Essay, 8 pages (1900 words)

Critically discuss freud’s theory of personality

Sigmund Freud is arguably Psychology’s most famous figure and one of the most influential and controversial thinkers of the twentieth century. His work and theories have helped to shape our views of personality, which comprises of levels of consciousness and unconsciousness, the nature of human beings and the source of human motivation, the structure of personality and finally the development of personality. Initially, Freud (1940/1969) attempted to subdivide the mind purely in terms of levels of consciousness and unconsciousness. The level of conscious thought contains material that we are actively aware of. The part of the mind that corresponds to ordinary memory is called the preconscious. These memories are not part of immediate awareness, but can be brought into wakefulness through conscious effort. The unconscious, placed at the bottom of Freud’s iceberg analogy of the psyche, is attributed to feelings, thoughts and memories that are outside of our conscious awareness. The unconscious influences our behaviour and experiences, even though we are unaware of it. The unconscious is both unfalsifiable and unobservable. However, modern cognitive psychology and neuroscience is consistent with the idea of an unconscious. In the phenomenon of ‘ blindsight’, Weiskrantz (1997) showed that individuals’ blind in parts of their visual field still retain some visual capacity that can guide their actions automatically, despite being unavailable to consciousness. Social psychologists have demonstrated an interaction between conscious and unconscious processes, for example Schwarz and Clore (1983) found that people rated their life satisfaction as higher on sunny days. This effect did not occur if attention was drawn to the weather, showing unconscious effects only arise if the individual is unaware of the stimulus, as if in subliminal perception. A weakness in Freud’s theory is that there are no clear-cut divisions between conscious, preconscious and unconscious thought; there are different degrees within each level. For instance, repression may weaken so that previously unconscious material becomes conscious. Furthermore, whilst cognitive psychologists like Norman (1981) and Reason (1990, 1979; Reason and Lucas, 1984) acknowledge that ‘ Freudian slips’ occur, they suggest that they are due to cognitive errors. The individual may have more commonly or recently used the word being produced over the correct word. Finally, within the current debate concerning the nature of the unconscious, Kihlstrom (1999) suggests that a cognitive unconscious exists that links more closely with our thoughts and processes. Freud’s structural model of personality (Freud, 1923/1960) includes the psyche’s three systems; the id, ego and superego. The id is the sexual instinct; the primary driving force in a person’s mental life that affects behaviour. This operates at an unconscious level, is instinctual and strives for immediate satisfaction. Secondly, the ego begins to develop; it operates according to the reality principle and has to make judgments in order to satisfy the id. Finally, the superego develops by the age of five and embodies social constraints and morals both consciously and unconsciously (Ryckman, 2004). The interactions between the id, ego and superego are termed intra-psychic conflict (Freud, 1965). The id and the superego are in conflict as the id says ‘ Go to the party’, whilst the superego says ‘ You can’t go; you have an assignment’. The ego resolves the issue; ‘ You may go to the party if you complete your assignment beforehand’. Although Freud’s conception of the id, ego and superego is very detailed, it is not always falsifiable. The majority of Freud’s personality structure is below conscious level, meaning that it can’t be seen or observed. This theory does show common sense, in that the superego is likened to a conscience. The concept also fits in with perceived human experience giving it face validity; we are all aware of the conflicts that making choices creates and the anxiety this can cause. However, the notion of these conflicts providing psychic energy to help motivate our behaviour is questioned by cognitive theorists (Dalgeish and Power, 1999). Many studies focus on the functioning of the ego. If it is possible to measure ego functioning, then surely the ego exists? The Sentence Completion Test (Loevinger and Wessler, 1970) measures the development of the ego in individuals. Another is the development of measures of ego control and ego resiliency (Block, 1993; Block and Block, 1980; Funder and Block, 1989). Common characteristics of individuals with high ego strength were identified, such as high stress tolerance. Freud (1940/1969) claimed that development took place through five distinct stages of psychosexual development. Each stage relates to a different area of the body that gives pleasure to the child. Initially, the oral stage occurs at birth. The main area of pleasure is the mouth because of feeding. Fixation at this stage results in an oral-passive personality, preoccupied with eating and drinking and is generally needy, or an oral-aggressive personality who is hostile and verbally aggressive. The anal stage is where pleasure moves to the anal region and gratification comes from expelling and withholding faeces. Next, the phallic stage develops, where physiological maturity brings focus on the genitals and pleasure is gained from this area. Relationship changes with parents’ leads to the Oedipus complex. This begins with the boy having sexual desires for his mother, but because he recognises his father as a powerful rival, he fears that he might castrate him if he discovered the boy’s desire. To resolve the problem, the boy identifies with his father and takes on the male role in society. Freud proposed the Electra complex for girls, which describes the competition she has with her mother for the affections of her father. At the latency stage, the child’s energies are taken up in socialisation and learning. As children become more involved in social interactions, they develop defence mechanisms to help them cope with basic anxiety caused by conflicts between the id, ego and superego. Finally, the genital stage involves sexual