The Psychodynamic Approach

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"We must listen to people's thoughts and feelings, because it is the subconscious mind which determines our behaviour."

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), an Austrain, qualified medical doctor, developed a theory of mental life called psychoanalysis. Psychologists who adopt this approach emphasise the psychodynamics of the mind. This means that different forces operate in the mind, and at times cause inner mental conflict that may be painful to the person.

In Freud's psychoanalytic school of psychology, he developed the idea that neuroses (some types of paranoia or phobias) were a result of deeply traumatic experiences in a person's life, but which were forgotten or hidden from conscious thought.

Psychoanalysis as a therapy, was developed by Freud to help people come to terms with their inner conflicts, many of which are said to have their origin in early childhood.

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Basic Assumptions

  • Mental processes, or thought processes, occur at conscious, pre conscious and unconscious levels. The unconscious is not directly accesible, and we are not directly aware of it, but  unconscious processes determine our behaviour.
  • Thoughts in the unconscious are there because they are repressed, and Freud also points to the importance of other defence mechanisms on our behaviour
  • Instincts, drives motivate our behaviour and energise the mind
  • Personality has three parts; id,ego and superego
  • Techniques such as dream analysis and free association are used to understand the unconscious. Preconscious thoughts are the thoughts held in memory, which we're capable of bringing to consciousness.
  • Freud states accidents or slips of the tounge have an unconscious explanation
  • Regards early experiences, such as parent-child relationships and interactions as influences on adult personality. How the young child copes and responds to conflict will be repeated by the adult in similar situations.
  • Childhood development takes place through psychosexual stages
  • Concerned with how the adult copes with changes in everyday life. People who don't adjust well may experience depression and anxiety. This approach is applied to treat and help people recover mental disorders
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The Unconscious Mind

The psychodynamic approach likens the mind to an iceberg. The thoughts of which are conscious represent only a very small portion of our mental activity. The vast majority of mental processes take place at an unconscious level and aren't easily accessible.

Freud distinguished between three levels of consciousness:

  • The unconscious = Contains instincts (biological in origin), drives and desires that we are not aware of, but which have a strong influence on behaviour. The drives and instincts largely result from the sex instinct, many of which would be disturbing to the individual if they became conscious. The unconscious also contains memories from early childhood, before we had language for memories, some of which are traumatic or upsetting.  These are kept unconscious through the defence mechanism of repression, so not to cause mental disturbance to the person. 
  • The preconscious = thoughts that are capable of becoming conscious, but at any one time are not. Represents most of what we would refer to as stored in long-term memory. Memories of our experiences are stored in our preconscious, but can be retrieved to the conscious through recall and recognition.
  • The conscious = What we are aware of

By claiming most mental life and behaviour is unconscious, it gives an impression that human condition is irrational and at the mercy of uncontrollable unconscious processes.

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The Unconscious Mind

Freud stated that whenever we make a choice or decision in our lives, these unconscious processes determine these choices or decisions.

Therefore, Freud suggested free will is a delusion; we are not entirely aware of what we're thinking and will often act in ways that have little to do with our conscious thoughts.

There are fundamental disagreements regarding the nature of the unconscious mind, such as the concept of the existence of the unconscious in relation to its scientific validity and whether it exists at all.

Karl Popper states there is an issue with the concept of the mind, as we cannot see it, test it or mould it. It is not falisifiable and therefore unscientific.

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Rat Man - Freud (1909)

  • Investigated the underlying cause of Lanzer's OC neurosis.
  • Freud saw the Rat man for a year. Rat man stated he had obsessive and fearful thoughts of rats and these thoughts resulted in obsessive behaviours. The origins of these obsessive thoughts of rats seemed to come from military training. He had hearrd of a particularly nasty torture where rats were placed in a bucket which was then tied to the buttocks of a person. The rats would eat their way into the person through their anus. The rat man was so fearful this would happen to his father or a woman he admired, he engaged in OCD behaviour.
  • Freud stated that these behaviours resulted from the love and unconscious hate the Rat Man felt for his father, whom he wished to torture with rats.
  • Freud stated the OCD behaviour helped the rat man overcome his feelings of guilt and so reduce anxiety
  • BUT, Freud only focused on the Rat Man's father,  and made no reference to his mother, who was a particularly domineering figure in his life. These feelings of abandonment as a child, may be a more plausible explanation for the rat man's OCD behaviour as an adult. Additionally, this is a case study of just one individual and findings must be treated with caution as they lack generalisability. 
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Psychosexual Stages

Associated with the view of the unconscious mind, was Freud's idea of instincts or drives. Freud stated thee instincts are the motivating forces that underlie most of our behaviours and energise the mind in all of its functions.

