Psychodynamic theory is actually a collection of psychological theories which emphasize the importance of drives and other forces in human functioning, especially unconscious drives. The approach holds that childhood experience is the basis for adult personality and relationships. Psychodynamic theory originated in Freud’s psychoanalytic theories and includes any theories based on his ideas, including those by Anna Freud, Erik Erikson, and Carl Jung.
Key Takeaways: Psychodynamic Theory
- Psychodynamic theory is comprised of a set of psychological theories that arise from the ideas that humans are often driven by unconscious motivations and that adult personality and relationships are often the result of childhood experiences.
- Psychodynamic theory originated in the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud, and includes any theory based on his ideas, including work by Carl Jung, Alfred Adler, and Erik Erikson. It also includes newer theories like object relations.
Between the late 1890s and the 1930s, Sigmund Freud developed a variety of psychological theories based on his experiences with patients during therapy. He called his approach to therapy psychoanalysis and his ideas became popularized through his books, such as The Interpretation of Dreams. In 1909, he and his colleagues traveled to America and gave lectures on psychoanalysis, spreading Freud’s ideas further. In the years that followed, regular meetings were held to discuss psychoanalytic theories and applications. Freud influenced a number of major psychological thinkers, including Carl Jung and Alfred Adler, and his influence continues today.
It was Freud who first introduced the term psychodynamics. He observed that his patients exhibited psychological symptoms with no biological basis. Nevertheless, these patients were unable to stop their symptoms despite their conscious efforts. Freud reasoned that if the symptoms couldn’t be prevented by conscious will, they must arise from the unconscious. Therefore, the symptoms were the result of the unconscious will opposing the conscious will, an interplay he dubbed “psychodynamics.”
Psychodynamic theory formed to encompass any theory deriving from Freud’s basic tenets. As a result, the terms psychoanalytic and psychodynamic are often used interchangeably. However, there is an important distinction: the term psychoanalytic only refers to theories developed by Freud, while the term psychodynamic references both Freud’s theories and those that are based on his ideas, including Erik Erikson’s psychosocial theory of human development and Jung’s concept of archetypes. In fact, so many theories are encompassed by psychodynamic theory, that it is often referred to as an approach or a perspective instead of a theory.
Despite the psychodynamic perspective’s association with Freud and psychoanalysis, psychodynamic theorists no longer put much stock in some of Freud’s ideas, such as the id, ego, and superego. Today, the approach is centered around a core set of tenets that both arise from and expand upon Freud’s theories.
Psychologist Drew Weston outlined five propositions that generally encompass 21st century psychodynamic thinking:
- First and most importantly, a great deal of mental life is unconscious, meaning people’s thoughts, feelings, and motivations are often unknown to them.
- Individuals may experience conflicting thoughts and feelings towards a person or situation because mental responses occur independently but in parallel. Such internal conflict can lead to contradictory motivations, necessitating mental compromise.
- Personality begins to form in early childhood and it continues to be influenced by childhood experiences into adulthood, especially in the formation of social relationships.
- People’s social interactions are impacted by their mental understanding of themselves, other people, and relationships.
- Personality development includes learning to regulate sexual and aggressive drives, as well as growing from a socially dependent to an interdependent state in which one can form and maintain functional intimate relationships.
While many of these propositions continue to focus on the unconscious, they also are concerned with the formation and understanding of relationships. This arises from one of the major developments in modern psychodynamic theory: object relations. Object relations holds that one’s early relationships set expectations for later ones. Whether they are good or bad, people develop a comfort level with the dynamics of their earliest relationships and are often drawn to relationships that can in some way recreate them. This works well if one’s earliest relationships were healthy but leads to problems if those early relationships were problematic in some way.
In addition, no matter what a new relationship is like, an individual will look at a new relationship through the lens of their old relationships. This is called “transference” and offers a mental shortcut to people attempting to understand a new relationship dynamic. As a result, people make inferences that may or may not be accurate about a new relationship based on their past experiences.
Psychodynamic theory has several strengths that account for its continued relevance in modern psychological thinking. First, it accounts for the impact of childhood on adult personality and mental health. Second, it explores the innate drives that motivate our behavior. It’s in this way that psychodynamic theory accounts for both sides of the nature/nurture debate. On the one hand, it points to the way the unconscious mental processes people are born with influence their thoughts, feelings, and behavior. On the other, it emphasizes the influence of childhood relationships and experiences on later development.
