Psychodynamic Approach

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Key Assumptions

  • Unconscious- Human personality and behaviour is caused by unconscious motives meaning that we are unlikely to have an accurate view of why we feel or behave the way we do
  • Defence mechanisms- Through defence mechanisms such as repression (prevents threatening thoughts from entering the conscious) and denial (blocking external events from awareness), we distort reality to avoid the psychological pain of the truth. The defence mechanisms orginate from the unconscious so we are unaware we are doing it
  • Childhood- Experiences and relationships during infancy and childhood set the pattern for what is in the unconscious mind and as a result the individual's personality and behaviour in adulthood E.g. John Bowlby stated that if a strong mother child relationship was not formed in the first year of life, there would be problems in later life
  • Case studies- Considered to be the best research method as it allows the individual to be studied in detail as well as the underlying unconscious motives analysed
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The Structure of Personality


  • Present at birth
  • Operates on the pleasure principle (avoid pain and seek pleasure), unconscious mind
  • Concerned with instant gratification and causes anziety and tension if left unsatisfied


  • Develops in childhood
  • Operates on the reality principle, conscious mind
  • Tries to balance the demands of the Id and superego with the reality of life
  • Uses defence mechanisms to protect the conscious mind from discovering what is in the Id,


  • Develops by age 5
  • Operates on the morality principle, partly preconscious and partly unconscious
  • Concerned with maintaining the morals of the individual and causes guilt if unsatisfied
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Structure of the Mind

  • Comprises of three parts: unconscious, conscious and pre-conscious
  • The majority of the mind is the unconscious with the rests consisting of the conscious and pre-conscious
  • The conscious mind is what we are aware of
  • The pre-conscious mind is what we can become aware of if we switch our attention
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The Psychosexual Stages of Development

According to Freud much of adulthood is established in the first five years of life in three key stages of psychosexual developement. Freud was interested in describing where the libido (an instictive energy) was focused in the child's body.

Fixation- The unconscious preoccupation with one of the stages leading to problems in adulthood

Oral Stage (0-18 months)

  • The mouth is the key focus
  • The child gains pleasure from sucking and biting
  • Oral fixation manifests itself in overeating, thumb sucking or smoking in adult life

Anal Stage (18-36 months)

  • The control of bowles is the key focus with pleasure gained from expelling and retaining faeces
  • Fixation can lead to an anal-retentive personality (not very emotional, mean with money) or an anal-expulsive personality (too generous, always giving out)
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The Psychosexual Stages of Development

Phallic Stage (3-6 years)

  • The genitals is the key focus
  • Gender identity is formed
  • Boys- Go through the oedipus complex, experiencing conflict with a sexual interest for their mother and a fear of their father (castration anxiety) which is resolved through identification with the father and development of the superego
  • Girls- Go through the electra complex, experiencing conflict with a sexual interest for their father (penis envy) and dislike for their mother who they believe remove their penis. This is resolved through indentification with the mother and development of the superego

Freud explained two further stages but these were of limited importance:

  • Latent (6-puberty)--> sexual drive is present but the libido is focused towards pear relationships and school
  • Genital (adolescence)--> mature, sexual interests are directed to gaining heterosexual pleasure for intercourse
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Erik Erikson (post-Freudians)

Followed Freud's ideas of stages of development, but expanded them to cover the whole lifespan rather than just childhood with each stage characterised by a conflict with two possible outcomes

  • 0-1 Basic trust vs basic mistrust--> Trust develops only if parent consistently meets needs
  • 1-3 Autonomy vs shame and doubt--> Self control/ confidence develop through dressing ect.
  • 3-6 Initiative vs guilt--> Eager for responsiblity, if not given this will think all they do is wrong
  • 7-12 Industry vs inferiority--> Learns relationship between perserversence and success
  • 13-18 Identity vs role confusion--> Search and develop and sense of identity
  • 20s Intimacy vs isolation--> Abiloty to experience love with a fear of isolation
  • 20s-60s Generativity vs stagnation--> Look to care for the next generation
  • 60s+ Integrity vs despair--> Accepts deasth and reflects on one's life in a positive way
  • 80-90s--> Individual reflects upon stages and experiences loss of ability, the positive outcome is geotranscendence (a wider cosmetic understanding and sense of peace towrds death) Similar to self-actualisation of the humanistic approach
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Erikson vs Freud


