Psychodynamic Perspectives on Personality

Freudian Psychoanalytic Theory of Personality

According to Freud's psychoanalytic theory, personality develops through a series of stages, each characterized by a certain internal psychological conflict.

Learning Objectives

Summarize Freud's theories of human personality and psychosexual stages of development as well as common criticisms of his theories

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Sigmund Freud 's psychoanalytic theory of personality argues that human behavior is the result of the interactions among three component parts of the mind: the id, ego, and superego.
  • This "structural theory" of personality places great importance on how conflicts among the parts of the mind shape behavior and personality. These conflicts are mostly unconscious.
  • According to Freud, personality develops during childhood and is critically shaped through a series of five psychosexual stages, which he called his psychosexual theory of development.
  • During each stage, a child is presented with a conflict between biological drives and social expectations; successful navigation of these internal conflicts will lead to mastery of each developmental stage, and ultimately to a fully mature personality.
  • Freud's ideas have since been met with criticism, in part because of his singular focus on sexuality as the main driver of human personality development.

Key Terms

  • neurosis: A mental disorder marked by anxiety or fear; less severe than psychosis because it does not involve detachment from reality (e.g., hallucination).
  • psychosexual: Of or relating to both psychological and sexual aspects.


Sigmund Freud: Freud developed the psychoanalytic theory of personality development, which argued that personality is formed through conflicts among three fundamental structures of the human mind: the id, ego, and superego.

Sigmund Freud's psychoanalytic theory of personality argues that human behavior is the result of the interactions among three component parts of the mind: the id, ego, and superego. This theory, known as Freud's structural theory of personality, places great emphasis on the role of unconscious psychological conflicts in shaping behavior and personality. Dynamic interactions among these fundamental parts of the mind are thought to progress through five distinct psychosexual stages of development. Over the last century, however, Freud's ideas have since been met with criticism, in part because of his singular focus on sexuality as the main driver of human personality development.

Freud's Structure of the Human Mind

According to Freud, our personality develops from the interactions among what he proposed as the three fundamental structures of the human mind: the id, ego, and superego. Conflicts among these three structures, and our efforts to find balance among what each of them "desires," determines how we behave and approach the world. What balance we strike in any given situation determines how we will resolve the conflict between two overarching behavioral tendencies: our biological aggressive and pleasure-seeking drives vs. our socialized internal control over those drives.


Conflict within the mind: According to Freud, the job of the ego is to balance the aggressive/pleasure-seeking drives of the id with the moral control of the superego.

The Id

The id, the most primitive of the three structures, is concerned with instant gratification of basic physical needs and urges. It operates entirely unconsciously (outside of conscious thought). For example, if your id walked past a stranger eating ice cream, it would most likely take the ice cream for itself. It doesn't know, or care, that it is rude to take something belonging to someone else; it would care only that you wanted the ice cream.

The Superego

The superego is concerned with social rules and morals—similar to what many people call their " conscience " or their "moral compass." It develops as a child learns what their culture considers right and wrong. If your superego walked past the same stranger, it would not take their ice cream because it would know that that would be rude. However, if both your id and your superego were involved, and your id was strong enough to override your superego's concern, you would still take the ice cream, but afterward you would most likely feel guilt and shame over your actions.

The Ego

In contrast to the instinctual id and the moral superego, the ego is the rational, pragmatic part of our personality. It is less primitive than the id and is partly conscious and partly unconscious. It's what Freud considered to be the "self," and its job is to balance the demands of the id and superego in the practical context of reality. So, if you walked past the stranger with ice cream one more time, your ego would mediate the conflict between your id ("I want that ice cream right now") and superego ("It's wrong to take someone else's ice cream") and decide to go buy your own ice cream. While this may mean you have to wait 10 more minutes, which would frustrate your id, your ego decides to make that sacrifice as part of the compromise– satisfying your desire for ice cream while also avoiding an unpleasant social situation and potential feelings of shame.

Freud believed that the id, ego, and superego are in constant conflict and that adult personality and behavior are rooted in the results of these internal struggles throughout childhood. He believed that a person who has a strong ego has a healthy personality and that imbalances in this system can lead to neurosis (what we now think of as anxiety and depression) and unhealthy behaviors.


The id, ego, and superego: According to Freud's structural model, the personality is divided into the id, ego, and superego. On this diagram, the smaller portion above the water signifies the conscious mind, while the much larger portion below the water illustrates the unconscious mind.

Psychosexual Stages of Development

Freud believed that the nature of the conflicts among the id, ego, and superego change over time as a person grows from child to adult. Specifically, he maintained that these conflicts progress through a series of five basic stages, each with a different focus: oral, anal, phallic, latency, and genital. He called his idea the psychosexual theory of development, with each psychosexual stage directly related to a different physical center of pleasure.

Across these five stages, the child is presented with different conflicts between their biological drives (id) and their social and moral conscience (supereg0) because their biological pleasure-seeking urges focus on different areas of the body (what Freud called "erogenous zones"). The child's ability to resolve these internal conflicts determines their future ability to cope and function as an adult. Failure to resolve a stage can lead one to become fixated in that stage, leading to unhealthy personality traits; successful resolution of the stages leads to a healthy adult.

Criticism of Freud's Theories

Although Freud's theories have many advantages that helped to expand our psychological understanding of personality, they are not without limits.

Narrow Focus

In his singular emphasis on the structure of the human mind, Freud paid little to no attention to the impact of environment, sociology, or culture. His theories were highly focused on pathology and largely ignored "normal," healthy functioning. He has also been criticized for his myopic view of human sexuality to the exclusion of other important factors.

No Scientific Basis

Many critics point out that Freud's theories are not supported by any empirical (experimental) data. In fact, as researchers began to take a more scientific look at his ideas, they found that several were unable to be supported: in order for a theory to be scientifically valid, it must be possible to disprove ("falsify") it with experimental evidence, and many of Freud's notions are not falsifiable.


