The Psychoanalytic Approach


The psychoanalytic approach was developed from the work and theories of Sigmund Freud (1856), who proposed an account of human mental activity which relied heavily on the notion of an unconscious mind. 

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, science had been making huge advances and psychologists believed that the time was near when a full understanding of human mental life and behaviour would be reached.  This view was shared by Freud, a young physician working as a neurologist in Vienna.

However, in the course of treating psychiatric patients over many years, Freud became convinced that many of the nervous symptoms displayed by patients could not be explained purely from a physiological point of view.  Nor could the rational and systematic laws of science be applied to irrational and self-defeating behaviours such as phobias and conversion hysterias (physical complaints that have no apparent physiological cause).  It was against this background that Freud developed his now famous psychoanalytic treatment of neurotic disorders. His therapeutic work led to the development of a comprehensive theory of personality and child development which focused largely on the emotional aspects of human functioning.  Thus the term psychoanalysis can relate both to the treatment and to the theory.  Freud's starting point was a thorough analysis of his own personal experiences and the development of case studies of his patients. 

Below is a summary of some of the most significant aspects of Freud's theory:

The human personality contains and is greatly influenced by an unconscious mind harbouring repressed ('forgotten') memories which determine conscious thoughts and behaviour.  A third level of consciousness, the pre-conscious, contains thoughts which may not be conscious at a given time, but which are accessible to us. 

Human beings are born with a number of instinctual drives which regulate and motivate behaviour even in childhood.  The source of these drives is psychic energy and the most powerful, the libido, is sexual in nature. 

Experiences gained in early childhood have a crucially important influence on emotional and personality development.

The personality consists of three major structures: the id, which is biologically determined and represents all the instinctual drives which are inherited; the ego, which develops in order to help satisfy the id's needs in a socially acceptable way and the superego, representing the individual's internal framework (conscience and ego ideal) of the moral values which exist in the surrounding culture.


Psychoanalysis as a therapy is widely used in the treatment of neuroses and sometimes in the treatment of non-neurotic disorders.  There is an assumption by psychoanalysts that it is in the unconscious part of the personality that conflict occurs.  Therefore the aim of psychoanalysis is to explore the individual's unconscious mind in order to understand the dynamic of abnormal behaviour.  During treatment the individual is encouraged to re-experience traumatic events and feelings encountered in childhood, express them in a safe context and then return them, devoid of anxiety, to the unconscious.

In classical psychoanalysis, therapy involves transference - the client's projection and displacement of thoughts and feelings onto the analyst; free association, where the client says whatever comes into his/her mind, no matter how trivial or irrelevant it may seem;  and dream analysis, which involves the analyst, interpreting the content of the client's dreams.

Though the psychoanalytic process may sound quite straightforward, it usually difficult and time-consuming. 

The psychoanalytic approach attracts both wide acclaim and vigorous criticism.  Freud's theory has made a monumental contribution to our understanding of the human personality.  His emphasis on the importance of early childhood for later personality development and his attempt to account for individual differences in development have stimulated a great deal of research.  His theory has also offered insights which have greatly influenced disciplines such as art, English literature and history.  The psychoanalytic methods of treatment are still a significant force in contemporary psychology and many of Freud's original ideas have been adopted and in some cases modified by subsequent psychoanalytic theorists, known as post-Freudians. 

However there are many criticisms of the psychoanalytic approach.  Freud's notion of infantile sexuality in particular outraged Victorian society and is still controversial today. 

Though there is an abundance of research which claims to offer supporting evidence for psychoanalytic theory, alternative explanations are often available to account for the findings.  Because many of the processes described by Freud, for example instinctual drives and defence mechanisms, cannot be directly observed, it is difficult to test and measure these processes.  Freud's use of the clinical case study method, unsupported by quantitative data or statistical analyses, renders his theory vague and difficult to verify.  Also his study of a limited sample makes it difficult to generalise his theory to all human beings.