14.3 Psychodynamic Origins of Personality

Learning Objectives

  1. Describe the strengths and limitations of the psychodynamic approach to explaining personality.
  2. Summarize the accomplishments of the neo-Freudians.

Although measures such as the Big Five and the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) are able to effectively assess personality, they do not say much about where personality comes from. In this section, we will consider Freud’s psychodynamic theory of the origin of personality and subsequent neo-Freudian modifications the theory.

Psychodynamic theories of personality: The role of the unconscious

One of the most important psychological approaches to understanding personality is based on the theorizing of the Austrian physician and psychologist Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), who founded what today is known as the psychodynamic approach, an approach to understanding human behaviour that focuses on the role of unconscious thoughts, feelings, and memories. Many people know about Freud because his work has had a huge impact on our everyday thinking about psychology, and the psychodynamic approach is one of the most important approaches to psychological therapy (Roudinesco, 2003; Taylor, 2009). Freud is probably the best known of all psychologists, in part because of his impressive observation and analyses of personality — there are 24 volumes of his writings. As is true of all theories, many of Freud’s ingenious ideas have turned out to be at least partially incorrect, yet other aspects of his theories are still influencing psychology.

Freud was influenced by the work of the French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot (1825–1893), who had been interviewing patients, almost all women, who were experiencing what was at the time known as hysteria. Although it is no longer used to describe a psychological disorder, hysteria at the time referred to a set of personality and physical symptoms that included chronic pain, fainting, seizures, and paralysis.

Charcot could find no biological reason for the symptoms. For instance, some women experienced a loss of feeling in their hands but not in their arms, and this seemed impossible given that the nerves in the arms are the same as those in the hands. Charcot was experimenting with the use of hypnosis, and he and Freud found that under hypnosis many of the hysterical patients reported having experienced a traumatic sexual experience, such as sexual abuse, as children (Dolnick, 1998).

Freud and Charcot also found that during hypnosis the remembering of the trauma was often accompanied by an outpouring of emotion, known as catharsis, and that following the catharsis the patient’s symptoms were frequently reduced in severity. These observations led Freud and Charcot to conclude that these disorders were caused by psychological rather than physiological factors.

Freud used the observations that he and Charcot had made to develop his theory regarding the sources of personality and behaviour, and his insights are central to the fundamental themes of psychology. In terms of free will, Freud did not believe that we were able to control our own behaviours. Rather, he believed that all behaviours are predetermined by motivations that lie outside our awareness, in the unconscious. These forces show themselves in our dreams, in neurotic symptoms such as obsessions, while we are under hypnosis, and in Freudian “slips of the tongue” in which people reveal their unconscious desires in language. Freud argued that we rarely understand why we do what we do, although we can make up explanations for our behaviours after the fact. For Freud, the mind was like an iceberg (see Figure 14.14). In this analogy, the many motivations of the unconscious are much larger, but also out of sight, in comparison to the consciousness of which we are aware .



This diagram illustrates an iceberg, with the small portion above water labeled "conscious" and the large portion under water labeled "unconscious."
Figure 14.14. In Sigmund Freud’s conceptualization of personality, the most important motivations are unconscious, just as the major part of an iceberg is under water.

Id, ego, and superego

Freud proposed that the mind is divided into three components — id, ego, and superego — and that the interactions and conflicts among the components create personality (Freud, 1923/1949). According to Freudian theory, the id is the component of personality that forms the basis of our most primitive impulses. The id is entirely unconscious, and it drives our most important motivations, including the sexual drive (i.e. libido) and the aggressive or destructive drive (i.e., thanatos). According to Freud, the id is driven by the pleasure principle, which is the desire for immediate gratification of our sexual and aggressive urges. The id is why we smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol, view pornography, tell mean jokes about people, and engage in other fun or harmful behaviours, often at the cost of doing more productive activities.

In stark contrast to the id, the superego represents our sense of morality and oughts. The superego tell us all the things that we shouldn’t do, based on our interpretation of the duties and obligations of society. The superego strives for perfection, and when we fail to live up to its demands, we feel guilty. We have internalized the “shoulds” taught to us by parents and others in early childhood, and thus part of the superego exists in the unconscious, while actively exercising our moral codes may involve conscious deliberation.

In contrast to the id, which is about the pleasure principle, the function of the ego is based on the reality principle, which is the idea that we must delay gratification of our basic motivations until the appropriate time with the appropriate outlet. The ego is the largely conscious controller or decision-maker of personality. The ego serves as the intermediary between the desires of the id and the constraints of society contained in the superego (see Figure 14.15). We may wish to scream, yell, or hit, and yet our ego normally tells us to wait, reflect, and choose a more appropriate response.