Despite its strengths, psychodynamic theory has a number of weaknesses, too. First, critics often accuse it of being too deterministic, and therefore, denying that people can exercise conscious free will. In other words, by emphasizing the unconscious and the roots of personality in childhood experience, psychodynamic theory suggests that behavior is pre-determined and ignores the possibility that people have personal agency.
Psychodynamic theory is also criticized for being unscientific and unfalsifiable—it is impossible to prove the theory to be false. Many of Freud’s theories were based on single cases observed in therapy and remain difficult to test. For example, there’s no way to empirically research the unconscious mind. Yet, there are some psychodynamic theories that can be studied, which has led to scientific evidence for some of its tenets.
- Dombeck, Mark. “Psychodynamic Theories.” MentalHelp.net, 2019. https://www.mentalhelp.net/articles/psychodynamic-theories/
- McLeod, Saul. “Psychodynamic Approach.” Simply Psychology, 2017. https://www.simplypsychology.org/psychodynamic.html
- Weston, Drew. “The Scientific Legacy of Sigmund Freud: Toward a Psychodynamically Informed Psychological Science. Psychological Bulletin, vol. 124, no. 3, 1998, pp. 333-371. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.124.3.333
- Weston, Drew, Glenn O. Gabbard, and Kile M. Ortigo. “Psychoanalytic Approaches to Personality.” Handbook of Personality: Theory and Research. 3rd ed., edited by Oliver P. John, Richard W. Robins, and Lawrence A. Pervin. The Guilford Press, 2008, pp. 61-113. https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2008-11667-003
- The Freudian Theory of Personality.” Journal Psyche, http://journalpsyche.org/the-freudian-theory-of-personality/#more-191
The Psychodynamic Approach
By Saul McLeod, updated 2020
- The psychodynamic theory is a psychological theory Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and his later followers applied to explain the origins of human behavior.
- The psychodynamic approach includes all the theories in psychology that see human functioning based upon the interaction of drives and forces within the person, particularly unconscious, and between the different structures of the personality.
- Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis was the original psychodynamic theory, but the psychodynamic approach as a whole includes all theories that were based on his ideas, e.g., Carl Jung (1912), Melanie Klein (1921), Alfred Adler (1927), Anna Freud (1936), and Erik Erikson (1950).
- The words psychodynamic and psychoanalytic are often confused. Remember that Freud’s theories were psychoanalytic, whereas the term ‘psychodynamic’ refers to both his theories and those of his followers.
- Freud’s psychoanalysis is both a theory and therapy.
Sigmund Freud (writing between the 1890s and the 1930s) developed a collection of theories which have formed the basis of the psychodynamic approach to psychology.
His theories are clinically derived – i.e., based on what his patients told him during therapy. The psychodynamic therapist would usually be treating the patient for depression or anxiety related disorders.
Our behavior and feelings are powerfully affected by unconscious motives:
The unconscious mind comprises mental processes that are inaccessible to consciousness but that influence judgments, feelings, or behavior (Wilson, 2002).
According to Freud (1915), the unconscious mind is the primary source of human behavior. Like an iceberg, the most important part of the mind is the part you cannot see.
Our feelings, motives, and decisions are actually powerfully influenced by our past experiences, and stored in the unconscious.
Our behavior and feelings as adults (including psychological problems) are rooted in our childhood experiences:
Psychodynamic theory states that events in our childhood have a great influence on our adult lives, shaping our personality. Events that occur in childhood can remain in the unconscious, and cause problems as adults.
Personality is shaped as the drives are modified by different conflicts at different times in childhood (during psychosexual development).
All behavior has a cause (usually unconscious), even slips of the tongue. Therefore all behavior is determined:
Psychodynamic theory is strongly determinist as it views our behavior as caused entirely by unconscious factors over which we have no control.
Unconscious thoughts and feelings can transfer to the conscious mind in the form of parapraxes, popularly known as Freudian slips or slips of the tongue. We reveal what is really on our mind by saying something we didn’t mean to.
Freud believed that slips of the tongue provided an insight into the unconscious mind and that there were no accidents, every behavior (including slips of the tongue) was significant (i.e., all behavior is determined).