desires being brought into consciousness with the onset of puberty. The Oedipus and Electra complexes are very controversial as many people find the notion of childhood sexuality difficult to accept. The theory would predict that gender identity arises at approximately four or five years of age, following either the Oedipus or the Electra complex. Valid evidence suggests that children identify long before this and that gender identity develops gradually (Slaby and Frey, 1975). Freud was unhappy with the Electra complex, claiming that women were ‘ a great mystery’, which also weakens his theory. The Oedipus complex was proposed from his self-analysis, (Masson, 1985) which is not the product of objective scientific research. Green (1978) suggested that the development of secure gender identity does not seem to depend on two parents acting as the traditional ‘ mother’ and ‘ father’. The psychosexual stages of development offers an intriguing picture of early family relationships and the extent to which they allow the child to satisfy basic needs. The theory is perceived to be true by humans as often one may know someone who seems to be ‘ oral’ or ‘ anal’. The psychosexual stages of development have been a key focus for later psychodynamic theories offered since Freud’s death (for example, Erikson, 1959 and Sullivan, 1953). Erikson agreed with Freud in the sense that every human being goes through several stages to reach full development, theorising eight stages humans go through from birth to death. Erikson criticised Freud for placing too much importance on the sexual drive of an individual. He further explained that an individual’s identity develops throughout a person’s life, not just during adolescence. His psychosocial theory is often better accepted than Freud’s psychosexual theory. Fisher and Greenberg (1996) conducted a detailed review of existing research on Freudian concepts, concluding that there is empirical evidence to support the concepts of oral and anal personalities. Freud (1909) analysed a young boy named Hans with a phobia of horses. He interpreted Hans’ phobia as expressing unconscious fear for his father and symbolised his fear that a horse might bite him to a fear of castration by his father. Case studies are not generalisable though, and although they provide detail, Freud had already decided that the Oedipus complex existed, suggesting that he tried to fit the details of the case to his theory. Freud often wrote up only the most interesting aspects of his case, which were often done from memory (Storr, 1989). Classical conditioning is a more plausible explanation; the phobia could have developed as a result of a frightening horse accident the child had witnessed earlier on in life. Psychodynamic explanations are criticised for being too complex and do not focus on testable prediction. A person described as having an ‘ anal’ character might reflect an inborn headstrong and controlling temperament, completely unrelated to the parents style of toilet training. The psychosexual stage theory offers a compelling set of ideas for interpreting lives but has not generated clear-cut predictions that inspire research. Defence mechanisms were proposed to avoid psychological conflicts in the psyche. The first of the twelve defence mechanisms described was repression; where we push unacceptable thoughts, or feelings into our unconscious. Morokoff (1985) found that women high in sexual guilt reported significantly lower levels of arousal than their physiological levels of arousal, whilst for women low in guilt, the two measures were closely matched. Denial is when we claim that something traumatic has not happened when it actually has, for example, the death of a loved one. Projection is externalising our unacceptable feelings and attributing them to others and can lead to paranoia. Rationalisation is justifying an event after is has occurred, for example if a person didn’t get a job, they may say they ‘ didn’t want the job anyway’. Sublimation is often considered to be the most advanced and mature defence mechanism proposed by Anna Freud (1966). This is where we allow partial expression of our unconscious drives in a socially desirable way. Defence mechanisms may resolve anxiety and help us to engage with our environment. Research on repression is of interest as it is assumed that repressed traumatic memories can be recovered in therapy. Between 20 and 60 per cent of therapy clients who suffered sexual abuse in child-hood could not recall the abuse for considerable periods of their lives (Brewin and Andrews, 1998). Perhaps this isn’t due to repression, but due to striving to overcome what has happened earlier in life? Modern cognitive therapies have identified ‘ cognitive avoidance’ which appears to be similar to Freud’s concept of defence mechanisms (Brewin and Andrews, 2000). Although useful within society, an overuse of them can lead to various psychological disorders. Excessive use of repression results in individuals being dishonest with their feelings, resulting in a lack of close relationships (Freud, 1901/1965). Like many of Freud’s theories, defence mechanisms are not visible to the eye so once again they remain untestable. To conclude, there is an optimum level in which defence mechanisms can be used to maintain a healthy psychological state as they can easily be misused. Although there is support for some of the main concepts, large areas of Freud’s work still remain untested. Freud presents a pessimistic, one-sided view of human nature (Freud, 1901/1965). His rich detail of the Oedipus complex over the Electra complex shows his approach is male-orientated and regards the female as inferior because she is seen to have a weak ego compared to the male. However, Freud’s theories recognise the complexity of behaviour and thought as well as demonstrating the value of individual and detailed case studies. His theories have had many practical applications, as even in the modern world of today psychoanalytic therapy treats many types of mental disorders, as well as leading to the development of psychosocial therapies. To summarise, although Freud is criticised for being unscientific, his ideas have largely contributed to the development of psychology.

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