Sigmund Schlomo Freud (aka Sigmund Freud) and his psychoanalytic theory have had an enormous impact on 20th-century culture, but his influence on psychological science is hotly contested. He’s been described as a visionary, a genius and an intellectual giant. On the other hand, some people just think he was a quack.
The Talking Cure
One of Freud’s most significant contributions may very well be the emphasis he placed on talking about one’s problems as a means of alleviating them. Talking with a therapist is still a widely used format of therapy today. (People generally do not lie down on couches, though.) The details of the therapeutic process are typically not Freudian unless you go to an analyst, but the general format is similar. The acts of creating a relaxing atmosphere and gaining acceptance are still integral parts of psychotherapy.
What Lies Beneath
Freud’s most enduring idea is the role of the unconscious. Psychologists widely accept his general idea of the mind as an iceberg with the submerged unconscious playing a role in much of human behavior. Many empirical studies have demonstrated that we are often unaware of why we think or behave as we do and that we process extensive amounts of information outside conscious awareness. While some argue that unconscious processes account for most of our behavior, there’s considerable disagreement on the role the unconscious plays in human behavior.
A few of the ego defense mechanisms articulated by Freud and especially by his daughter Anna have received some empirical support over the years. Reaction formation, a defense mechanism in which one changes unacceptable impulses into their opposites, has garnered some support. Examples of reaction formation include a racist who behaves overly friendly toward someone of color or a young boy who derides a girl he really likes. However, defense mechanisms tied to Freud’s ideas on instinctual energy such as displacement (shifting sexual or aggressive urges toward a less threatening target) have received very little support. Further, it seems that the basis of most defense mechanisms are not fuming, unacceptable impulses as Freud contended, but rather our motives to maintain our self-image.
The Role of the Unconscious
Whether Freud’s ideas about the unconscious appear on a contributions or a criticisms list depends on whether we’re speaking in generalities or specifics. Freud’s ideas, in general, about behavior being influenced by the unconscious are well supported. The specifics of his views are another matter. Freud saw the unconscious as an analytically sophisticated, seething cauldron of repressed sexual and aggressive urges that controls nearly every thought and behavior. It was a place where boys harbored sexual feelings for their mothers and aggression toward their fathers, and little girls wrangled with feelings of inadequacy because they didn’t have penises. Empirical research on the unconscious does not bear out this idea of the unconscious. Rather, research reveals a vast but simple, unanalytical information processor in which ordinary stimuli and tasks are handled.
One of the most damaging criticisms of Freud’s psychoanalytic theory is that it provides explanations for behavior after the fact but predicts little about those behaviors in advance, which makes aspects of the theory unfalsifiable and therefore more akin to a pseudoscience than a science. If you are angry at your mother for remarrying, you illustrate the theory that you have an unresolved Oedipal complex resulting in jealousy toward this new father figure. If you are not upset but rather quite happy about the marriage, you again exemplify his theory because you’re demonstrating a reaction formation (see Defense Mechanisms). A scientific theory must specify in advance observations that would contradict the theory if they were to occur. It’s convenient that no behavior can ever contradict Freudian theory.
Overemphasis on Sex
Freud’s ideas were a product of his time, so it’s no surprise that his theory has been heavily criticized for its overemphasis on sexuality. Freud saw the expression or repression of sexual motivations as major, even primary, determinates of human behavior. Freud’s dogged attachment to this idea was relayed in a letter to follower Carl Jung: My dear Jung, promise me never to abandon the sexual theory. That is the most essential thing of all. You see, we must make a dogma of it, an unshakable bulwark. Some of Freud’s original followers, such as Carl Jung and Alfred Adler, parted company with him in part because they viewed his ideas on sexual motivations as extreme and unnecessary to explain human behavior.
Critics of Freud say that his theory was built on biased, nonobjective, and even fabricated observations of only a handful of patients. There is ample evidence that Freud pressured patients into accepting, for example, his suggestions that they had been abused. He subjected his patients to leading questions and may have planted ideas in their memory. Likewise, historical analyses show that Freud distorted many of his case studies to fit with his theory irrespective of the facts of the cases and regardless of what patients did or didn’t say. A related criticism is that Freud’s ideas were developed based largely on a very small, self-selected sample of wealthy, upper-class, 18- to 20-year-old, mentally unstable, single women from Victorian Vienna.
Bad Test Results
Of those specific psychoanalytic concepts that have been tested empirically, few have fared well. The structural theory id, ego and superego has not received empirical support. The idea of progression of development through oral, anal, phallic and genital psychosexual stages and the linking of adult personality characteristics to psychosexual stages of child development have no empirical underpinnings. The Oedipal complex, where a boy has sexual impulses toward his mother and comes to view his father as an unwanted rival, has likewise received no empirical support. Many psychologists suggest that Freud is of historical interest only and that a science of mind and behavior must move on without him.
Adapted from Condensed Knowledge (HarperCollins) which is available at leading bookstores. For a daily dose of quirky fun visit www.mentalfloss.com and check out mental_floss magazine at your local newsstand.