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Freudian Theory

The name Sigmund Freud dominates the early history of personality theories. Freud proposed the first major personality theory and psychotherapy procedure. He painted a picture of human personality that inspired strong devotion and strong opposition.

One way to analyze a body of scholarly work is to do citation analysis. See how often a particular article, or the name of an author, is cited by other scholars. That is a good measure of influence.

Throughout much of the 20th Century, Freud was one of the most cited names in psychology literature. That is ironic because (1) Freud was not a psycholo­gist but a psychiatrist, and (2) many of the citations are negative.

The discipline of psychology fought hard, in the 20th Century, to keep from being equated with Freudian psychoanalysis. Psychologists commonly reported what Freud said, then discussed why he was incorrect.

Each time Freud was mentioned that way, it added to his citation count. Google's ngram service shows that mentions of Freud in English language literature did not begin dropping until 1993.

portrait of Freud
Sigmund Freud

Why is it ironic that Freud ranks high in citation analyses of psychology literature?

Even negative citations mean Freud was influential. Freud's influence is undoubted. Most of the personality theories in the first half of the 20th Century were presented as alternatives to Freud's theory.

In order to understand how ideas about psychology developed in the 20th Century (and to be culturally literate), one must be familiar with Freud and his theories. Therefore Freud is discussed in many psych­ology classes.

As to whether any of Freud's ideas have merit, that depends entirely on which of his ideas are selected and how they are framed. Crews (1996) wrote:

Independent studies have begun to converge toward a verdict that was once consi­dered a sign of extremism or even of neurosis: that there is literally nothing to be said, scientifically or therapeutically, to the advantage of the entire Freudian system or any of its component dogmas.

By "component dogmas" Crews referred to the more outlandish ideas we will discuss in coming pages: the childhood psychosexual stages, the "family drama" of sexual jealousy between small children and their parents, and Freud's theories about causes of adult neurosis. None is supported by evidence-based research.

Drew Weston, by contrast, argued that Freud presented many currently respectable ideas, such as these (adapted from Weston, 1998):

Weston is correct that Freud's theory incorporated these ideas. Freud himself might not have recognized the benign list above, however. To Freud, his most important ideas were about sexuality, and Weston leaves those out.

In teaching about Freud to my classes, I emphasized the distinction between observation and explanation. Freud often made good observations. His explanations were not nearly so good.

For example: Freud's list of defense mechanisms seem mostly valid. These are mental gymnastics we all observe in the behavior of ordinary people, as they avoid unpleasant thoughts or events. These are observations.

However, in the realm of explanations, Freud falls short. When he blames adult psychological problems on toilet training or breastfeeding or murderous jealousies of the opposite-sexed parent, he indulges in very questionable explanations, and there is no evidence to support these explanations.

What distinction does your author draw between Freud's observations and his explanations?

In a sense, Freud's theoretical short­comings should not be surprising. Few theories from 1880-1930 are still scientifically up-to-date.

Freud's Divisions of The Psyche

In the 1890s, Freud proposed a theory that distinguished between three different levels of consciousness. Conscious thoughts, he wrote, were mental products currently in awareness.

Preconscious thoughts were memories not currently in awareness but easily retrieved. Unconscious thoughts were things a person could not voluntarily bring to awareness.

What were the three levels of consciousness, in Freud's theory of the 1890s?

In 1923, Freud came out with a new book, The Ego and the Id, describing a new, comprehensive theory of personality organization. Most people think of this as "Freud's personality theory." However, he came out with it after practicing for 40 years, so it was a relatively late develop­ment for Freud.

What new theory did Freud propose in the 1920s? What is the psyche?

The ideas of id, ego, and super-ego were an attempt to describe important components of the psyche (PSY-kee). The psyche was conceived as the overall universe of the mind, while the id, ego, and super-ego were (to Freud) divisions or functions of the psyche.

Freud cautioned his readers to remem­ber that id, ego, and super-ego were not "persons in their own right." Yet he did tend to reify them (treat them as objective things and sources of power).

Whatever else they are, id, ego, and super-ego are labels. Freud applied them to patterns of human behavior. Many of those patterns of behavior can be recognized as familiar, regardless of one's commitment to Freudian theory.

