Psychodynamic Explanation for Moral Development


3 Part Personality

Freud's theory involved the developement of the three part personality: Id, Ego and most importantly the Superego when considering the development of morality.


  • Develops at age 5
  • Operates on the morality principle
  • Partly unconscious, partly pre-conscious
  • Concerned with maintaining the morals of the individual and causes guilt if left unsatisfied

Splits into two parts:

  • Ego Ideal: provides a model for the type of behaviour we should perform, which acting in accordance of will lead to an increase in pride and self esteem
  • Conscience: produces feelings of guilt when we act in violation of the principles of the super ego (ego ideal element)
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Development of the Superego

The super ego and hence morality is developed at age 5 as a consequence of the child passing through the phallic stage (3-6yrs) of psychosexual development.

Oedipus Complex (boys)

  • Boys desire their mother and therefore see their father as a rival
  • Feels unconscious guilt and hostility as well as anxiety (castration anxiety) and fear of punishment should his true desires be discovered
  • Resolution occurs through identification (the process of 'taking on' the attitudes and ideas of anothe person) with the same sex parent
  • Boys imitate the moral behaviour of the father, internalising these behaviours in the superego

Electra Complex (girls)

  • Girls desire their father and resent their mother for the lack of a penis (penis envy)
  • Substitue penis envy with the desire of a child resulting in identification with the mother
  • The resolution of penis envy is less satisfactory than the resolution in the oedipus complex, and girls have an inferior moral development to boys
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  • Freud predicted an inverse relationship between guilt and wrongdoing i.e the more guilt a person feels, the less likely they are to do wrong. MacKinnon supports thi prediction by findinging that those who cheated (aroung 50%) in a test by using the answer book, said they did not feel guilty
  • Freudian theory suggests that moral behaviour should be consistent because of the conscience, though there is a possibility of inconsistency because of irrational behaviour by the id. This is supported by Hartshorne and May who found little consistency in moral behaviour as well as Gersen and Damon who showed that children don't distribute rewards as fairly as they said they would--> in a pretend situation, 18% of children gave candy bars to themselves compared to 29% in a real test a few months later
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Age of 5

  • Piaget and Freud see 5 as the critical age, Nelson and Smetana evidence to oppose this
  • Morality is one fell swoop at 5, Kohlberg and Eisenberg believe in stages
  • Turiel's domain theory contradicts the stage theory stating that the three aspects of morality develop alongside eachother from an early age


  • Freud's theory, like Kohlkberg's, is criticised as being androcentric
  • This is a point taken up by Gilligan (only uses women in her study
  • Walker tackles this issue and finds no difference in Gender

Scientific Evidence

  • Theory is mainly based in the unconscious (a psychological construct) making it unfalsifiable
  • No empirical evidence, only the Litlle Hans study offering evidence of the Oedipus complex- second hand research, unreliable
  • Theory was developed from explanations of patients about their own experiences as opposed to the careful observation of children
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  • Mechanisms other than the Oedipus and Electra complexes can be used to explain internalisation
  • Observational learning presented by the social learning theory which is demonstrated in the Bandura study (scientific study) in the learning of aggressive acts

Two Parent Families

  • The belief that two parent families are needed presents a problem when explaining moral develop in one parent families who are known to not be morally disadvantaged
  • Freud would state that a one parent family would result in unsatifactory resolution in the phallic stage of which one of the results can be homosexuality--> there is no correlation between homosexuality and family model
  • Generally accepted that moral development goes beyond family e.g. media, friends ect.


  • 3 part personality captures the dilemmas many of us feel- inner conflicts, private experience
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