This chart has three textboxes; the textbox labeled "ID" points to the textbox labeled "EGO," and the textbox labeled "SUPEREGO" also points to the textbox labeled "EGO."
Figure 14.15. Interactions between the ego, id, and superego.

Freud believed that psychological disorders, and particularly the experience of anxiety, occur when there is conflict or imbalance among the motivations of the id, ego, and superego. When the ego finds that the id is pressing too hard for immediate pleasure, it attempts to correct for this problem, often through the use of defence mechanisms, which are unconscious psychological strategies used to cope with anxiety and maintain a positive self-image. Freud believed that the defence mechanisms were essential for effective coping with everyday life, but that any of them could be overused. The table below identifies the major Freudian defence mechanisms.


Table 14.1. The major Freudian defence mechanisms
Defence Mechanism Definition Possible Behavioural Example
Displacement Diverting threatening impulses away from the source of the anxiety and toward a more acceptable source A student who is angry at her professor for a low grade lashes out at her roommate, who is a safer target of her anger.
Projection Disguising threatening impulses by attributing them to others A man with powerful unconscious sexual desires for women claims that women use him as a sex object.
Rationalization Generating self-justifying explanations for our negative behaviours A drama student convinces herself that getting the part in the play wasn’t that important after all.
Reaction formation Making unacceptable motivations appear as their exact opposite Jane is sexually attracted to Jake, but she claims in public that she intensely dislikes him.
Regression Retreating to an earlier, more childlike, and safer stage of development A university student who is worried about an important test begins to suck on his thumb.
Repression (or denial) Pushing anxiety-arousing thoughts into the unconscious A person who witnesses his parents having sex is later unable to remember anything about the event.
Sublimation Channeling unacceptable sexual or aggressive desires into acceptable activities A person participates in sports to sublimate aggressive drives. A person creates music or art to sublimate sexual drives.

The most controversial, and least scientifically valid, part of Freudian theory is its explanations of personality development. Freud argued that personality is developed through a series of psychosexual stages, each focusing on pleasure from a different part of the body. The table below provides details on stages of psychosexual development. Freud believed that sexuality begins in infancy, and that the appropriate resolution of each stage has implications for later personality development.


Table 14.2. Freud’s stages of psychosexual development
Stage Approximate Ages Description
Oral Birth to 18 months Pleasure comes from the mouth in the form of sucking, biting, and chewing.
Anal 18 months to three years Pleasure comes from bowel, bladder elimination, and the constraints of toilet training.
Phallic Three years to six years Pleasure comes from the genitals, and the conflict is with sexual desires for the opposite-sex parent.
Latency Six years to puberty Sexual feelings are less important.
Genital Puberty and older If prior stages have been properly reached, mature sexual orientation develops.

In the first of Freud’s proposed stages of psychosexual development, which begins at birth and lasts until about 18 months of age, the focus is on the mouth. During this oral stage, the infant obtains sexual pleasure by sucking and drinking. Infants who receive either too little or too much gratification become fixated or locked in the oral stage, and they are likely to regress to these points of fixation under stress, even as adults. According to Freud, a child who receives too little oral gratification (e.g., who was underfed or neglected) will become orally dependent as an adult and be likely to manipulate others to fulfill their needs rather than becoming independent. On the other hand, the child who was overfed or overly gratified will resist growing up and try to return to the prior state of dependency by acting helpless, demanding satisfaction from others, and acting in a needy way.

The anal stage, lasting from about 18 months to three years of age, is when children first experience psychological conflict. During this stage children desire to experience pleasure through bowel movements, but they are also being toilet trained to delay this gratification. Freud believed that if this toilet training was either too harsh or too lenient, children would become fixated in the anal stage and become likely to regress to this stage under stress as adults. If the child received too little anal gratification (i.e., if the parents had been very harsh about toilet training), the adult personality will be anal retentive, characterized by being stingy with a compulsive seeking of order and tidiness. On the other hand, if the parents had been too lenient, the anal expulsive personality results, characterized by a lack of self-control and a tendency toward messiness and carelessness.

The phallic stage, which lasts from age three to age six is when the penis for boys and clitoris for girls become the primary erogenous zone for sexual pleasure. During this stage, Freud believed that children develop a powerful but unconscious attraction for the opposite-sex parent, as well as a desire to eliminate the same-sex parent as a rival. Freud based his theory of sexual development in boys, termed the Oedipus complex, on the Greek mythological character Oedipus, who unknowingly killed his father and married his mother before gouging his own eyes out when he learned what he had done. Freud argued that boys will normally abandon their love of the mother, eventually, and instead identify with the father, also taking on the father’s personality characteristics. However, boys who do not successfully resolve the Oedipus complex will experience psychological problems later in life. Although it was not as important in Freud’s theorizing, in girls the phallic stage is often termed the Electra complex, after the Greek character who avenged her father’s murder by killing her mother. Freud believed that girls frequently experienced penis envy, the sense of deprivation supposedly experienced by girls because they do not have a penis.