Feminists and modern critics have been particularly critical of many of Freud's theories, pointing out that the assumptions and approaches of psychoanalytic theory are profoundly patriarchal (male-dominated), anti-feminist, and misogynistic (anti-woman). Karen Horney, a psychologist who followed Freud, saw the mainstream Freudian approach as having a foundation of "masculine narcissism." Feminist Betty Friedan referred to Freud's concept of "penis envy" as a purely social bias typical of the Victorian era and showed how the concept played a key role in discrediting alternative notions of femininity in the early to mid-twentieth century.

Neo-Freudian Psychoanalytic Theory of Personality

Neo-Freudian approaches to the study of personality both expanded on and countered Freud's original theories.

Learning Objectives

Analyze the contributions of notable Neo-Freudian theorists to the field of personality psychology

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Over the years, Freud attracted many followers who adapted and modified his psychoanalytic theories to create new theories of personality. These other theorists became known as Neo-Freudians.
  • Neo-Freudians, such as Adler, Horney, Jung, and Erikson, agreed with Freud that childhood experiences matter; however, they expanded on Freud's ideas by focusing on the importance of sociological and cultural influences in addition to biological influences.
  • Alfred Adler was the first to explore and develop a comprehensive social theory of the psychodynamic person and coined the idea of the "inferiority complex."
  • Erik Erikson proposed the psychosocial theory of development, which suggested that an individual’s personality develops throughout their lifespan based on a changing emphasis on different social relationships.
  • Two of Carl Jung's major contributions were his ideas of the collective unconscious and the persona.
  • Karen Horney’s theories focused on "unconscious anxiety," which she believed stemmed from early childhood experiences of unmet needs, loneliness, and/or isolation.

Key Terms

  • pathology: Any deviation from a healthy or normal condition; abnormality.
  • psychodynamic: Relating to the approach to psychology that emphasizes systematic study of the psychological forces underlying human behavior, feelings, and emotions and how these might be related to early experiences.

Neo-Freudian Approaches to Personality

Although Sigmund Freud contributed a great deal to the field of psychology through his psychoanalytic theory of personality, his work did not go without scrutiny. Many criticized his theories for being overly focused on sexuality; over the years since his work, many other theorists have adapted and built on his ideas to form new theories of personality. These theorists, referred to as Neo-Freudians, generally agreed with Freud that childhood experiences are important, but they lessened his emphasis on sex and sexuality. Instead of taking a strictly biological approach to the development of personality (as Freud did in his focus on individual evolutionary drives ), they focused more holistically on how the social environment and culture influence personality development.


Freud and his followers: Several of the psychologists who studied Freud's theories worked directly with Freud himself at Clark University. This photograph shows Carl Jung (front row, right) with Freud (front row, left) and other colleagues.

Notable Neo-Freudians

Many psychologists, scientists, and philosophers have made meaningful additions to the psychoanalytic study of personality. Four particularly notable Neo-Freudians are Alfred Adler, Erik Erikson, Carl Jung, and Karen Horney.

Alfred Adler

Alfred Adler was the first to explore and develop a comprehensive social theory of the psychodynamic person. He founded a school of psychology called individual psychology, which focuses on our drive to compensate for feelings of inferiority. Adler proposed the concept of the inferiority complex, which describes a person’s feelings that they lack worth and don’t measure up to the standards of others or of society. He also believed in the importance of social connections, seeing childhood development as emerging through social development rather than via the sexual stages outlined by Freud. From these ideas, Adler identified three fundamental social tasks that all of us must experience: occupational tasks (careers), societal tasks (friendship), and love tasks (finding an intimate partner for a long-term relationship).

Erik Erikson

Erik Erikson is influential for having proposed the psychosocial theory of development, which suggests that an individual’s personality develops throughout the lifespan based on a series of social relationships—a departure from Freud’s more biology-oriented view. In his psychosocial theory, Erikson emphasized the social relationships that are important at each stage of personality development, in contrast to Freud’s emphasis on sex. Erikson identified eight stages, each of which represents a conflict or developmental task. The development of a healthy personality and a sense of competence depend on the successful completion of each task.

Carl Jung

Carl Jung followed in Adler's footsteps by developing a theory of personality called analytical psychology. One of Jung's major contributions was his idea of the collective unconscious, which he deemed a "universal" version of Freud's personal unconscious, holding mental patterns, or memory traces, that are common to all of us (Jung, 1928). These ancestral memories, which Jung called archetypes, are represented by universal themes as expressed through various cultures' literature and art, as well as people's dreams. Jung also proposed the concept of the persona, referring to a kind of "mask" that we adopt based on both our conscious experiences and our collective unconscious. Jung believed this persona served as a compromise between who we really are (our true self) and what society expects us to be; we hide those parts of ourselves that are not aligned with society’s expectations behind this mask.

Karen Horney

Karen Horney was one of the first women trained as a Freudian psychoanalyst. Horney’s theories focused on "unconscious anxiety," which she believed stemmed from early childhood experiences of unmet needs, loneliness, and/or isolation. She theorized three styles of coping that children adopt in relation to anxiety: moving toward people, moving away from people, and moving against people.

Horney was also influential in the advancement of feminism within the field of psychodynamics. Freud has been widely critiqued for his almost exclusive focus on men and for what some perceive as a condescension toward women; for example, Horney disagreed with the Freudian idea that girls have "penis envy" and are jealous of male biological features. According to Horney, any jealousy is most likely due to the greater privileges that males are often given, meaning that the differences between men’s and women’s personalities are due to the dynamics of culture rather than biology. She further suggested that men have "womb envy" because they cannot give birth.

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