An Essay Evolves / Penultimate draft
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Penultimate draft

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Evaluate Freud's theory of personality (1498 words)

Any discussion of personality runs the risk of becoming as complex as the subject itself. It is a continuum including outward behaviour – a public mask – and private thoughts and feelings. To some psychologists, such as trait theorists, personality is considered as a blend of measurable attributes. These attributes (traits) are held to be stable across time and situation. To Freud, however, personality goes beyond that which can be directly observed or measured. He eschewed the term ‘personality’ in favour of the expression ‘character’, which indicates something more fundamental than the nesting veneers of social acceptability. Although he famously viewed the healthy character as that which enables the individual to “love and work”, Freud believed that human beings are motivated by a more primal force, the Id, whose power is derived from sexual and aggressive energy. He argued that love and work are fringe benefits which occur when the healthy character is able to sublimate the base energies of the Id into the high achievements of mankind, a sublimation which occurs largely beyond consciousness.
This idea that humans are inherently crude sexual and aggressive beings was an unwelcome one when new. Freud’s status as a Jew, a cultural outsider, would not have helped dilute the controversy. Thus, it seems that his work, though influential, has always met with opposition, some of it quite emphatic. Issues of palatability frequently become conflated with the objective assessment of the theory’s validity. Therefore, in carrying out an evaluation of psychoanalytic theory, it is important to disentangle the two. For example, contemporary critics have suggested that Freud’s theory is based on socio-cultural artefact and cannot be applied to other times and cultures. This of course may be the case. It does, however, seem far-fetched to claim that while people in Freud’s culture may have been deeply irrational, people here and today are certainly nothing like that. Irrational behaviour can certainly be readily observed, even in 21st century Britain, so it can be argued that there remains a need for a psychology of the irrational. In the light of this and of recent findings from cognitive neuroscience which suggest that primary human motivation may indeed be a collection of antediluvian urges (Pfaff & Panksepp), Freud’s hypothesis remains a comprehensive and plausible candidate.
The main contributing factor to irrationality is, according to Freud, the existence of a dynamic unconscious. Although unconscious cognition was not a novel idea even in Freud’s time, the notion that the unconscious is an active determinant of conscious behaviour certainly was. The dynamic unconscious, Freud hypothesised, is populated by anxiety-provoking drives, wishes and ideas which have been banished from conscious awareness by psychological defence mechanisms such as repression. Defence mechanisms are the domain of the Ego, the portion of personality concerned with mediating between external reality and the – often more pressing – internal reality. They operate to prevent the experience of intense conscious anxiety caused by a conflict between base drives and the moral aspect of the psyche, the Superego. Things so banished form the hidden bulk of a large psychological iceberg, lurking below awareness, ready to disrupt the smooth voyage of quotidian behaviour. Human beings are therefore, according to Freud, effectively “partitioned systems powered by biological energies”, whose best intentions may be derailed by the “return of the repressed” intruding in a different, encoded form.
Studies by Myers (2000) lend some weight to this hypothetical mechanism. Her work confirms the idea that repression may be used as an unconscious coping strategy which leads to the avoidance of anxiety. She reports that not only do those individuals using repression in this way experience less subjective than objective anxiety (as measured by physiological signs), but they also experience significantly worse physical health than those who do not employ repression. These findings not only support the idea that repression may be used as a defence, but also that the unconscious is indeed dynamic and that repressed material may exert an influence over other areas of being. Interestingly, Myers is a trait psychologist. In her work with repression, she conceptualises it as a personality trait, a view which is supported by other findings from trait theory. This and other empirical studies suggest that what is often considered the biggest flaw in Freud’s theory, its failure to generate hypotheses which are falsifiable by scientific enquiry, is not quite the gaping oversight it may seem.
Ironically, the allegedly unscientific nature of psychoanalytic theory was one of the factors preventing it from toppling into complete obscurity during the shift from ‘talking cures’ to the drug treatment of psychological distress. The scientific method is not concerned with proving hypotheses, and for many years there was apparently no way of definitively disproving Freud’s theory of personality. However, since modern researchers such as Myers are now generating viable hypotheses from Freudian theory, this may have been more because their predecessors lacked adequate tools than because of any quality inherent in the theory. It should be remembered, too, that Freud was a doctor. It can be argued that medical innovation has long been empirical rather than scientific in the sense defined by Karl Popper. Until the last two decades, medical practice owed little to the concept of falsifiability, which has lately (with the widespread adoption of evidence based medicine) been adapted from the natural sciences. Given this context, it seems slightly harsh to dismiss Freud’s work on methodological grounds. Within the medical paradigm of its time, his approach was remarkably rigorous. He did not simply envisage repression as a black box but actually attempted to sketch a neuronal mechanism for it, identifying structures he dubbed ‘contact barriers’, which later became known as synapses.
One area of Freud’s theory which has not lent itself to scientific investigation is his explanation of the formation of personality. Personality is formed, he suggested, during the first six years of life. The maturing child supposedly experiences a number of discrete and biologically-motivated psychosexual phases, during which their essential sexual energies (the libido) become invested in particular areas of the body. So, the Id-dominated oral stage, where sensual pleasure is derived via the mouth, gives way to the anal stage and the birth of the Ego. This is followed by the phallic stage, during which the Oedipus complex occurs. Famously, during the Oedipal phase, children aspire to be the partner of the opposite-sex parent. Resolution of this complex results in the formation of the superego. Latency follows the phallic phase, which in turn is followed, at puberty, by the attainment of mature genitality.
Freud believed that under certain circumstances, such as excessively strict potty training, fixation of libido could occur. Subsequent development would then be defined by exaggerated characteristics associated with that bodily zone. So, the individual afflicted by anal fixation would theoretically display extreme thrift, great discipline and difficulty with self-expression, all characteristics associated with control. Trait theory offers some support for the concept of oral and anal personalities, the latter being synonymous with Myers’ repressors. The best test of a causal link such as the one between toilet training and anality is the randomised controlled experiment. Ethically, it would be indefensible to carry out an experiment in which participants may emerge with a neurotic disability, so it will probably never be possible to test this aspect of psychoanalytic theory. However, Baron-Cohen (2006) has proposed an ethical study to examine the causal relationship (as predicted by Freud) between an emotionally unresponsive same-sex parent and a lack of Oedipal resolution in the child. Furthermore, he states that if this and other concepts mooted by Freud are accepted as real, it is the duty of scientists to study them.
To conclude, this discussion has shown that the psychoanalytic theory of personality is an ambitious one, attempting to explain its external manifestations (traits) in terms of their deep origins. It is all the more ambitious given that it was originated without a contemporary understanding of the nervous system or modern technological tools. Freud’s work has always been controversial, which may be due to the times in which he lived, the sexual emphasis of his hypothesis, his methodology, or the fact that it suggests an unwelcome irrational aspect to every thought and behaviour. It has certainly attracted harsh criticism. However, cognitive neuroscientists and trait theorists have recently shown an interest in its scientific examination. The level of evidential support obtained is not definitive, but contrary to received wisdom, psychoanalytic theory has shown itself as being amenable to this kind of appraisal. Findings from several studies are consistent with aspects of the theory, including the notion of a dynamic unconscious, motivation by primitive drives, oral and anal personalities, and repression as a psychological defence mechanism. Methodologies have also been suggested by which other ideas, such as failure of Oedipal resolution, may be assessed. So it does seem that, far from being completely irrelevant in the twenty-first century, Freud’s theory still attracts academic interest and may even form the basis for an in-depth understanding of the factors underlying the measurable and observable aspects of personality.


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