by Saul McLeod published 2007
If you know very little about psychology, and you have heard of just one psychologist, the chances are that this is Sigmund Freud, the founder of the psychodynamic approach to psychology, or psychoanalysis.
If Freud represents your layperson's idea of psychology then you probably have an image of a patient lying on a couch talking about their deepest and darkest secrets.
In deliberate contrast to behavioral psychology, psychodynamic psychology ignores the trappings of science and instead focuses on trying to get 'inside the head' of individuals in order to make sense of their relationships, experiences and how they see the world.
The psychodynamic approach includes all the theories in psychology that see human functioning based upon the interaction of drives and forces within the person, particularly unconscious, and between the different structures of the personality.
Freud’s psychoanalysis was the original psychodynamic theory, but the psychodynamic approach as a whole includes all theories that were based on his ideas, e.g. Jung (1964), Adler (1927) and Erikson (1950).
The words psychodynamic and psychoanalytic are often confused. Remember that Freud’s theories were psychoanalytic, whereas the term ‘psychodynamic’ refers to both his theories and those of his followers. Freud’s psychoanalysis is both a theory and a therapy.
Sigmund Freud (writing between the 1890s and the 1930s) developed a collection of theories which have formed the basis of the psychodynamic approach to psychology. His theories are clinically derived - i.e. based on what his patients told him during therapy. The psychodynamic therapist would usually be treating the patient for depression or anxiety related disorders.
Psychodynamic Approach Assumptions
* Our behavior and feelings are powerfully affected by unconscious motives.
* Our behavior and feelings as adults (including psychological problems) are rooted in our childhood experiences.
* All behavior has a cause (usually unconscious), even slips of the tongue. Therefore all behavior is determined.
* Personality is made up of three parts (i.e. tripartite). The id, ego and super-ego.
* Behavior is motivated by two instinctual drives: Eros (the sex drive & life instinct) and Thanatos (the aggressive drive & death instinct). Both these drives come from the “id”.
* Parts of the unconscious mind (the id and superego) are in constant conflict with the conscious part of the mind (the ego).
* Personality is shaped as the drives are modified by different conflicts at different times in childhood (during psychosexual development).
History of The Psychodynamic Approach
* Anna O a patient of Dr. Joseph Breuer (Freud's mentor and friend) from 1800 to 1882 suffered from hysteria.
* In 1895 Breuer and his assistant, Sigmund Freud, wrote a book, Studies on Hysteria. In it they explained their theory: Every hysteria is the result of a traumatic experience, one that cannot be integrated into the person's understanding of the world. The publication establishes Freud as “the father of psychoanalysis.”
* By 1896 Freud had found the key to his own system, naming it psychoanalysis. In it he had replaced hypnosis with "free association."
* In 1900 Freud published his first major work, The Interpretation of Dreams, which established the importance of psychoanalytical movement.
* In 1902 Freud founded the Psychological Wednesday Society, later transformed into the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society. As the organization grew, Freud established an inner circle of devoted followers, the so-called "Committee" (including Sàndor Ferenczi, and Hanns Sachs (standing) Otto Rank, Karl Abraham, Max Eitingon, and Ernest Jones).
* Freud and his colleagues came to Massachusetts in 1909 to lecture on their new methods of understanding mental illness. Those in attendance included some of the country's most important intellectual figures, such as William James, Franz Boas, and Adolf Meyer.
* In the years following the visit to the United States, the International Psychoanalytic Association was founded. Freud designated Carl Jung as his successor to lead the Association, and chapters were created in major cities in Europe and elsewhere. Regular meetings or congresses were held to discuss the theory, therapy, and cultural applications of the new discipline.
* Jung's study on schizophrenia, The Psychology of Dementia Praecox, led him into collaboration with Sigmund Freud.
* Jung's close collaboration with Freud lasted until 1913. Jung had become increasingly critical of Freud's exclusively sexual definition of libido and incest. The publication of Jung's Wandlungen und Symbole der Libido (known in English as The Psychology of the Unconscious) ted to a final break.
* Following his emergence from this period of crisis, Jung developed his own theories systematically under the name of Analytical Psychology. Jung's concepts of the collective unconscious and of the archetypes led him to explore religion in the East and West, myths, alchemy, and later flying saucers.
* Anna Freud (Freud's daughter) became a major force in British psychology, specializing in the application of psychoanalysis to children. Among her best known works is The Ego and the Mechanism of defense (1936).
Psychodynamic Approach Summary
Psychodynamic Approach Criticisms
The greatest criticism of the psychodynamic approach is that it is unscientific in its analysis of human behavior. Many of the concepts central to Freud's theories are subjective and as much impossible to scientifically test. For example, how is it possible to scientifically study concepts like the unconscious mind or the tripartite personality? It this respect the psychodynamic perspective is unfalsifiable as the theories cannot be empirically investigated.
Furthermore , most of the evidence for psychodynamic theories is taken from Freud's case studies (e.g. Little Hans, Anna O). The main problem here is that the case studies are based on studying one person in detail, and with reference to Freud the individuals in question are most often middle aged women from Vienna (i.e. his patients). This makes generalizations to the wider population (e.g. the whole world) difficult.
The humanistic approach makes the criticism that the psychodynamic perspective is too deterministic - leaving little room for the idea of personal agency (i.e. free will).
Adler, A. (1927). Understanding human nature. New York: Greenburg.
Erikson, E. H. (1950). Childhood and Society. New York: Norton.
Freud, A. (1936). Ego & the Mechanisms of Defense.
Freud, S., & Breuer. J. (1895). Studies on hysteria. In Standard edition (Vol. 2, pp. 1–335).
Freud, S. (1896). Heredity and the etiology of the neuroses. In Standard edition (Vol. 3, pp. 142–156).
Freud, S. (1900). The interpretation of dreams. In Standard edition (Vols. 4 & 5, pp. 1–627).
Freud, S. (1909). Notes upon a case of obsessional neurosis. In Standard edition (Vol. 10, pp. 153–249).
Freud, S. (1909). Analysis of a phobia of a five year old boy. In The Pelican Freud Library (1977), Vol 8, Case Histories 1, pages 169-306
Jung, C. G., et al. (1964). Man and his Symbols, New York, N.Y.: Anchor Books, Doubleday.
Psychodynamic PDF Downloads
Freud Audio Broadcasts
Listen to a MIT undergraduate lecture on Freud.
Listen to a MIT undergraduate lecture on Freud and Morality.
How to cite this article:
McLeod, S. A. (2007). . Retrieved from
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