Freud claimed that development took place through FOUR main stages of psychosexual development. These stages are the result of two basic instincts: Fros, the sex instinct (life/****** instinct) and Thanatos, the death instinct (aggressive/self destruction instinct).

Freud's theory of instincts or drives is used to explain how the human being is energised from birth to adult life by the desire to enhance and gain bodily pleasure.

Freud likened the sex instinct to a basic desire for pleasure, and the psychosexual stages relate to the different areas of the body that give pleasure or gratification to the child.

Normal development for the child is to pass through one stage and onto the next one. However, some children get 'stuck' or fixated at a particular stage, which has consequences for adult behaviour. Fixation can result from trauma in a particular stage.

The stages are characterised by emotional and psychological conflict. This all happens at an unconscious level, so the child/adult isn't aware the conflicts have happened.

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Psychosexual Stages

  • Oral (0-18 months) --> infant's pleasure centres around the mouth. The mother's breast becomes the object of desire since feeding reduces the infant's negative experience of hunger. Fixation in this stage may be biting and verbally critical. Nail biting and pen chewing are also examples.
  • Anal (18-36 months) --> Child's pleasure from retention and expulsion of faeces. During toilet training, the child can please parents by using the toilet, or defy parents by withholding faeces. Fixation may result in an anal personlity - tidy, organised and concerned of bodily cleanliness.
  • Phallic (3-6 years) --> The sexual instinct is focused on the genital area. Boys experience the Oedipus complex and girls, the Electra. Resolution of these complexes form their gender identity. Fixation may result in homosexuality or an adult always looking to find a mother figure.
  • Latent (6 years - puberty) --> the sexual drive is present, albiet dormant. Freud stated that sexual energy is focused (or sublimated) toward peer friendships and school. A period of relative mental calm.
  • Genital (puberty and beyond) --> sexual interests mature and are directed to ganing heterosexual pleasure through intercourse
  • This theory of development has been met with criticism, most notably from feminists who argue that Freud's theories were particularly male-orientated. 
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Dreams arise from the unconscious and, according to the psychodynamic approach, usually originate from early childhood conflicts. These conflicts come primarily from the oral, anal and phallic stages of psychosexual development. 

Freud (1900) saw dreams as the 'royal road to the unconscious.' By this he meant that dreams could be interpreted to find out what is in a persons' unconscious. The main technique used to analyse dreams is free association.

This requires a person to think about a part of the dream and say whatever comes to mind. It is then for the psychoanalyst to help the person interpret the dreams from these free associations.

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The Structure of Personality

One of the main features of the psychosexual stages is the individual focus on gaining pleasure, based on biological instincts. These instinctts or impulses, derive from the id and form part of Freud's tripartite theory of personality. There are three elements within the mind that form the personality:

  • The Id = the pleasure principle. The primitive and instinctual part - the primary driving force in a person's mental life, the sexual instinct. The selfish part of our personality, where we desire instant gratification of our needs and desires. It operates at an entirely unconscious level.
  • The Superego = Forms during the phallic stage. We learn to internalise our parental values and social standards. It is AKA the morality principle as we learn and store info about what is considered 'right' and 'wrong.' It is a person's conscience (sense of guilt) and ideal self. It normally represents the values and morals of one's parents.
  • The Ego = the reality principle. Acts as a mediator between the id and superego. The primary role of the ego is to reduce conflicts that arise from the demands of the id, and the moralistic views of the superego. One way the ego deals with the anxiety experiences as a result of conflicts is to use defence mechanisms. 

The superego and ego operate at both conscious and unconscious levels

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Defence Mechanisms

A number of different defence mechanisms are used by the ego to prevent painful, upsetting or disturbing unconscious thoughts and conflicts becoming conscious or entering into awareness.

The most important and constantly used defence mechanism is repression. The ego represses id demands and unrealistic superego demands by not allowing them to become conscious. Repression may be described as unconscious, motivated forgetting. The ego tries to forget, and not allow thoughts and desires that would harm the indivudal to become conscious.

A person with a strong ego will be able to cope with the competing demands of the id and superego, and will be able to use defence mechanisms effectivley. A person with an overly strong id and/or superego and a weak ego will not be able to function well or adjust to the demands of everyday life. 

In such cases, a person may exhibit psychological disorders such as OCD.

