The psychodynamic approach is one of the five major approaches in psychology, which outline the basic assumptions and research methods underlying the study of human behavior and personality. Accordingly, under the psychodynamic perspective, there are several theories including Freud Sigmund’s psychoanalytic theories and other neo-Freudian theories. The psychoanalytic theory of personality was developed by Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), and it holds that personality and behavior are shaped by various unconscious forces and conflicts within the human mind (Nevid 2009; Plante 2010). According to Nevid (2009), Freud made this proposition by observing that human beings share certain processes with animals in that they all need to breathe, feed, excrete bodily wastes, and reproduce in order to survive.
Therefore, Freud believed that all human beings possessed certain characteristics including the sexual and aggressive instincts, which were necessary for survival. On the other hand, other contemporary psychodynamic psychologists believe that each behavior or utterance manifested by human beings has a hidden motive (Plante 2010). As a result, the psychodynamic theorists claim that the hidden motive is a product of the instinctive biological drives, which are acquired in the early stages of human development particularly before the age of five. More specifically, early experiences including the parent-child interactions play a major role in shaping adult behavior (Nevid 2009; Plante 2010). This essay examines different aspects of the psychodynamic theory including parts of the psyche, psychosexual stages, and defense mechanisms besides evaluating the strengths and limitations of the theory, research studies underlying the theory, and the psychodynamic perspective in general.
Part A: Theory and Evidence for the Psychodynamic Perspective
Parts of the Psyche
As noted earlier, human beings possess different instinctive biological drives, which ensure their survival. Accordingly, psychodynamic psychologists maintain that the development of personality and behavior involves conciliation between the three parts of the psyche: the id, the ego, and the superego (Nevid 2009; Plante 2010). Here, it is worth noting that each individual possesses various instinctive biological drives necessary for eating, drinking, aggression, and sex which arise from their id. It then follows that the id drives various behavioral responses of a person in order to ensure that the basic biological needs of hunger, thirst, elimination of waste, sex, and aggression are met. Moreover, Plante (2010) indicates that the id is the only aspect of personality, which is present at birth, and it requires instant satisfaction irrespective of the underlying social rules. On the other hand, considering that not all instinctual demands can be met instantly, infants must begin to cope with frustrations arising from delayed satisfaction, and hence, a second part of the psyche known to as the ego develops during the first year after birth (Nevid 2009).
As a result, the ego enables infants to organize ways of dealing with delayed gratifications. More specifically, the ego seeks to gratify various instinctual demands in more practical and socially-acceptable ways. Subsequently, the third part of the psyche, the superego, develops at age 3-5 years. The superego becomes more practical during middle childhood with the development of internal moral behaviors and conscience, which reflect existing social and moral teachings from parents and other parent figures (Nevid 2009; Plante 2010). Here, it is worth noting that some parts of the superego develop consciously, particularly the development of personal beliefs regarding what is right or wrong. However, much of the superego is unconscious considering that individuals stand judgment for the actions arising from their ego (Nevid 2009). Overall, the ego (the conscious mind) stands between the id and the superego (the unconscious mind) by satisfying instinctual demands related to the id while avoiding instances of self-punishment associated with the superego.
In order to avoid the conflicts arising from the realization of unacceptable sexual or aggressive demands associated with the unconscious mind, psychodynamic theorists maintain that the ego employs different defense mechanisms to prevent inherent consequences, particularly the anxiety (Nevid 2009; Plante 2010). As a result, defense mechanisms ensure that unconscious impulses are converted into socially-acceptable forms or actions. For instance, displacement is one of the defense mechanisms through which an individual ensures that impulsive instinctual demands are redirected away from the original target to alternative targets, and thus, producing more acceptable results (Nevid 2009; Plante 2010). For example, a person may be angry with his or her mother, but instead of confronting her, they can take it out on their friends.
However, the displacement mechanism is limited to the extent that despite satisfying the id, it may involve other consequences related to the superego, particularly self-punishment or anxiety. Here, it is worth noting that a person can choose to direct anger to a more acceptable target in order to satisfy the instinctual impulses related to the id. However, it is also obvious that internal consequences related to the superego, such as the pain of losing a friend, are not eliminated by this defense mechanism.
Further, psychodynamic theorists maintain that the extent to which the ego mediates instinctual demands associated with the id and the superego is determined by early childhood experiences, particularly those related to psychosexual stages (Plante 2010; Conway 2012; Liang et al. 2011). There are five psychosexual stages: including the oral, anal, phallic, latent, and genital. Accordingly, Plante (2010) notes that during the first three stages (oral, anal, and phallic), the development of personality and other aspects of behavior depend on various sources of libido, bodily pleasure, and other impulses or influences associated with parents or parent figures.
As a result, problems associated with any stage of psychosexual development may lead to fixation at that stage (Nevid 2009). Therefore, if fixation occurs in the oral stage, then it follows that some events or traces of this stage will remain in the individual’s behavior until adulthood. For example, if a person is fixated at the oral stage where sources of libido involve sucking, chewing, biting, and swallowing, then chances are high that this individual will enjoy smoking, nail biting, aggression, and dependency in adulthood.