Personality is made up of three parts (i.e., tripartite): the id, ego, and super-ego:
The id is the primitive and instinctive component of personality. It consists of all the inherited (i.e., biological) components of personality present at birth, including the sex (life) instinct – Eros (which contains the libido), and the aggressive (death) instinct – Thanatos.
The ego develops in order to mediate between the unrealistic id and the external real world. It is the decision making component of personality.
The superego incorporates the values and morals of society which are learned from one’s parents and others.
Parts of the unconscious mind (the id and superego) are in constant conflict with the conscious part of the mind (the ego). This conflict creates anxiety, which could be dealt with by the ego’s use of defense mechanisms.
History of Psychodynamic Theory
The History of Psychodynamic Theory
- Anna O a patient of Dr. Joseph Breuer (Freud’s mentor and friend) from 1800 to 1882 suffered from hysteria.
- In 1895 Breuer and his assistant, Sigmund Freud, wrote a book, Studies on Hysteria.
In it they explained their theory: Every hysteria is the result of a traumatic experience, one that cannot be integrated into the person’s understanding of the world. The publication establishes Freud as “the father of psychoanalysis.
- By 1896 Freud had found the key to his own system, naming it psychoanalysis. In it, he had replaced hypnosis with “free association.”
- In 1900 Freud published his first major work, The Interpretation of Dreams, which established the importance of psychoanalytical movement.
- In 1902 Freud founded the Psychological Wednesday Society, later transformed into the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society.
- As the organization grew, Freud established an inner circle of devoted followers, the so-called “Committee” (including Sàndor Ferenczi, and Hanns Sachs (standing) Otto Rank, Karl Abraham, Max Eitingon, and Ernest Jones).
- Freud and his colleagues came to Massachusetts in 1909 to lecture on their new methods of understanding mental illness. .
Those in attendance included some of the country’s most important intellectual figures, such as William James, Franz Boas, and Adolf Meyer.
- In the years following the visit to the United States, the International Psychoanalytic Association was founded. .
Freud designated Carl Jung as his successor to lead the Association, and chapters were created in major cities in Europe and elsewhere. .
Regular meetings or congresses were held to discuss the theory, therapy, and cultural applications of the new discipline.
- Jung’s study on schizophrenia, The Psychology of Dementia Praecox, led him into collaboration with Sigmund Freud.
- Jung’s close collaboration with Freud lasted until 1913. Jung had become increasingly critical of Freud’s exclusively sexual definition of libido and incest. .
The publication of Jung’s Wandlungen und Symbole der Libido (known in English as The Psychology of the Unconscious) led to a final break.
- Following his emergence from this period of crisis, Jung developed his own theories systematically under the name of Analytical Psychology. .
Jung’s concepts of the collective unconscious and the archetypes led him to explore religion in the East and West, myths, alchemy, and later flying saucers.
- Melanie Klein took psychoanalytic thinking in a new direction by recognising the importance of our earliest childhood experiences in the formation of our adult emotional world. .
After becoming a full member of the Berlin Psychoanalytic Society in 1923, Klein embarks upon her first analysis of a child. .
Extending and developing Sigmund Freud’s ideas, Klein drew on her analysis of children’s play to formulate new concepts such as the paranoid-schizoid position and the depressive position.
- Anna Freud (Freud’s daughter) became a major force in British psychology, specializing in the application of psychoanalysis to children. .
Among her best known works are The Ego and the Mechanism of defense (1936).
Psychodynamic Approach Summary
It has given rise to one of the first “talking cure,” psychoanalysis, on which many psychological therapies are now based.
It could be argued that Freud was the first person to highlights the importance of childhood in mental health and this is an idea extensively used today.
The Psychodynamic approach takes into account both sides of the Nature/Nurture debate.
Freud claimed that adult personality is the product of innate drives- i.e., natural motivations or urges we are born with- and childhood experiences- i.e., the way we are raised and nurtured.
Ignores mediational processes (e.g., thinking)
The psychodynamic approach places too much emphasis on the psychological factors, without considering the biological/genetic factors that influence and contribute to mental health problems.
Too deterministic (little free-will)
Unfalsifiable (difficult to prove wrong)
Case Studies – Subjective / Cannot generalize results
Simplifying the human mind into the id, ego, and superego and the five psychosexual stages make the approach reductionist.