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Defence Mechanisms

  • Reaction Formation - Behaving in ways directly opposite to unconscious impulses, feelings (behaving friendly to someone you dislike.)
  • Displacement - Transferring impulses and feelings to an originally neutral or innocent target (scapegoating where a social group is wrongly bamed, eg, Jews).
  • Projection - Attributing one's own unacceptable impulse to another person (saying someone is frightened of the dark when actually, you are.)
  • Rationalisation - AKA intellectualisation. Remove the emotional content of an idea or event by logical analysis 
  • Denial - Refuses to acknowledge (denies liking someone by saying 'not interested')
  • Sublimation - redirection of threatening impulses to something socially acceptable (use of aggressive impulses in sport such as boxing)
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The Case study method

Freud pioneered the use of case studies in psychology, and developed his theory based on a number of case studies of his patients. 

There are in-depth investiagtions/ analyses of individual people that require in interpretation on part of the researcher. One example is the case study of Little Hans which was used by Freud to illustrate the Oedipus Complex, or Rat Man.

Case studies are high in validity as they are very detailed and give insight, yet they are based on small samples and so are hard to generalise.

Case studies can, however, disprove theories and make use of rare studies and situations.

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Post- Freudian Theorists (AO2)

Post Freudian theorists such as Erikson adhered the Freudian structure of personality (id, ego, sueprego) and instinctual forces. He regarded development as occuring in stages, but instead of psychosexual stages, he proposed development isn't contained to childhood.

Erikson regarded psychosocial development as most important aspect of human development, more than psychosexual. He saw the greatest influence to be the interaction of the person with others.

This was also concerned with the development of the ego and the different strengths it gains from each developmental stage. Erikson also enforced the influence of culture and society on development.

He stated that each stage is marked by a crtical point or crisis that the individual has to resolve (similarly to Freud). Sucessful resolution provides ego strength. If this fails, it means the ego at that stage lacks strength. This contrasts to Freud who placed more emphasis on the id development.

Erikson used a wide range of research methods including anthropological studies and adolecents.

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Psychodynamic approach strengths

  • Gives first detailed theory of the human condition. No one individual has written as much as Freud.
  • Involves listening to what is said - the use of study is comprehensive
  • Idiographic - people aren't a number in a group
  • Highlights things aren't what they seem, explaining people who behave in an irrational way
  • Looks back at childhood experiences and how they determine adult personality
  • Holistic as takes into consideration nature and nurture
  • Freud's theories offer causal explantions for underlying atypical psychological conditions
  • Freud's methods of psychoanalysis are still used in psychiatry today
  • Recognises the complexity of human thought and behaviour and that dreams may be of importance to understanding the individual
  • Freud developed psychoanalytic therapy for treatment of many types of mental disorder, starting the development of psychological therapies
  • Approach demonstrated the value of individual and detailed case studies for highlighting psychological ideas
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Psychodynamic approach Limitations

  • Freud's theories are unfalsifiable and unscientific. Theories are difficult to investigate in a scientific way
  • Use of case studies lacks generalisability
  • Freud's contraversial idea that infants display sexual urges has recieved enormous criticsm.
  • Effectiveness of psychoanalysis as a therapy is questioned in comparison to the proportion of patients who recover spontaneously from atypical disorders
  • The claim much of our mental life operates at an unconscious level cannot be investigated
  • Approach places too much emphasis on the sexual instinct in childhood, when it is much better to regard this as an instinct of many.
  • Approach is male-orientated and regards the female an inferior as she is seen to have a weaker ego. 
  • It is pessimistic in that the person is seen as always having to overcome childhood conflicts and repressed memories. It looks backward.
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Application of Freud

  • The development of therepeutic techniques to help people overcome psychological disorders, eg, anxiety, depression, OCD
  • Originally called psychoanalysis - involved daily sessions lasting a year, continued for months or even a year
  • Shorter therapies are avalible
  • To train as a psychoanalysist takes years
  • Approach tried to make sense of seemingly irrational aspects of human mental life (eg, dreams) and why we forget things that have a strong emotional importance
  • Erikson developed psychohistory, which allows for intensive study on a person over their lifespan, focusing on a person's ego development
  • The psychohistory of Ghandi showed his ego strengths helped him resolve different political conflicts that faced his country.
  • Melinie Klien was one of the first Freudian psychoanalysists to develop child psychoanalysis. She interpreted the play of children as representational to their unconscious thoughts. This acknowledged some children need help, and childhood experiences.
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