Part B: Evaluation of the Research Evidence and the Psychodynamic Perspective
Along the psychodynamic perspective, human behavior has been studied by looking for various hidden meanings related to people’s thoughts, actions, and utterances. For instance, in the case study involving Mrs. C (a 28 year old married woman) who was seeking treatment for anxiety and depression due to lack of sexual responsiveness, low self-esteem, and difficulties in experiencing pleasurable feelings, researchers hypothesized that her problems could be related to her childhood experiences. Moreover, upon assessing the patient, the researchers noted that Mrs. C was tense, self-critical, and worried about others besides having poor relationships with her parents and siblings.
Assessing this case from a psychodynamic perspective, clinicians observed that Mrs. C was suffering from a wide range of interpersonal and characterological problems and inhibition of sexual pleasure (Waldron et al. 2011). These results were deemed satisfactory by the psychodynamic analyst and the patient herself. Furthermore, studies aimed at evaluating the psychotherapeutic outcomes regarding this case noted that Mrs. C’s health profile demonstrated positive outcomes in relation to various aspects of personality including affect regulation, defensive organization, identity integration, and object relations (Waldron et al. 2011).
Therefore, in one way or another, this case confirms claims regarding the psychodynamic theory in that early childhood experiences play a major role in shaping an individual’s behavior during adulthood. In fact, researchers noted that Mrs. C idealized her father as being fragile and weak while expressing envy and superiority for her emotionally constrained mother and siblings respectively (Waldron et al. 2011). These early events might explain Mrs. C’s aggressive feelings towards her husband as well as instances of self-criticism and anxiety. On the other hand, it can be argued that this case lacks ecological validity since it cannot be generalized to all persons. Most importantly, this case lacks the input of the patient as proposed by the humanistic approach, which maintains that human behavior must be assessed through the eyes of the observer and the subject under observation considering that each person possesses the freewill and a certain degree of uniqueness that inform different behavioral changes (Conway 2012; Liang et al. 2011).
On the other hand, contemporary studies document the efficacy of the psychodynamic perspective in the treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) among children, community-oriented interventions in relation to social justice and population paradigms, and other psychological disorders such as hyperlexia (Oberschneider 2003; Conway 2012; Liang et al. 2011). More specifically, in a case study involving a four-year-old boy presenting for treatment because of hyperlexia, the researcher observed that psychodynamically-oriented psychotherapy focusing primarily on the need to address the patient’s psychological conflicts and relationships produced better results compared to interventions aimed at implementing language and education strategies. Initially, the patient named Russell exhibited various speech, language, and developmental problems including shyness, fearfulness and difficulties in interacting with other people, extreme anxiety, inflexibility, and lack of interest in play. After the psychoanalytic treatment, the patient exhibited marked improvement including the ability to experience and express strong feelings, emotional and social development, initiation of contact with other people particularly teachers and playmates, and developing meaningful friendships (Oberschneider 2003).
This case study confirms claims made by the psychodynamic theorists that psychological conflicts and relationships regarding the id, ego, and superego play a role in shaping behavior and personality as people move from one stage of development to another. Furthermore, Russell’s case confirms the efficacy of psychodynamically-oriented psychotherapeutic interventions in the treatment of various disorders regarding psychological conflicts and relationships. On the other hand, this case is limited to the extent that the methods of assessing the psychotherapeutic outcomes may not be reliable or valid. This is because one cannot tell whether the outcomes are related to factors outside of the clinical setting or otherwise. Even in case studies with established reliability and validity, the problem of overstating the efficacy of treatment delivery approaches and positive outcomes is still evident.
Nevertheless, the psychodynamic perspective has developed since the establishment of Freud’s theories with most Freudian followers retaining the central principles of the psychodynamic theory, particularly the claim that various unconscious conflicts shape personality and behavior. For instance, Erik Erikson (1950) followed in the footsteps of Sigmund Freud and developed the theory of psychosocial development, which holds that personality develops through a series of stages with specific needs that must be fulfilled in order for a person to move from one stage of development to another (Nevid 2009; Plante 2010). Ultimately, the psychodynamic perspective recognizes the complexity of human behavior and personality, particularly hidden motives and irrationality. As a result, this approach has led to the development of psychodynamically-oriented psychotherapeutic treatments for various psychological disorders. Moreover, the psychodynamic perspective emphasizes the importance of early childhood experiences in shaping behavior and personality in adulthood.
However, in contrast to the behaviorist perspective, which maintains that different human behaviors are shaped or controlled by their immediate environments, the psychodynamic approach emphasizes the significance of the unconscious mind in driving behavioral changes. According to many critics, the unconscious mind is unobservable, and thus, it may be difficult to measure this aspect of behavior, which implies that the experimental results may not be scientifically reliable. On the other hand, the psychodynamic perspective is limited to the extent that the methodologies used in psychoanalysis and interpretations of psychotherapeutic outcomes are biased. Furthermore, some critics of the psychodynamic perspective observe that most psychodynamic researchers and theorists tend to overstate those results or analyses, which favor their prior beliefs. Additionally, methods used in the study of this approach lack objectivity and they tend to rely on unobservable constructs such as the unconscious mind, which cannot be controlled under experimental conditions (Nevid 2009; Plante 2010). Overall, amid the underlying limitations, the psychodynamic perspective provides important insights into the significance of various life-time experiences and cognitive processes, which shape human behavior and personality.