Psychodynamic Approach In Psychology

The psychodynamic approach in psychology emphasizes unconscious processes and unresolved past conflicts as influences on behavior. Rooted in Freud’s theories, it explores the interplay of drives, desires, and defense mechanisms in shaping personality and behavior.

Key Takeaways

  • The psychodynamic theory is a psychological theory Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and his followers applied to explain the origins of human behavior.
  • The psychodynamic approach includes all the theories in psychology that see human functioning based upon the interaction of drives and forces within the person, particularly the unconscious, and between the different structures of the personality.
  • The words psychodynamic and psychoanalytic are often confused. Remember that Freud’s theories were psychoanalytic, whereas the term ‘psychodynamic’ refers to his theories and those of his followers.
  • Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis was the original psychodynamic theory. Psychoanalysis is also the name given to the therapy derived from the theory of Sigmund Freud.
  • The psychodynamic approach includes all theories that were based on Freud and his followers, including Carl Jung (1912), Melanie Klein (1921), Alfred Adler (1927), Anna Freud (1936), and Erik Erikson (1950).

Sigmund Freud (writing between the 1890s and the 1930s) developed a collection of theories which have formed the basis of the psychodynamic approach to psychology.

His theories are clinically derived – i.e., based on what his patients told him during therapy. The psychodynamic therapist would usually be treating the patient for depression or anxiety-related disorders.

Summary Table

Key Features
• Tripartite Personality
• Psychosexual Stages
• Unconscious Mind
• Drive / Instinct Theory
• Defence Mechanisms
• Oedipus / Electra Complex
• The causes of behavior have their origin in the unconscious mind.
• Psychic determinism: all behavior has a cause/reason. E.g., slips of the tongue (we have no free will).
• Behaviour is motivated by instinctual drives, Eros (Life) & Thanatos (Death).
• Different parts of the unconscious mind are in constant struggle (id, ego, and superego).
• Our behavior and feelings as adults (including psychological problems) are rooted in our childhood experiences (psycho-sexual stages)
• Case Studies (Little Hans)
Dream Analysis
• Free Association
• Projective Tests (TAT, Inkblots)
• Clinical interviews
• Hypnosis
• First “talking cure”: psychoanalysis
• Importance of childhood
• Personality theory
• Recognition that some physical symptoms may have psychological (emotional) causes
• Play therapy (Anna Freud)
• Unfalsifiable
• Subjective interpretation
• Lacks empirical evidence)
• Deterministic (little free will)
• Unrepresentative sample
• Reductionist: ignores cognitive processes

Theoretical Assumptions

Theoretical assumptions in psychology are basic statements or beliefs that provide a framework for understanding human behavior. They also help researchers to develop new theories and to test existing theories.

Importance of the unconscious mind

The unconscious mind comprises mental processes inaccessible to consciousness that influence judgment, feelings, or behavior (Wilson, 2002).

According to the psychodynamic approach, the unconscious is the part of the mind that contains things we are unaware of, such as feelings, thoughts, urges, and memories.

According to Freud (1915), the unconscious mind is the primary source of human behavior. Like an iceberg, the most important part of the mind is the part you cannot see. Our feelings, motives, and decisions are powerfully influenced by past experiences and stored in the unconscious.

Freud Iceberg

Most of the content of the unconscious is unacceptable or unpleasant and could cause feelings of pain, anxiety, or conflict if it becomes conscious.

For example, hysteria is an example of a physical symptom that has no physical cause though the ailment is just as real as if it had, but rather is caused by some underlying unconscious problem.

The unconscious is seen as a vital part of the individual. It is irrational, emotional, and has no concept of reality which is why its attempts to leak out must be inhibited.

The role of the unconscious mind is to protect the ego from this content. However, according to Freud, the content of the unconscious motivates our feelings, motives, and decisions.

Importance of early experience

Our behavior and feelings as adults (including psychological problems) are rooted in our childhood experiences.

The psychodynamic theory states that events in our childhood have a significant influence on our adult lives, shaping our personality. 

Personality is shaped as the drives are modified by different conflicts at different times in childhood (during psychosexual development).

Freud’s theory of psychosexual stages of development predicated that childhood experiences create the adult personality. Events that occur in childhood can remain in the unconscious and cause problems as adults, such as mental illness.

Psychic determinism

Psychodynamic theory is strongly determinist as it views our behavior as entirely caused by unconscious emotional drives over which we have no control.

Unconscious thoughts and feelings can transfer to the conscious mind through parapraxes, popularly known as Freudian slips or slips of the tongue. We reveal what is really on our minds by saying something we didn’t mean to.

Freud believed that slips of the tongue provided an insight into the unconscious mind and that there were no accidents, every behavior (including slips of the tongue) was significant (i.e., all behavior is determined).