The latency stage is a period of relative calm that lasts from about age six to age 12. During this time, Freud believed that sexual impulses were repressed, leading boys and girls to have little or no interest in members of the opposite sex.

The fifth and last stage, the genital stage, begins at about 12 years of age and lasts into adulthood. According to Freud, sexual impulses return during this time frame, and if development has proceeded normally to this point, the child is able to move into the development of mature romantic relationships. Yet, if earlier problems have not been appropriately resolved, difficulties with establishing intimate love attachments are likely.

Freud’s followers: The neo-Freudians

Freudian theory was so popular that it led to a number of followers, including many of Freud’s own students, who developed, modified, and expanded his theories. Taken together, these approaches are known as neo-Freudian theories. The neo-Freudian theories are theories based on Freudian principles that emphasize the role of the unconscious and early experience in shaping personality, but they place less evidence on sexuality as the primary motivating force in personality and are more optimistic concerning the prospects for personality growth and change in personality in adults.

Alfred Adler (1870–1937) was a follower of Freud’s who developed his own interpretation of Freudian theory. Adler proposed that the primary motivation in human personality was not sex or aggression but rather the striving for superiority. According to Adler, we desire to be better than others, and we accomplish this goal by creating a unique and valuable life. We may attempt to satisfy our need for superiority through our school or professional accomplishments, or perhaps by our enjoyment of music, athletics, or other activities that seem important to us.

Adler believed that psychological disorders begin in early childhood. He argued that children who are either overly nurtured or overly neglected by their parents are later likely to develop an inferiority complex, which is a psychological state in which people feel that they are not living up to expectations, leading them to have low self-esteem, with a tendency to try to overcompensate for the negative feelings. People with an inferiority complex often attempt to demonstrate their superiority to others at all costs, even if it means humiliating, dominating, or alienating them. According to Adler, most psychological disorders result from misguided attempts to compensate for the inferiority complex in order meet the goal of superiority.

Carl Jung (1875–1961) was another student of Freud’s who developed his own theories about personality. Jung agreed with Freud about the power of the unconscious but felt that Freud overemphasized the importance of sexuality. Jung argued that in addition to the personal unconscious, there was also a collective unconscious, or a collection of shared ancestral memories. Jung believed that the collective unconscious contains a variety of archetypes, or cross-culturally universal symbols, which explain the similarities among people in their emotional reactions to many stimuli. Important archetypes include the mother, the goddess, the hero, and the mandala or circle, which Jung believed symbolized a desire for wholeness or unity. For Jung, the underlying motivation that guides successful personality is self-realization, which is learning about and developing the self to the fullest possible extent.

Karen Horney (1855–1952) was a German physician who applied Freudian theories to create a personality theory that she thought was more balanced between men and women. Horney believed that parts of Freudian theory, and particularly the ideas of the Oedipus complex and penis envy, were biased against women. Horney argued that women’s sense of inferiority was not due to their lack of a penis but rather to their dependency on men, an approach that the culture made it difficult for them to break from. For Horney, the underlying motivation that guides personality development is the desire for security, the ability to develop appropriate and supportive relationships with others.

Another important neo-Freudian was Erich Fromm (1900–1980). Fromm’s focus was on the negative impact of technology, arguing that the increases in its use have led people to feel increasingly isolated from others. Fromm believed that the independence that technology brings us also creates the need to “escape from freedom,” that is, to become closer to others.

Strengths and limitations of Freudian and neo-Freudian approaches

Freud has probably exerted a greater impact on the public’s understanding of personality than any other thinker, and he has also in large part defined the early field of psychology. Although Freudian psychologists no longer talk about oral, anal, or genital fixations, they do continue to believe that our childhood experiences and unconscious motivations shape our personalities and our attachments with others, and they still make use of psychodynamic concepts when they conduct psychological therapy.

Nevertheless, Freud’s theories, as well as those of the neo-Freudians, have in many cases failed to pass the test of empiricism, and as a result, they are less influential now than they have been in the past (Crews, 1998). The problems are, first, that it has proved to be difficult to rigorously test Freudian theory because the predictions that it makes, particularly those regarding defence mechanisms, are often vague and unfalsifiable and, second, that the aspects of the theory that can be tested often have not received much empirical support.

As examples, although Freud claimed that children exposed to overly harsh toilet training would become fixated in the anal stage and thus be prone to excessive neatness, stinginess, and stubbornness in adulthood, research has found few reliable associations between toilet training practices and adult personality (Fisher & Greenberg, 1996). Additionally, since the time of Freud, the need to repress sexual desires would seem to have become much less necessary as societies have tolerated a wider variety of sexual practices, yet the psychological disorders that Freud thought we caused by this repression have not decreased.

