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Psychodynamic Approach: The Empirical Basis of Freud’s Claims

Psychodynamic Approach: The Empirical Basis of Freud’s Claims
Many people regard Freud’s claims—especially his account of the Electra complex—as incredibly far-fetched, but Freud believed firmly that his conception was demanded by the evidence he collected.

The Empirical Basis of Freud’s Claims


Many people regard Freud’s claims—especially his account of the Electra complex—as incredibly far-fetched, but Freud believed firmly that his conception was demanded by the evidence he collected. In the next section, we first consider why Freud believed his claims were justified. Then, in the following section, we consider contemporary criticisms of Freud’s methods and inferences.




As we have seen, Freud believed that painful beliefs and ideas were repressed, but that the repression was never complete. Therefore, these anxiety-producing ideas would still come to the surface—but (thanks to other defense mechanisms) only in disguised form. The evidence for Freud’s theory therefore had to come from a process of interpre-tation that allowed Freud to penetrate the disguise and thus to reveal the crucial under-lying psychological dynamics.


As one category of evidence, Freud continually drew attention to what he called the “psychopathology of everyday life.” For example, we might forget a name or suffer a slip of the tongue, and, for Freud, these incidents were important clues to the person’s hidden thoughts: Perhaps the name reminded us of an embarrassing moment, and perhaps the slip of the tongue allowed us to say some-thing that we wanted to say, but knew we shouldn’t (Figure 15.16). Freud argued that in some cases these slips were revealing, and, if properly interpreted in the context of other evidence, they could pro-vide important insights into an individual’s unconscious thoughts and fears.


Freud also believed that we could learn much about an individual through the interpretation of dreams (S. Freud, 1900), because, in Freud’s view, all dreams are attempts at wish fulfillment. While one is awake, a wish is usually not acted on right away, for there are con-siderations of both reality (the ego) and morality (the superego) that must be taken into account: Is it possible? Is it allowed? But during sleep these restraining forces are drastically weakened, and the wish then leads to immediate thoughts and images of gratification. In some cases the wish fulfillment is simple and direct. Starving explor- ers dream of sumptuous meals; people stranded in the desert dream of cool mountain streams. According to a Hungarian proverb quoted by Freud, “Pigs dream of acorns, and geese dream of maize.”


What about our more fantastic dreams, the ones with illogical plots, bizarre charac-ters, and opaque symbolism? These are also attempts at wish fulfillment, Freud believed, but with a key difference. They touch on forbidden, anxiety-laden ideas that cannot be entertained directly. As a result, various mechanisms of defense prohibit the literal expression of the idea but allow it to slip through in disguised, symbolic form (e.g., a penis may be symbolized as a sword, a vagina as a cave). Because of this disguise, the dreamer may never experience the underlying latent content of the dream—the actual wishes and concerns that the dream is constructed to express. What he experiences instead is the carefully laundered version that emerges after the defense mechanisms have done their work—the dream’s manifest content. This self-protection takes mental effort, but, according to Freud, the alternative—facing our impulses unadulterated— would let very few of us sleep for long.


Yet another form of evidence that Freud pointed to are the myths, legends, and fairy tales shared within a culture. He contended that just as dreams are a window into the individual’s unconscious, these (often unwritten) forms of literature allow us a glimpse into the hidden concerns shared by whole cultural groups, if not all of humanity. Indeed, one of Freud’s earliest colleagues, the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung (1875–1961), argued for a collective unconscious consisting of primordial sto-ries and images—he called these archetypes—that shape our perceptions and desires just as much as Freud’s psychodynamics (Jung, 1964; Figure 15.17). Psychoanalysts

who have delved into such tales have found, for example, an ample supply of Oedipal themes. There are numerous ogres, dragons, and monsters to be slain before the prize can be won. The villain is often a cruel stepparent—a fairly transparent symbol, in their view, of Oedipal hostilities (see Figure 15.18).




As we have just seen, Freud’s evidence generally involved his patients’ symptoms, actions, slips of the tongue, dreams, and so on. Freud was convinced, however, that these observations should not be taken at face value; instead, they needed to be inter-preted, in order to unmask the underlying dynamic that was being expressed. The difficulty, though, is that Freud allowed himself many options for this interpretation—and so, if someone said “I hate my father,” that might mean (via the defense of projection) that the person is convinced her father hates her or it might mean (via displacement) that the person hates her mother, or it might mean something else altogether. With this much flexibility, one might fear, there is no way to discover the correct interpretation of this utterance, and so no way to be certain our overall account is accurate. Indeed, it is telling that some of Freud’s followers were able to draw very different conclusions from the same clinical cases that Freud himself studied—a powerful indi-cator that the interpretations Freud offered were in no sense demanded by the evidence.


When we turn to more objective forms of evidence we often find facts that do not fit well with Freudian theory. For example, one of the cornerstones of psychoanalytic thought is repression. Yet results of empirical studies of repression have been mixed. Some results point in the same direction as Freud’s claims about repression (M. C. Anderson et al., 2004; M. C. Anderson & Levy, 2006; Joslyn & Oakes, 2005), but other research yields no evidence for the mechanisms Freud proposed (Holmes, 1990), and at least some of the studies that allegedly show repression have been roundly criticized by other researchers (Kihlstrom, 2002).


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