Behavior can be explained in terms of the inner conflicts of the mind

Personality comprises three parts (i.e., tripartite): the id, ego, and super-ego. Parts of the unconscious mind (the id and superego) are in constant conflict with the conscious part of the mind (the ego). 

  • The id is the primitive and instinctive component of personality. It consists of all the inherited (i.e., biological) components of personality present at birth, including the sex (life) instinct – Eros (which contains the libido), and the aggressive (death) instinct – Thanatos.
  • The ego develops to mediate between the unrealistic id and the external real world. It is the decision-making component of personality.
  • The superego incorporates society’s values and morals, which are learned from one’s parents and others. It has two components: the ego ideal, which sets the standards, and the conscience, which produces guilt. 

When unconscious conflicts between the id and the superego cannot be resolved by the ego, they create anxiety. To reduce this anxiety, we use defense mechanisms such as repression.

healthy psyche

To be mentally healthy, the ego has to be able to balance the demands of the ego and the superego. If the superego is dominant, the individual might develop a neurosis e.g., depression. If the id is dominant, the individual might develop a psychosis e.g., schizophrenia.

According to the psychodynamic approach, the therapist would resolve the problem by assisting the client to delve back into their childhood and identify when the problem arose.

Having identified the problem, this can be brought into the conscious, where the imbalance can be resolved, returning equanimity between the id, ego, and superego.

Consequently, the defense mechanisms will only operate at the maintenance level, and the mental illness will be cured.

Key Figures

  • Sigmund Freud: Freud is the founder of psychoanalysis and the psychodynamic approach. He developed many key concepts of psychodynamic theory, such as the unconscious mind, psychosexual development, and defense mechanisms.

Freudians and neo-Freudians both subscribe to the psychodynamic approach to psychology, which emphasizes the role of unconscious mental processes in human behavior and emotions.

Neo-Freudians expanded on or challenged Freud’s original theories. They were all influenced by Freud’s work, but they also developed their own unique theories about human behavior and personality. 

  • Carl Jung:  Jung was a Swiss psychiatrist and one of Freud’s closest collaborators. However, he later broke away from Freud to develop his theory of personality, known as Jungian analysis. Jung’s theory emphasized the importance of the collective unconscious, a shared reservoir of knowledge and experience inherited from our ancestors.
  • Alfred Adler: Adler was another Austrian psychiatrist who was a student of Freud’s. However, he later broke away from Freud to develop his theory of personality, known as individual psychology. Adler’s theory emphasized the importance of striving for superiority and belonging.
  • Melanie Klein: Klein was a British psychoanalyst who contributed significantly to understanding early childhood development and child psychopathology.
  • Karen Horney: Horney was a German-American psychoanalyst who was one of the first female psychoanalysts to be taken seriously. Her work focused on the impact of social and cultural factors on personality development. Horney believed that anxiety was the root cause of all psychopathology.
  • Erik Erikson: Erikson was a German-American psychoanalyst who developed the theory of psychosocial development. Erikson’s theory describes the eight stages of development that people go through from birth to death.

Psychodynamic vs Psychoanalytic

Both psychodynamic and psychoanalytic theories originate from the ideas of Sigmund Freud, but they have different applications and emphases.

Psychoanalytic theory is the original theory of the unconscious mind, developed by Sigmund Freud. Freud believed the unconscious mind is a powerful force influencing our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. He also believed that childhood experiences are critical in shaping personality and behavior.

Psychodynamic theory is a broader term that encompasses a variety of theories that are based on Freudian principles.

Psychodynamic theorists generally agree that the unconscious mind is important, but they may have different views on its role in human behavior and how it develops.

Some psychodynamic theorists also emphasize social and cultural factors more than Freud did. Some of the most notable Neo-Freudians include Carl Jung, Alfred Adler, Karen Horney, and Erich Fromm.

Psychodynamic Psychoanalytic
Evolved from Freud’s ideas. Focuses on Freud’s original theories.
Psychodynamic theory is a broader term that encompasses a variety of theories that are based on Freudian principles. Psychoanalytic theory is the original theory of the unconscious mind, developed by Sigmund Freud.
Unconscious mind, childhood experiences, social and cultural factors. Unconscious sexual and aggressive drives, childhood experiences.
More emphasis on the role of social and cultural factors in personality development than Freud. More emphasis on the role of sexual and aggressive drives in personality development.
Neo-Freudians had a more optimistic view of human nature than Freudians did. They believed that humans have the potential to be good and to achieve their full potential. Freud often portrayed human behavior as driven by irrational, unconscious desires and conflicts, leading to a somewhat pessimistic view of human nature.
While it employs some traditional psychoanalytic techniques, it’s more eclectic, adapting to the needs of the individual. It emphasizes exploring patterns in current relationships, emotions, and behaviors. Incorporates specific techniques such as free association, dream analysis, and transference analysis. The aim is to bring unconscious material to the conscious mind for resolution.