There is also little scientific support for some of the Freudian defence mechanisms. For example, studies have failed to yield evidence for the existence of repression. People who are exposed to traumatic experiences in war have been found to remember their traumas only too well (Kihlstrom, 1997). Although we may attempt to push information that is anxiety-arousing into our unconscious, this often has the ironic effect of making us think about the information even more strongly than if we hadn’t tried to repress it (Newman, Duff, & Baumeister, 1997). It is true that children remember little of their childhood experiences, but this is true of both negative as well as positive experiences, is true for animals as well, and probably is better explained in terms of the brain’s inability to form long-term memories than in terms of repression. On the other hand, Freud’s important idea that expressing or talking through one’s difficulties can be psychologically helpful has been supported in current research (Baddeley & Pennebaker, 2009) and has become a mainstay of psychological therapy.

A particular problem for testing Freudian theories is that almost anything that conflicts with a prediction based in Freudian theory can be explained away in terms of the use of a defence mechanism. A man who expresses a lot of anger toward his father may be seen via Freudian theory to be experiencing the Oedipus complex, which includes conflict with the father, but a man who expresses no anger at all toward the father also may be seen as experiencing the Oedipus complex by repressing the anger. Because Freud hypothesized that either was possible, but did not specify when repression would or would not occur, the theory is difficult to falsify.

In terms of the important role of the unconscious, Freud seems to have been at least in part correct. Research demonstrates that a large part of everyday behaviour is driven by processes that are outside our conscious awareness (e.g., Kihlstrom, Barnhardt, & Tatryn, 1992). Although our unconscious motivations influence every aspect of our learning and behaviour, Freud probably overestimated the extent to which these unconscious motivations are primarily sexual and aggressive.

Taken together, it is fair to say that Freudian theory is largely unfalsifiable; the id, ego, and superego, for example, are concepts that are difficult to define, observe, and measure. Freud’s ideas about the unconscious and its effects on human functioning are impossible to solidify into a set of rules for interpretation. Much of his theory has not been well supported by research; however, the fundamental ideas about personality that Freud proposed are nevertheless still major influences in popular culture, philosophy, art, film, and so on. Additionally, clinical psychologists frequently apply psychodynamic assumptions about the existence of an unconscious and the importance of early childhood in therapy.



Key Takeaways

  • One of the most important psychological approaches to understanding personality is based on the psychodynamic approach to personality developed by Sigmund Freud.
  • For Freud, the mind was like an iceberg, with the many motivations of the unconscious being much larger, but also out of sight, in comparison to the consciousness of which we are aware.
  • Freud proposed that the mind is divided into three components: id, ego, and superego. The interactions and conflicts among the components create personality.
  • Freud proposed that we use defence mechanisms to cope with anxiety and maintain a positive self-image.
  • Freud argued that personality is developed through a series of psychosexual stages, each focusing on pleasure from a different part of the body.
  • The neo-Freudian theorists, including Adler, Jung, Horney, and Fromm, emphasized the role of the unconscious and early experience in shaping personality, but they placed less evidence on sexuality as the primary motivating force in personality.
  • Although there is little empirical support for Freud’s theory, it continues to play a role in popular culture.



Exercises and Critical Thinking

  1. Based on your understanding of psychodynamic theories, how would you analyze your own personality? Are there aspects of the theory that might help you explain your own strengths and weaknesses?

Image Attributions

Figure 14.14. Used under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.

Figure 14.15. Used under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.


Baddeley, J. L., & Pennebaker, J. W. (2009). Expressive writing. In W. T. O’Donohue & J. E. Fisher (Eds.), General principles and empirically supported techniques of cognitive behavior therapy (pp. 295–299). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Crews, F. C. (1998). Unauthorized Freud: Doubters confront a legend. New York, NY: Viking Press.

Dolnick, E. (1998). Madness on the couch: Blaming the victim in the heyday of psychoanalysis. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Fisher, S., & Greenberg, R. P. (1996). Freud scientifically reappraised: Testing the theories and therapy. Oxford, England: Wiley.

Freud, S. (1923/1949). The ego and the id. London, England: Hogarth Press. (Original work published 1923)

Kihlstrom, J. F. (1997). Memory, abuse, and science. American Psychologist, 52(9), 994–995.

Kihlstrom, J. F., Barnhardt, T. M., & Tatryn, D. J. (1992). The psychological unconscious. American Psychologist, 47(6), 788–791.

Newman, L. S., Duff, K. J., & Baumeister, R. F. (1997). A new look at defensive projection: Thought suppression, accessibility, and biased person perception. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 72(5), 980–1001.

Roudinesco, E. (2003). Why psychoanalysis? New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Taylor, E. (2009). The mystery of personality: A history of psychodynamic theories. New York, NY: Springer.


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