Freudian Theory

A Short History of Sigmund Freud Theory

Freud’s Topographical Model

  • Conscious
  • Preconscious
  • Unconscious

Freudian Theory and the Structural Model

  • Id
  • Ego
  • Superego

The interplay between these structures is referred to as the psychodynamics of the personality.

Freudian Theory Id, Ego and Superego

ID: The deep, unconscious part of personality.

  •  Composed of biological, instinctual drives.
  •  Innate (born with it)
  •  Seeks immediate, indiscriminant gratification.
  •  Source of all mental energy
  •  Obeys the pleasure principle: Pleasure is good and – nothing else matters
  •  Gratifying urges returns body to homeostasis.
  •  Libido – biological force/energy underlying pleasure-seeking activity
  •  Thanatos – the death instinct

EGO: The executive or manager of personality.

  • Organized, rational, reality-oriented system
  • Develops first 2 years of life as infant experiences reality
  • Holds id in check until suitable object is found
  • Helps id achieve gratification within confines of reality
  • Prevents id drives from violating superego principles
  • Obeys the reality principle: Behavior takes into account the external world

SUPEREGO: Represents the ideals and values of society as they are presented by parents or parental figures.

  • Learned
  • Inhibits (or “brakes”) id urges
  • Strives for perfection
  • “Irrational,” operates on extremes—good or bad

Ego ideals – The person we’d like to be:

  • Developed through rewards.

Conscience – Right and wrong:

  • Developed through punishment.

Formed around age 5 via Oedipal complex resolution.

Freudian Theory, the structural model

Psychosexual Stages of Development

  • Each stage has its erogenous zone, the primary locus of pleasure
  • Each developmental stage presents a challenge.

FIXATION: The pathological binding of psychic energy at a certain psychosexual stage.

  • Fixation can be due to Frustration – when psychosexual needs are thwarted, or
  • Overindulgence – when no incentive is given to master internal functions

ORAL STAGE (0 – 18 months):

  • Pleasurable sensations focused on mouth
  • Potential area of Conflict: Weaning
  • Optimism, trust, dependency, gullibility, don’t try to fend for selves

ANAL STAGE (18 months – 3 years)

  • Pleasurable sensations focused on expulsion/retention of feces
  • Gratification of anal impulses results in health feelings of self-control and mastery
  • Potential area of conflict: toilet training

PHALLIC STAGE (3 – 6 years)

  • Penis/clitoris is primary pleasure zone
  • Defining feature: Oedipus Complex (M) Electra Complex (F)
  • Child desires opposite-sex parent sexually.
  • This desire causes conflict, fear and frustration.
  • Child represses desire for opposite-sex parent and identifies with same-sex parent.
  • Can feel powerful, can vicariously possess opposite-sex parent.
  • This leads to development of gender identity and superego
  • Males – fear of castration
  • Females – penis envy

LATENCY STAGE (6 years – puberty)

  • Potential area for conflict: none
  • Child focuses on learning rather than sexual impulses
  • Solidification of superego

GENITAL STAGE (puberty à)

  • Major task: Development of altruistic love, developing work life
  • Goal is to find an appropriate sex object.

Anxiety and the Defense Mechanisms

ANXIETY – An indication of threat to the ego from impulses from the id (neurotic)

  • Anxiety is protective, normal, useful


  • Help person avoid anxiety without conscious awareness of doing so.

REPRESSION – The ego excludes distressing thoughts, feelings or impulses from consciousness before they become conscious.

DENIAL – Refusing to acknowledge something unpleasant (event, thought, impulse)

  • primitive.

DISPLACEMENT – Redirecting instinctual impulse from a more threatening person or object to a less threatening one (or a more available one).

PROJECTION – Attributing unacceptable internal thoughts, feelings, and urges to others

  • Used by both individuals and societies

RATIONALIZATION – Making up a “reasonable” (but inaccurate) explanation for threatening or irrational behavior

REACTION FORMATION – Transforming an unacceptable impulse into its opposite.  Acting in a manner that is the opposite of a forbidden impulse

WITHDRAWAL- Avoidance of or flight from threatening situations.


  • Becoming like the individual that you fear or envy

REGRESSION – Going back to an earlier stage to help cope with anxiety

SUBLIMATION – Channeling unacceptable impulses into acceptable, socially approved and productive thoughts and actions.

  • Different from displacement, in that it is the impulse itself, not the impulse’s object, that is transformed

Clinical Applications

Hallmarks of Mental Health

Psychoanalytic/Psychodynamic therapy


  • Increased self-understanding
  • Make the unconscious conscious;
  • More accurate perception of reality;
  • Strengthening of ego à better everyday functioning;


Examining expressions of unconscious material, via analyst’s interpretations.

  • Dreams – “Royal road to the unconscious”;
  • Wish fulfillment;
  • Symbols;
  • Manifest vs latent content;
  • Free Association;
  • “Fundamental Rule” of psychoanalysis;
  • Temporarily bypass ego’s censoring mechanism;
  • Transference;
  • Freudian slips;
  • Symbolic behavior, accidents;
  • Projective tests;


  • Types
  • Innocent – puns, clever insights
  • Tendentious – hostile and/or sexual
  • Catharsis theory

Evaluating Freudian Theory


  • First comprehensive theory of personality and behavior
  • Foundation for many later theories
  • First system of psychotherapy
  • Popularized psychological ideas
  • Very rich
  • Very interesting
  • Pioneer of case study method
  • Inspired lots of other theorists and scientists.
  • Other areas besides psychopathology
  • Religion, humor
  • We certainly have evidence that early childhood experiences affect us significantly


  • Not as original as many think, but was the first to integrate and popularize, and scientifically investigate
  • Very difficult to evaluate scientifically.
  • Vague concepts
  • Hard to come up with testable hypotheses
  • Post hoc analyses
  • Results can be used to argue for or against any hypothesis
  • Based on case-study data
  • Probably biased by Freud and by his cultural context
  • Biased sample
  • Rich, educated adults with problems aren’t the best models for a theory of normative childhood development.
  • Freud may have gotten patients to say what he wanted to hear
  • First five years of life are only formative ones?
  • Based too much on sex
  • Minimizes effect of social and cultural influences
  • Overly negative, pathologizing, pessimistic
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