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Psychoanalytic Approach to Psychology

What is the psychoanalytic approach to psychology? What are the founding assumptions, methods of study and areas of explanation?




This approach to Psychology was mainly developed by Sigmund Freud (1856 - 1939), a doctor who specialized in neurology. Freud believed that unconscious mental causes were responsible for all psychological disorders and even the 'normal' personality.


Freud was influenced by the technology of the era (such as the steam engine). He became interested in 'hysteria' - this is the manifestation of physical symptoms with no physical causes.


1) Human personality and abnormality develop from childhood

2) Unconscious processes are the major cause of behaviour (individuals have no direct awareness of these processes)

3) Psychic determinism (all that individuals say and do) has a cause, this is usually unconscious, for example 'slips of the tongue'

4) Freud thought that 'hydraulic drives' motivate an individual's behaviour, there are 2 drives:

(a) Sex drive - this is derived from 'Eros' the life instinct
(b) Aggression drive - this is from 'Thantos' the death instinct

These drives are thought to create 'psychic energy, this energy can build up (much like a steam engine) and create anxiety and tension in a person

5) Stages of development - it is assumed that there are 'psychosexual stages' whereby the sequence is determined by maturation. The individual is shaped by early childhood experiences.


The preferred method employed by the psychoanalytic approach is the CASE STUDY. The case study method is where the patients are seen on a one-to-one basis, patients are seen for a few times per week and often for many months.

The psychologist talks to the patient and the patient's responses are analyzed and interpreted. A patient's actions and body language is also monitored throughout the session.

There are two main techniques (developed by Freud) used to investigate the unconscious mind, these are;

(a) Free association - this is the uninhibited expression of thought through associations (e.g. a psychologist would say a word and the patient would be required to say the first word that came into their mind).

(b) Dream analysis - the psychologist attempts to 'decode' the symbols and therefore identify the hidden meanings in the patient's dreams. After they are identified the cure can be affected through 'catharsis' (getting problems out in the open).


The major area of explanation is 'anxiety, many other topics have been explained by Freud's theories such as;

1. Aggression - caused by hydraulic drives/displacement
2. Abnormality - Neurosis caused by unresolved conflicts from childhood
3. Memory - forgetting is caused by repression
4. Personality development - due to defense/fixation mechanisms


- Ideas have had a large impact on psychology, some ideas are still used today
- Freud used vast amounts of data (little Hans etc) to support his theories and prove them to be scientific
- Applied to a huge range of topics


- Accused of being 'irrefutable' (incapable of being proved wrong)
- Psychoanalysis is theoretically unscientific, it explains a lot but predicts very little
- Unscientific methods were used to collect the data, samples were not representative (Freud mainly used middle aged women in his work)
- Experimental research has been carried out on many Freudian hypotheses and results of such research has failed to support his theory.