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What Is Psychoanalysis?

The Psychoanalytic Approach to Psychology

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What Is Psychoanalysis?

Sigmund Freud was the founder of the psychoanalytic school of thought in psychology (Image: 1907).

Sigmund Freud was the founder of psychoanalysis and the psychodynamic approach to psychology. This school of thought emphasized the influence of the unconscious mind on behavior. Freud believed that the human mind was composed of three elements: the id, the ego, and the superego.

Freud's theories of psychosexual stages, the unconscious, and dream symbolism remain a popular topic among both psychologists and laypersons, despite the fact that his work is viewed with skepticism by many today.

Many of Freud's observations and theories were based on clinical cases and case studies, making his findings difficult to generalize to a larger population. Regardless, Freud's theories changed how we think about the human mind and behavior and left a lasting mark on psychology and culture.

Another theorist associated with psychoanalysis is Erik Erikson. Erikson expanded upon Freud's theories and stressed the importance of growth throughout the lifespan. Erikson's psychosocial stage theory of personality remains influential today in our understanding of human development.

Major Thinkers Associated With Psychoanalysis

Key Psychoanalysis Terms

Case Study - An in-depth study of one person. Much of Freud's work and theories were developed through individual case studies. In a case study, nearly every aspect of the subject's life and history is analyzed to seek patterns and causes for behavior. The hope is that learning gained from studying one case can be generalized to many others. Unfortunately, case studies tend to be highly subjective and it is difficult to generalize results to a larger population.

Conscious - In Freud's psychoanalytic theory of personality, the conscious mind includes everything that is inside of our awareness. This is the aspect of our mental processing that we can think and talk about in a rational way.

Defense Mechanism - A tactic developed by the ego to protect against anxiety. Defense mechanisms are thought to safeguard the mind against feelings and thoughts that are too difficult for the conscious mind to cope with. In some instances, defense mechanisms are thought to keep inappropriate or unwanted thoughts and impulses from entering the conscious mind.

Ego - The ego is the part of personality that mediates the demands of the id, the superego and reality. The ego prevents us from acting on our basic urges (created by the id), but also works to achieve a balance with our moral and idealistic standards (created by the superego).

Id - The personality component made up of unconscious psychic energy that works to satisfy basic urges, needs and desires.

Superego - The component of personality composed of our internalized ideals that we have acquired from our parents and from society. The superego works to suppress the urges of the id and tries to make the ego behave morally rather than realistically.

Unconscious - A reservoir of feelings, thoughts, urges and memories that outside of our conscious awareness. Most of the contents of the unconscious are unacceptable or unpleasant, such as feelings of pain, anxiety or conflict. According to Freud, the unconscious continues to influence our behavior and experiences even though we are unaware of these underlying influences.

Criticisms of Psychoanalysis

  • Freud's theories overemphasized the unconscious mind, sex, aggression and childhood experiences.

  • Many of the concepts proposed by psychoanalytic theorists are difficult to measure and quantify.

  • Most of Freud's ideas were based on case studies and clinical observations rather than empirical, scientific research.

Strengths of Psychoanalysis

  • While most psychodynamic theories did not rely on experimental research, the methods and theories of psychoanalytic thinking contributed to experimental psychology.

  • Many of the theories of personality developed by psychodynamic thinkers are still influential today, including Erikson's theory of psychosocial stages and Freud's psychosexual stage theory..

  • Psychoanalysis opened up a new view on mental illness, suggesting that talking about problems with a professional could help relieve symptoms of psychological distress.

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