Freud's suggested that these divisions of the psyche had different relationships to consciousness. Also, they could be opposing forces. Much of Freud's writing involved conflicts between the id, the ego, and society as represented in the super-ego.

The Id

The first developing part of the psyche, in Freud's theory, was the id, which means "it." Freud got the idea of a psychological id from a psychologist named Georg Groddeck who lived in Vienna at the same time as Freud.

To Groddeck, the id was a dark, unknown part of the mind that controls us but remains outside our awareness. Groddeck wrote a book called The Book of IT in which he argued that we are lived by this unseen presence. In other words, IT is really in control!

Where did Freud get his idea for the "id," and how did he describe it?

Freud described the id as "chaos, a cauldron full of seething excitation" dominated by impulses of sex and aggression. Freud proposed that the id was the source of the libido, a source of energy for the entire psyche.

This energy was expressed in drives or urges like sex and aggression. (Freud used the German word trieb, which means a motivating tendency, sometimes translated as wish.)

What is "primary process thinking"?

Freud described the mental activity generated by the id as primary process thinking. Primary means first.

Primary process thinking is primitive, dream-like thinking, presumably the first type of thinking we experience as babies. It is simple, irrational, and gut-level, aimed at seeking pleasure or avoiding pain. As adults, we experience it most often in dreams or in moments of mental disturbance.

What was the pleasure principle?

Freud believed the id generates urges and impulses in accordance with the pleasure principle: pursuit of immediate gratification. The pleasure principle can be summarized as "I want what I want when I want it."

In Freud's theory, the pleasure principle dominated in primary process thinking. It was dominant in unconscious mental processes.

Freud thought people had a drive to satisfy the demands of the id in any way possible, including fantasy. Freud believed, for example, that dreams were aimed at satisfying id impulses.

Freud believed babies were all id when born. When a baby is hungry or lonely, it cries and demands immediate relief. When it experiences pleasure, it is a pure, self-satisfied pleasure.

Even children three or four years old have a hard time waiting more than a few minutes for something they want. They operate on the pleasure principle; they want immediate gratification.

What was the unconscious like, according to Freud?

In general, Freud said, the unconscious is infantile. It is not necessarily evil, but it is childlike. It is innocently good or bad depending on circumstances, reacting with immediacy to events as they happen.

In the unconscious, Freud believed, we all have a desire for immediate grati­fication and low tolerance for frustration. Only the development of more mature, controlling parts of the mind helps us avoid expressing id impulses and acting like babies when we are grown up.

The Ego

The second of Freud's three divisions of the psyche is the ego. Ego means "I." It is roughly equivalent to our sense of identity: who we think we are.

The ego was not equivalent to conscious­ness in Freud's scheme. He called the ego an agent of adaptation. Some of those adaptations were unconscious (for example, defense mechanisms).

Modern theorists use different labels for the processes Freud labeled as ego. To avoid sounding like they endorse Freudian theory, most avoid using the word "ego" but will discuss executive functions of the brain or cognitive system.

Freud believed that much of the ego's activity occurred outside of conscious­ness, in the process of selecting which thoughts or impulses were acceptable. In AI programs, the same issue is called contention scheduling.

Tasks compete for CPU (central pro­cessing unit) time, and some mechan­ism must decide where to allocate energy or attention. That is similar to the function Freud saw for the ego.

Freud described the ego drawing power from the id while attempting to control it like a rider on a horse. In this metaphor the horse represents the id: a primitive, animal-like source of energy. The rider represents the ego. It may be weak or strong, clumsy or skillful.

If the rider is uncoordinated or lacking in skill, the horse goes whatever direction it pleases, and the rider must hold on for dear life. This is like a person whose impulses are out of control, poorly coordinated by the ego.

What is the ego? What was the point of the "rider on the horse" analogy?

On the other hand, if the rider is an expert, the horse becomes like an exten­sion of the rider's willpower, making the rider swifter and more powerful than a human on foot. Similarly, in Freud's view, the id provided raw energy, and the ego (if skillful or well controlled) used this energy to do remarkable, positive things.

What is ego strength?

To Freud, having good ego strength was not the same thing as being egotistical, conceited, or vain. Having good ego strength meant being able to remain in control in stressful situations, or being able to persist in directing energy toward long-term goals, despite short-term problems.

What part of the ego was unconscious, in Freud's opinion?

