Psychodynamic Approach

Freud’s Psychoanalytic Approach

As previously mentioned, Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), an Austrian neurologist, is probably the most recognized name in psychology, His psychodynamic approach to development and psychopathology dominated the field of psychiatry until the growth of behaviorism in the 1930s and beyond. The psychodynamic approach emphasizes unconscious psychological processes (for example, wishes and fears of which we are not fully aware), and contends that childhood experiences are crucial in shaping adult personality (Thorne & Henley, 2005). Freud theorized that many of his patients’ problems arose from the unconscious mind. In Freud’s view, the unconscious mind was a repository of feelings and urges of which we have no awareness. Gaining access to the unconscious, then, was crucial to the successful resolution of the patient’s problems. According to Freud, the unconscious mind could be accessed through dream analysis, by examinations of the first words that came to people’s minds, and through seemingly innocent slips of the tongue.

Video 3.5.1. Psychoanalytic Theory explains the various levels of the mind and how we develop and behave based on the influences of these various levels.

Freud also made contributions to the advancement of psychotherapy. He began working with ‘hysterical’ patients and discovered that when they began to talk about some of their life experiences, particularly those that took place in early childhood, their symptoms disappeared. This led him to suggest the first purely psychological explanation for physical problems and mental illness. What he proposed was that unconscious motives, desires, fears, and anxieties drive our actions. When upsetting memories or thoughts begin to find their way into our consciousness, we develop defenses to shield us from these painful realities, called defense mechanisms. Freud believed that many mental illnesses are a result of a person’s inability to accept reality.

Figure 3.5.1. (a) Sigmund Freud was highly influential in the history of psychology. (b) One of his many books, A General Introduction To Psychoanalysis, shared his ideas about psychoanalytical therapy; it was published in 1922.

While many of Freud’s theories have lost favor, he is still considered to be a very influential figure in the area of development. Freud was the first to systematically study and theorize the workings of the unconscious mind in the manner that we associate with modern psychology. Because psychodynamic theories are difficult to prove wrong, evaluating those theories, in general, is difficult in that we cannot make definite predictions about a given individual’s behavior using the theories. The theory is also considered to be sexist in suggesting that women who do not accept an inferior position in society are somehow psychologically flawed. Freud focused on the darker side of human nature and suggested that much of what determines our actions are unknown to us. Others criticize that the psychodynamic approach is too deterministic, relating to the idea that all events, including human action, are ultimately determined by causes regarded as external to the will, thereby leaving little room for the idea of free will (De St Aubin, 2004).

The psychodynamic perspective has evolved considerably since Freud’s time, encompassing all the theories in psychology that see human functioning based upon the interaction of conscious and unconscious drives and forces within the person, and between the different structures of the personality.

Erickson’s Psychosocial Theory

Now, let us turn to a less controversial psychodynamic theorist, the father of developmental psychology, Erik Erikson (1902-1994). Erikson was a student of Freud’s and expanded on his theory of psychosexual development by emphasizing the importance of culture in parenting practices and motivations and adding stages of adult development (Erikson, 1950; 1968).

As an art school dropout with an uncertain future, young Erik Erikson met Freud’s daughter, Anna Freud, while he was tutoring the children of an American couple undergoing psychoanalysis in Vienna. It was Anna Freud who encouraged Erikson to study psychoanalysis. Erikson received his diploma from the Vienna Psychoanalytic Institute in 1933, and as Nazism spread across Europe, he fled the country and immigrated to the United States that same year. Erikson later proposed a psychosocial theory of development, suggesting that an individual’s personality develops throughout the lifespan—a departure from Freud’s view that personality is fixed in early life. In his theory, Erikson emphasized the social relationships that are important at each of the eight-stage of psychosocial development, each of which includes a conflict or developmental task. The development of a healthy personality and a sense of competence depend on the successful completion of each task. His stage theory was also different than his predecessor in that he emphasized development throughout the lifespan, not just until adulthood.

Figure 3.5.2. Erik Erikson

Table 3.5.1. Erikson’s Psychosocial Stage Theory

Erikson’s eight stages form a foundation for discussions on emotional and social development during the lifespan. Keep in mind, however, that these stages or crises can occur more than once or at different times of life. For instance, a person may struggle with a lack of trust beyond infancy. Erikson’s theory is criticized for focusing so heavily on stages and assuming that the completion of one stage is a prerequisite for the next crisis of development. His theory also focuses on the social expectations found in certain cultures, but not in all. For instance, the idea that adolescence is a time of searching for identity might translate well in the middle-class culture of the United States, but not as well in cultures where the transition into adulthood coincides with puberty through rites of passage and where adult roles offer fewer choices.

Video 3.5.2. Erikson's Psychosocial Development explains how humans progress through various stages.

By and large, Erikson’s view that development continues throughout the lifespan is very significant and has received great recognition. However, like Freud’s theory, it has been criticized for focusing on more men than women and also for its vagueness, making it difficult to test rigorously.

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