The Psychodynamic Approach

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  • Created on: 04-05-20 23:46


  • Our personality known as the psyche – is comprised of the ID, ego and superego.
  • We possess innate ‘drives’ (or ‘instincts’) that motivate behaviour as we develop through our lives.
  • Childhood experiences have significant importance in determining our personality when we reach adulthood
  • Unconscious activity is the key determinant of how we behave.
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The role of the unconscious

Freud believed in the existence of the unconscious mind which is a part of the mind that was inaccessible to conscious thought. The unconscious is made up of our biological drives and instincts as well as threatening and disturbing memories that have been repressed, or locked away and forgotten.

Its role is that it is the driving force behind our everyday actions, behaviours and on our personality. For example, the Psychodynamic approach believes that children who have been abused or neglected, repress the early trauma but that it will eventually resurface in adulthood in the form of depression and anxiety. The unconscious also protects the unconscious self from anxiety, fear, trauma and conflict. For example, a smoker might unconsciously use a defence mechanism such as denial, to reduce the anxiety associated with admitting that smoking is bad for their health.

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the structure of the personality

Freud described personality as ‘tripartite’ composing of three parts:


The pleasure principle. It is present from birth. It is entirely selfish and demands immediate gratification. It is irrational and emotional. Unconscious part of the mind 


The reality principle. Formed at the age of 2. Reduces the conflict between the impulsive demands of the id and the moralistic demands of the superego. It manages to do this by using a number of defence mechanisms. Conscious part of the mind


Themoralityprinciple. Formed at the phallic stage (at around 5 years).  It is our internalised sense ofright and wrongand is determined by parental standards of good behaviour.  It determines which behaviours are permitted and causes guilt when rules are broken. Unconscious part of the mind  

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defence mechanisms

The ego has a difficult job balancing the conflicting demands of the id and superego (known as an intrapsychic conflict) and this can cause anxiety. If an individual is unable to deal with a situation rationally, then defence mechanisms may be triggered in order to reduce this anxiety. Defence mechanisms tend to operate unconsciously to ensure that the ego is able to prevent us from being overwhelmed by temporary threats or trauma. However, they often involve some form of distortion of reality and as a long term solution are regarded as psychologically unhealthy and undesirable.

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Examples of defence mechanisms


Burying an unpleasant thought or desire in the unconsciousRepressed thoughts and impulses continue to influence behaviour without the individuals being aware of the reasons behind their behaviour. e.g. traumatic childhood experiences may be repressed and so forgotten but individuals may have trouble forming relationships.


Emotions are directed away from their source or target, towards other thingsThis gives their hostile feelings a route for expression, even though they are misapplied to an innocent person or object. e.g. slamming a door instead of hitting a person, arguing at your partner when you are angry with your boss at work.


A threatening thought is ignored or treated as if it was not true. This allows the individual to deal with painful feelings that may be associated with the situation and reduce their anxiety. e.g. a wife might find evidence that her husband is cheating on her, but explain it away using other reasons.

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Psychosexual stages

Freud believed that personality developed through a sequence of five stages (oral, anal, phallic, latency and genital) in which the pleasure-seeking energies of the id becomes focused on certain erogenous areas. This psychosexual energy was described as the driving force behind behavior.

Each stage is marked by a different conflict that the child must resolve in order to progress successfully to the next stage. Any psychological conflict that is unresolved leads to fixation when the child becomes ‘stuck’ and carries certain behaviour and conflicts associated with that stage through to adult life

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Oedipus and Electra Complex

During the phallic stage, the primary focus of the libido is on the genitals. At this age, children also begin to discover the differences between males and females.​ Freud also believed that boys begin to view their fathers as a rival for the mother’s affections. The Opedius Complex describes these feelings of wanting to possess the mother and the desire to replace the father. However, the child also fears that he will be punished by the father for these feelings, a fear Freud termed castration anxiety.

The term Electra Complex has been used to described a similar set of feelings experienced by young girls. Freud, however, believed that girls instead experience penis envy.

Eventually, the child begins to identify with the same-sex parent as a means of vicariously possessing the other parent. For girls, however, Freud believed that penis envy was never fully resolved and that all women remain somewhat fixated on this stage.

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Evaluations 1

Pioneering approach A strength of the psychodynamic approach is that it has had a huge influence on psychological thinking and can be used to explain a wide range of behaviours such as aggression, anxiety and eating disorders. The psychodynamic approach also drew attention to the connection between experiences in childhood (such as our relationship with our parents) and later development and played a major role in establishing developmental psychology and others theorists such as Bowlby. This is a strength as his pioneering work had a major influence on psychology and Western contemporary thought.

Practical Application - One major contribution that the psychodynamic approach has made to psychology is through the introduction of therapies used to access the unconscious. Psychoanalysis (including dream analysis and free association) are all used to find and treat unconscious conflicts. Freud and his followers were also the first to demonstrate the potential of psychological, rather than biological explanations for behaviours. This led to the formation of psychological treatments, rather than biological therapies, which have been found to be successful in treating patients with a wide range of disorders. This is a strength as it illustrates the useful practical applications of the approach

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Evaluations 2

Case study methodology – Freud’s psychoanalytical theory was based on case studies of his patients in therapy. For example, he used Little Hans to prove the existence of the Oedipus complex. This is a strength as this idiographic approach, with its in-depth qualitative methods of investigation, gathered rich information about the lives of his individual patients using observations that were detailed and carefully recorded. However, critics have suggested that it is not possible to make such universal laws of behaviour and personality development based on studies of such a small number of individuals who were psychologically abnormal. This therefore questions whether the conclusion drawn from these case studies lack population validity and whether they can be used to explain the personality of the population as a whole.

Untestable concepts Popper argued that the psychodynamic approach does not meet the scientific criterion of falsification, in that it cannot be empirically tested. Many of Freud’s concepts (defence mechanisms, psychosexual stages) are said to occur at the unconscious level, making them difficult, if not impossible to test. For example, when trying to explain offender behaviour, there is the difficulty associated with testing some of the concepts such as an inadequate superego, whose existence is difficult, if not impossible to prove. This means that applications to crime cannot be tested empirically and can only be judged at face value. This therefore questions whether it fulfils the criteria of psychology as a science.

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Evaluations 3

Psychic Determinism The humanistic approach makes the criticism that the psychodynamic perspective is too deterministic as it leaves little room for the idea of free will. The psychodynamic approach suggests that adult behaviour is determined by a combination of innate drives and early experiences and that any free will we may think we have is an illusion. For example, according to this approach, if someone was overindulged or deprived at a psychosexual stage then they would develop an abnormality in adult life. Also, in terms of offending behaviour, for example, the belief that unconscious conflicts, rooted in early childhood and determined by interactions with parents, would drive future criminal behaviour. This is a weakness because the approach suggests that all behaviour is driven by unconscious forces only, ignoring the possibility of free will which may also govern behaviour.

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