In Freud's scheme the ego is not entirely conscious. The defense mechanisms were said to be unconscious functions of the ego, carried out to defend the psyche (the overall mental system) against painful thoughts and emotions.

Freud said the ego develops in early childhood. Little children discover that id-impulses cannot be gratified immediately. The pleasure principle produces frustration.

To get what they want, children must learn rational or realistic strategies, and some­times they must tolerate a delay in gratification. The ego develops as a result of this clash between desires of the id and realities of the world, Freud said.

With the development of the ego comes conscious, rational thinking. Freud called this secondary process thinking because it occurred later in development and modified the animal-like primary process thinking.

What is "secondary process thinking"? What causes it to develop, in Freud's view?

Freud suggested that primary process thinking was dominated by the pleasure principle, whereas secondary process thinking–controlled by the ego–was based on the reality principle. The reality principle was the ability of the ego to make plans that take reality into account, even if it meant postponing pleasure or denying fantasies.

The Super-Ego

The super-ego was a third function that Freud hypothesized. The word super means above, and the super-ego is like a supervisor of the psyche, monitoring activity and making value judgments that lead us to feel good or bad about our behavior.

Freud believed we learn morals and values from the people who take care of us in childhood. These values are internalized or taken inside us, and the result is the super-ego.

Freud said the super-ego, as an "internalization of parental values," was responsible for both pride and guilt. Because of this two-edged quality, one psychoanalyst (Schecter 1979) referred to the loving and persecuting super-ego.

According to Freud, the super-ego was partly unconscious. We could be aware of parts of it, but we could also be surprised by guilt or pride.

Freud, in a famous metaphor, compared the psyche to an iceberg. The following diagram is based on Freud's metaphor.

Like an iceberg (Freud said) nine-tenths of the psyche is invisible, submerged in the unconscious. The id is wholly unconscious, the super-ego mostly so, and the ego is mostly conscious but not entirely.

an iceberg showing divisions of the psyche
The Iceberg metaphor

What was the super-ego? What does the iceberg diagram show?

Freud said the ego is caught in a struggle between the id and super-ego, which pull in opposite directions. This is commonly symbolized by a devil on one shoulder, an angel on the other shoulder, each speaking into a different ear.

Freud wrote in his 1932 New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, "The poor ego...has to serve three harsh masters," It adapts to reality, it adapts to the urges of the id, and it adapts to the super-ego.

This was the ego's function as the agent of adaptation. It served as the master executive, juggling all the priorities, planning out the best course of action.

Students sometimes talk about id and ego and super-ego as modules of the mind rather than concepts or metaphors. Freud certainly did.

This can be defended, to some degree. In the case of the ego, executive func­tions are embodied in the prefrontal areas of the brain.

If you want to make the argument that the concept of the id is more than a metaphor, you could point to similarities between the id and impulses generated by the limbic system of the brain. Almost all the impulses Freud attributed to the id (sex, aggression, "primitive" emotions) are controlled by the limbic system.

What part of the brain is responsible for id-like functions?

The super-ego, third of the "divisions of the psyche," is harder to relate to specific biological systems in the brain. It depends to a great extent on learning and culture.

Freud described an unruly unconscious at odds with civilization. In a book titled Civilization and its Malcontents, Freud argued that civilization clashes with our animal nature. A primary purpose of organized society (he argued) was to tame the primitive id.

For example, as Freud pointed out, all major religions regulate sexual behavior. Does it not seem odd, Freud asked, that social institutions concerned with spiritual goals always regulate this aspect of behavior?

What was the reason for so many conflicts in human society, according to Freud?

To Freud, it all fit with his theory. To the extent we successfully tame our animal nature and turn its energy toward higher goals approved by society, we are civil­ized. However, this means we are always fighting our inner nature, particularly (in Freud's view) our sexual impulses.

Freud and Cocaine

Based on a variety of evidence docu­mented by Freud scholars, Freud used cocaine for about 12 years, from 1884 to 1896. There is no evidence he used it after that, but a dozen years of heavy use may have profoundly influenced Freud's theory and his view of human nature.

The book Anatomy of an Addiction (2012) by medical historian Howard Merkel, M.D., traced the evidence for Freud's cocaine infatuation. Merkel agreed there is no evidence Freud used cocaine after 1896, but Merkel detected some likely aftereffects.

