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Foundations of Psychology: Psychoanalysis

Foundations of Psychology: Psychoanalysis

Psychology as a subject is a lot younger than most sciences. Philosophers have always been interested in how we perceive the world and what the mind is, but public and scientific interest in the subject wasn’t really generated until the beginning of the 20th century. This was around the time that Sigmund Freud started publishing his books on the unconscious mind.

Freud believed, unlike most scientists, that an individual is not truly aware of the reasoning behind most of their choices, because their actions are governed by unconscious desires. On this premise, he designed what became the Psychodynamic approach to psychology. From this perspective, or at least Freud’s, there are three control centres in the mind. The Id, Ego and Superego. Put simply, the Id wants primary desires and wants them straight away, the Ego wants these primary desires still, but wants to get them in a logical and socially acceptable way, and the Superego wants to keep all actions moral and pure. Freud believed that the conflict between these forces could cause mental illness to occur.  He also designed techniques to identify possible problems with the psyche and fix them, such as dream analysis and free association. He identified various ‘defence mechanisms’ that the mind uses to protect itself and which can then lead to irrational thoughts.

Jung, another psychoanalyst agreed with some of Freud’s ideas but thought that some parts of his theories were incorrect. He developed his own theories of the mind, the most famous one probably being his theory of archetypes. He suggested that within everyone there exists certain symbols which belong within a collective consciousness. This was probably developed through evolution. His evidence for this is that in different stories and across different cultures similar ideas seem to appear; for example most religions are based around the idea of an all-powerful god and many stories have a hero, a love interest, and often a wise old man stereotyped figure. He believed that this was too much of a coincidence.

A third well known psychiatrist, Alfred Adler, believed that the unconscious motives that guide us in life might be different than those Freud suggested. He believed that we are caused to do everything in life by feelings of inferiority. When we are young children, everyone around us may seem stronger and smarter than us, making us feel inferior. This leads us to act in ways that will make us feel less inferior. He explained that some people will develop an inferiority complex because of this, and so will just give up trying, always looking for sympathy, while some will feel so inferior that they put on a front of over-confidence to stop themselves feeling so bad. This is still today considered an adequate theory of some personality types.

While, at the beginning of the 20th century, the psychodynamic approach was a popular study within psychology, as the century went on it gradually became seen as unscientific and many turned towards the newer behaviourist approach, which I’ll expand on in another article. What do you think about the work of psychoanalysts? Do you think that it needed to be more scientific as many did in the 1930s and 40s?


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