leads to selfish or cruel behavior.

Freud theorized that anxiety arises when the ego fails to mediate the conflict between the id and the superego. He believed that when this occurs, the ego tries to restore balance through protective measures. These measures are known as defense mechanisms, unconscious behaviors intended to reduce anxiety and protect oneself from discomfort. Freud suggested several defense mechanisms that each focus on alleviating different forms of anxiety. Problematic defense mechanisms, such as denial, can distort reality. Mature defense mechanisms, such as sublimation, lead to productive and socially appropriate behavior.

Common Defense Mechanisms

Defense Mechanism Description Example
Denial Refusing to accept unpleasant events as real Assuming a romantic rejection occurred because someone is playing hard to get
Displacement Transferring inappropriate urges onto a safer target Yelling at a child after being humiliated by one's boss
Projection Seeing one's own feelings in others rather than acknowledging them Accusing someone of being selfish while withholding something that person needs
Rationalization Justifying bad behavior by offering socially acceptable reasons Cheating on your taxes and saying it is a form of social protest against government waste
Reaction formation Expressing thoughts and feelings that are the exact opposite of one's true feelings Speaking out against sexual behaviors that one actually finds especially appealing
Regression Reverting to behavior appropriate for an earlier developmental stage An adult cuddling with a childhood stuffed animal after a stressful day
Repression Blocking an anxiety-causing memory from conscious awareness Not remembering and denying childhood abuse that occurred
Sublimation Redirecting their socially unacceptable desires into appropriate and productive channels Dealing with aggressive urges by becoming a martial arts instructor

Defense mechanisms operate unconsciously as a way to relieve unpleasant feelings. Different defense mechanisms seek to minimize different forms of anxiety.

The Five Stages of Psychosexual Development

The five psychosexual development stages include the oral, anal, phallic, latency, and genital stages and were believed to be crucial to the formation of adult personality.

Freud believed that childhood experiences shape personality and behavior. He saw the libido, or energy generated by sexual and survival instincts, as the motivator for all behavior. He believed that the expression of the libido shifted throughout development.

Freud proposed five psychosexual development stages during which a child needs appropriate adult care to develop properly. People must progress through these stages in order: oral, anal, phallic, latency, and genital. During each stage, the id produces pleasure-seeking urges corresponding to different areas of the body that are sensitive and responsive to sexual stimulation, called erogenous zones. If a person does not resolve the conflict that characterizes a given stage, they will become fixated (stuck) in that stage. Individuals can only move successfully through these stages by resolving the conflicts within each. Freud believed that individuals who reach the genital stage would be well-balanced, healthy adults, as they have resolved all conflicts from previous stages.

During the oral stage (birth to age one), pleasure focuses on the mouth. Eating and sucking nipples, pacifiers, bottles, and thumbs are main sources of comfort. Conflict arises during weaning, taking a baby off the bottle or breast. If weaning is not handled properly, oral fixation can occur. The result is an adult who smokes, drinks, overeats, or bites their nails to ease their anxiety.

During the anal stage (ages one to three years) children get pleasure from their bladder and bowel movements. The erogenous zone is the anus. The conflict arises during toilet training. Appropriate praise leads to confidence but too much freedom results in an anal-expulsive personality that is messy and careless with emotional outbursts. On the other hand, harsh punishment can cause anxiety, resulting in an anal-retentive personality with an excessive need for order, neatness, and perfectionism.

During the phallic stage (ages three to six years), children become aware of the differences between boys and girls, and the erogenous zone is the genitals. Conflict arises when the child feels a desire for the opposite-sex parent, and jealousy and hatred toward the same-sex parent. This is called the Oedipus complex for boys and the Electra complex for girls. This conflict can be successfully resolved if children realize that aligning with the same sex parent will indirectly bring them closer to the opposite sex parent. If these complexes are not properly resolved, fixation may occur. The result can be a jealous, vain, attention-seeking, or overly ambitious personality.

The latency period lasts from age six until puberty. This period is not considered a stage in the psychosexual development model, because sexual urges are dormant, and children primarily focus on school, friendships, and hobbies. The final stage is the genital stage which begins at puberty and continues through adulthood. Freud claims there is a sexual reawakening and a strong desire for the opposite sex during this stage. The incestuous urges that resurface from childhood are redirected toward socially acceptable partners who often resemble the opposite-sex parent.

The Five Stages of Psychosexual Development

Stage Age Erogenous Zone Major Conflict Adult Fixation
Oral 0–1 Mouth Weaning Smokes, drinks, overeats, bites their nails; sarcastic, verbally aggressive, jealous, dependent
Anal 1–3 Anus Toilet training Obsessed with neatness/organization (anal retentive) or disorganized, careless, defiant (anal expulsive)
Phallic 3–6 Genitals Desire for the opposite-sex parent and jealousy or hatred toward the same-sex parent Jealous, vain, attention-seeking, or overly ambitious
Latency 6–12 None A period of relative stability Lack of sexual fulfillment
Genital 12+ Genitals Sexual interests Impotence, unsatisfying relationships

Psychoanalytic theorist Sigmund Freud believed that the early years of life were especially important to development. He suggested that people can fail to progress through a developmental stage, leading to lifelong consequences.