Freud started a heavy cigar habit as a substitute addiction (which eventually killed him). For several years after he quit cocaine Freud showed other typical signs of recent addiction.

Merkel wrote, "From 1896 to 1900, presum­ably cocaine-free years, Freud suffered from 'depression, cocaine urges, occasional binge drinking, sexual affairs, caustic behaviors, and emotional absence.'"

To Merkel, this adds up to the classic portrait of a 'dry drunk.' That is AA's description of someone who has given up drinking and drugs, and is miserable about it, and is making everyone around them miserable as well.

Peter Swales originally put together the clues about Freud's cocaine use in lectures he delivered in the early 1980s. These ideas were controversial at the time (and dismissed by scholars loyal to Freud) but Swales was vindicated when later researchers verified and extended his findings.

Swales was tipped off when he noticed Freud's preoccupation with Goethe's play Faust. That work was about a man who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for deep knowledge about human nature.

Freud (Swales suggested) made a similar bargain with the devil when he decided to use cocaine. Freud was probably well aware of the literary parallel. Swales wrote:

Freud had obtained the cocaine from the chemical manufacturer Merck, of Darmstadt, in Germany. Incredibly, the great-great-grand­father of the man who supplied Freud with the cocaine was Johann Heinrich Merck, a close friend of Goethe's whose character and personality had provided the model for Mephistopheles, the Devil in the play Faust.

Freud had known Faust since his school days; he quotes it in his writings and letters more than any other work. In his fantasy life, Freud must surely have regarded cocaine as the very vehicle for achieving a satanic pact...

In the play, the pact between Mephistopheles and Faust is consummated when Faust agrees to swallow a narcotic potion procured by the Devil to restore his virility. He succeeds in seducing a young girl, Gretchen, who remains tragically unaware of his infernal complicity. (Coe, 1984)

Putting two and two together, Swales suggested that Freud rationalized his use of cocaine as the price to be paid for insights into the human psyche, as well as energy used in writing and romance.

Why did Freud cite Faust more than any other work, according to Swales?

cover of Freud's Uber Coca book
An 1885 title page for Über Coca

This meshes with the tone of Freud's 1884 publication, Über Coca, which Freud described as "a song of praise to this magical substance." He raved about the drug's effects and pro­claimed that it was harmless and non-addictive.

Merkel (2012) suggested that Freud showed classic symptoms of cocaine abuse before he quit. At one point he had to cauterize (burn a hole through) his own swollen nasal membranes, in order to breath. He suffered chest pains. He craved cocaine and grew depressed when he tried to do without it.

Swales (1989) thought Freud's concept of the libido (the source of energy for the psyche) was inspired by cocaine. Cocaine stimulates dopaminergic pathways, producing a fair simulation of unleashing animal energy. Freud described the id, the source of the libido in Freud's thinking, as a "seething cauldron of excitations."

Freud's enthusiasm for cocaine eventually dimmed. Freud tried to help a friend quit morphine, giving him cocaine as a substitute. The friend died, and Freud started to conclude that cocaine might be dangerous. Freud quit using it himself at age 40.

Later, Freud tried to minimize his earlier use of cocaine, removing all references to it from his official papers. However, in a early letter to his then-fiancé Martha Bernays, he said she would be unable to resist "a big, wild man who has cocaine in his body," a very id-like reference.


Coe, R. (1984, September 27) The intellectual odyssey of former Rolling Stones promoter Peter Swales. Retrieved from: .

Crews, F (1996) The Verdict on Freud, Psychological Science, 7, 63-68. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.1996.tb00331.x

Merkel, H. (2012) An Anatomy of an Addiction: Sigmund Freud, William Halsted, and the Miracle Drug, Cocaine. New York: Random House.

Schecter, D. E. (1979). The loving and persecuting superego. Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 15, 361-379.

Swales, P. (1989). Freud, cocaine and sexual chemistry: The role of cocaine in Freud's conception of the libido. In L. Spurling (Ed.) Sigmund Freud: Critical Assessments. London: Routledge, pp 273-301.

Westen, D. (1998). The scientific legacy of Sigmund Freud: Toward a psychodynamically informed psychological science. Psychological Bulletin, 124, 333-371.

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