Issues and Debates
Issues and Debates
Free will vs Determinism
It is strongly determinist as it views our behavior as caused entirely by unconscious factors over which we have no control.
Nature vs Nurture
The psychodynamic approach recognises the influence of social factors as it argues that we are driven by innate biological instincts, represented by the Id (nature), but the ways these instincts are expressed is shaped by our social and cultural environment (nurture).
Holism vs Reductionism
The psychodynamic approach is determinist as it rejects the idea of free will. A person’s behavior is determined by their unconscious motives which are shaped by their biological drives and their early experiences.
Idiographic vs Nomothetic
Freud argued that human behavior is governed by universal processes that apply to everyone e.g. the tripartite structure of the mind (nomothetic).
However, he also proposed that the ways in which these processes manifest themselves in the individual is unique (idiographic).
Are the research methods used scientific?
The concepts proposed by Freud cannot be tested empirically. The theory is not falsifiable as if people behave in the way predicted by the theory it is viewed as support, if they don’t it is argued that they are using defence mechanisms.
The psychodynamic approach has given rise to one of the first “talking cure”, psychoanalysis, on which many psychological therapies are now based. Psychoanalysis is rarely used now in its original form but it is still used in a shorter version in some cases.
The greatest criticism of the psychodynamic approach is that it is unscientific in its analysis of human behavior. Many of the concepts central to Freud’s theories are subjective, and as such, difficult to test scientifically.
For example, how is it possible to scientifically study concepts like the unconscious mind or the tripartite personality? In this respect, it could be argued that the psychodynamic perspective is unfalsifiable as its theories cannot be empirically investigated.
However, cognitive psychology has identified unconscious processes, such as procedural memory (Tulving, 1972), automatic processing (Bargh & Chartrand, 1999; Stroop, 1935), and social psychology have shown the importance of implicit processing (Greenwald & Banaji, 1995). Such empirical findings have demonstrated the role of unconscious processes in human behavior.
Kline (1989) argues that psychodynamic theory comprises a series of hypotheses, some of which are more easily tested than others, and some with more supporting evidence than others.
Also, while the theories of the psychodynamic approach may not be easily tested, this does not mean that it does not have strong explanatory power.
Nevertheless, most of the evidence for psychodynamic theories is taken from Freud’s case studies (e.g., Little Hans, Anna O).
The main problem here is that the case studies are based on studying one person in detail, and with reference to Freud, the individuals in question are most often middle-aged women from Vienna (i.e., his patients). This makes generalizations to the wider population (e.g., the whole world) difficult.
Another problem with the case study method is that it is susceptible to researcher bias. Reexamination of Freud’s own clinical work suggests that he sometimes distorted his patients’ case histories to ‘fit’ with his theory (Sulloway, 1991).
The humanistic approach makes the criticism that the psychodynamic perspective is too deterministic. Freud suggests that all thoughts, behaviors and emotions are determined by our childhood experiences and unconscious mental processes.
This is a weakness because it suggests we have no conscious free will over our behavior, leaving little room for the idea of personal agency (i.e., free will).
Finally, the psychodynamic approach can be criticized for being sexist against women. For example, Freud believed that females’ penis envy made them inferiour to males.
He also thought that females tended to develop weaker superegos and to be more prone to anxiety than males.
Is there a difference between psychodynamic and psychoanalytic?
The words psychodynamic and psychoanalytic are often confused. Remember that Freud’s theories were psychoanalytic, whereas the term ‘psychodynamic’ refers to both his theories and those of his followers.
What is psychodynamic in simple terms?
Sigmund Freud highlights the role of the unconscious mind, the structure of personality and the influence that childhood experiences have on later life. Freud believed that the unconscious mind determines most of our behavior and that we are motivated by unconscious emotional drives.
How to reference this article:
How to reference this article:
McLeod, S. A. (2017). Psychodynamic approach. Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/psychodynamic.html
APA Style References
Adler, A. (1927). Understanding human nature. New York: Greenburg.
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Freud, S. (1900). The interpretation of dreams. In Standard edition (Vols. 4 & 5, pp. 1–627).
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Greenwald, A. G., & Banaji, M. R. (1995). Implicit social cognition: attitudes, self-esteem, and stereotypes. Psychological review, 102(1), 4.
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How to reference this article:
How to reference this article:
McLeod, S. A. (2017). Psychodynamic approach. Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/psychodynamic.html
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