  • Erikson trained as a psychoanalyst under the supervision of Freud's daughter, influencing Erikson's work
  • Accepted Freud's ideas about the three part personlity and mind
  • Agreed that there is a conflict to be resolved at each stage of development, Erikson described this as peing a crisis between two opposing personality characteristics (adaptive vs maladaptive) with healthy developement involving the adaptive quality outweighing the maladaptive qualitity, allowing for a healthy balance of both
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Erikson vs Freud


  • Placed more emphasis on social factors, talking about psychosocial development as opposed to psychosexual development
  • Erikson believed that development took place over the whole lifespan as opposed to just childhood which Freud placed in line with the sexual instinct. Erikson believed these developmental changes are influenced by 3 interallated forces: >A person's biological strengths and weaknesses >A person's unique life circumstances, including family experiences and the degree of success in resolving earlier developmental crises >The particual social, cultural and historical forces at work during a person's lifetime e.g. poverty, war and prejudice
  • Freud placed emphasis on the family being the main source of conflict for development , although this was similar to Erikson's earlier stages he then moved onto the importance of school and peers
  • Erikson places more emphasis on the development of the ego, whereas Freud was more interested in the id
  • Unlike Freud, Erikson believed that it was possible to make up for unsatifactory early experience at a later stage and vice versa, therefore presenting a much less deterministic view of development compared to Freud
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Melanie Klein

  • Developed a psychodynamic approach known as object relations theory which is about how the two most important instincts- life (sex) and death (aggression) affect psychological development and interaction with external objects
  • Regards close intimate relationships of central importance, in particular how young children develop relationships with important people
  • Stated that children are born with primary drives: love and hate, something that all humans struggle to integrate into constructive social interaction. An important step in childhood development is the gradual acceptance that these two drives don't have to be completely seperate
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Klein vs Freud


  • Three part personality
  • The importance of unconscious mental processes and instinctual drives
  • The importance of the child's relationship with his/her mother and other family members
  • The presence of defence mechanisms
  • Psychoanalysis


  • Believed that a new born baby was not just made up of pure id, but also a primative ego and that the superego was developed at age one as opposed to age five
  • Put forward her own defence mechanisms as well e.g. splitting- closely followed Freud's oral stage of psychosexual development, emphasising the important role of the mother and the child's perception of its mother as being split into 'good breast' or 'bad breast' depending on whether it was satisfied from feeding
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Psychodynamic Evaluation


  • Gives the first detailed theory of the human condition, other approaches do not explain behaviour a fully as this one
  • The use of case studies allows detailed, qualitative data to be collected. This comprehensive account of an individual's experiences is then interpreted by an analyst for the underlying meaning in the unconscious
  • Takes a holistic approach to the study of human behaviour, studying the individual as a opposed to the group therefore building up a detailed picture of that person and their behaviour
  • Highlights that things are not always as they seem by proposing the idea that the cause of behaviour is often hidden in the unconscious, perhaps explaining what is thought to be irrational behaviour
  • Origins of behaviour being found in the childhood has become accepted as normal in today's society, showing how Freud's ideas are still influential in present day
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Psychodynamic Evaluation


  • Based upon hypothetical constructs, such as the three part personality, which cannot be observed and tested--> unscientific as the theory cannot be falsified (defenders would argue that at the time the approach was scientific in the sense of making systematic and careful observation of patients)
  • Freud based his universal theory on case studies which is criticised as case studies lavk generalisability due to the small sample size
  • Not possible to establish cause and effect relationships from case studies and yet Freud talked about causes of problems in childhoos and thei effects in adult behaviour
  • Doubly deterministic--> behaviour is determined by early childhood experiences and therefore what is in the id and unconscious mind. Freud therefore stated that free will is an illusion
  • Over emphasis on the unconscious means that the psychodynamic approach is suggesting that everything is not as it seems and so our explanations for behaviour cannot be right
  • Limited sample of patients--> the study Freud carried out on a child (despite the theory focusing on childhood) was the case study of Little Hans which he stated proved the existance of the oedipus complex, further to this most of the analysis took place through letteres between Freud and Hans' father which was likely to be unreliable
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The Psychodynamic Approach seems to take the middle ground in terms of most debates

  • Idiographic/Nomothetic- Idiographic as it focuses on studies involving the individual but nomothetic because of the general principles of the theory
  • Hollistic/Reductionist- Hollistic as it centres on the individual's life but reductionist because all behaviour is reduced to unconscious motives
  • Nature/Nurture- Nature as it emphaises that some behaviour is instinctive but also adopts the nurture position when stressing that how parents interact with the child matters
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