Historical Timeline

  • Anna O, a patient of Dr. Joseph Breuer (Freud’s mentor and friend) from 1800 to 1882 suffered from hysteria.
  • In 1895 Breuer and his assistant, Sigmund Freud, wrote a book, Studies on Hysteria. In it, they explained their theory: Every hysteria is the result of a traumatic experience, one that cannot be integrated into the person’s understanding of the world. The publication establishes Freud as “the father of psychoanalysis.
  • By 1896, Freud had found the key to his own system, naming it psychoanalysis. In it, he had replaced hypnosis with “free association.”
  • In 1900, Freud published his first major work, The Interpretation of Dreams, which established the importance of psychoanalytical movement.
  • In 1902, Freud founded the Psychological Wednesday Society, later transformed into the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society.
  • As the organization grew, Freud established an inner circle of devoted followers, the so-called “Committee” (including Sàndor Ferenczi, and Hanns Sachs (standing) Otto Rank, Karl Abraham, Max Eitingon, and Ernest Jones).

freud Wednesday society

  • Freud and his colleagues came to Massachusetts in 1909 to lecture on their new methods of understanding mental illness. Those in attendance included some of the country’s most important intellectual figures, such as William James, Franz Boas, and Adolf Meyer.
  • In the years following the visit to the United States, the International Psychoanalytic Association was founded. Freud designated Carl Jung as his successor to lead the Association, and chapters were created in major cities in Europe and elsewhere. .
  • Regular meetings or congresses were held to discuss the theory, therapy, and cultural applications of the new discipline.
  • Carl Jung’s study on schizophrenia, The Psychology of Dementia Praecox, led him to collaborate with Sigmund Freud.
  • Jung’s close collaboration with Freud lasted until 1913. Jung had become increasingly critical of Freud’s exclusively sexual definition of libido and incest. The publication of Jung’s Wandlungen und Symbole der Libido (known in English as The Psychology of the Unconscious) led to a final break.
  • Following his emergence from this period of crisis, Jung developed his own theories systematically under the name of Analytical Psychology. Jung’s concepts of the collective unconscious and the archetypes led him to explore religion in the East and West, myths, alchemy, and later flying saucers.
  • Melanie Klein took psychoanalytic thinking in a new direction by recognizing the importance of our earliest childhood experiences in the formation of our adult emotional world. .After becoming a full member of the Berlin Psychoanalytic Society in 1923, Klein embarks upon her first analysis of a child. 
  • Extending and developing Sigmund Freud’s ideas, Klein drew on her analysis of children’s play to formulate new concepts such as the paranoid-schizoid position and the depressive position.
  • Alfred Adler (1927) thought that the basic psychological element of neurosis was a sense of inferiority and that individuals suffering with the symptoms of this phenomenon spent their lives trying to overcome the feelings without ever being in touch with reality
  • Wilhelm Reich (1933) was a psychoanalyst who developed a number of radical psychoanalytical and physical theories. An apprentice of Freud, he believed that neuroses, as well as physical illnesses such as cancer, derived from a lack of “orgone energy” in the body.
  • Anna Freud (Freud’s daughter) became a major force in British psychology, specializing in the application of psychoanalysis to children.  Among her best known works are The Ego and the Mechanism of defense (1936).
  • Erich Fromm, born in Frankfurt, was educated in Heidelberg and Munich before establishing a private psychotherapy practice in 1925. Fromm began as a disciple of Sigmund Freud, combining his psychological theories with Karl Marx’s social principle.

Issues and Debates

Free Will vs Determinism

It is strongly determinist as it views our behavior as caused entirely by unconscious factors over which we have no control.

Nature vs. Nurture

Sigmund Freud believed both nature (innate drives) and nurture (early life experiences) played crucial roles in human development. For Freud, the interplay of nature and nurture was central to understanding human psychology.

He posited that individuals have inborn instincts and drives, like the id’s desires. Simultaneously, he emphasized the profound impact of early childhood experiences, especially within the family dynamic, on personality and behavior.

The psychodynamic approach argues that we are driven by innate biological instincts, represented by the Id (nature), but the ways these instincts are expressed are shaped by our social and cultural environment, such as early childhood experiences (nurture).

Holism vs. Reductionism

The psychodynamic approach is determinist as it rejects the idea of free will. A person’s behavior is determined by their unconscious motives which are shaped by their biological drives and their early experiences.

Idiographic vs. Nomothetic

Freud argued that human behavior is governed by universal processes that apply to everyone e.g. the tripartite structure of the mind (nomothetic).

However, he also proposed that the ways in which these processes manifest themselves in the individual is unique (idiographic).

Are the research methods used scientific?

The concepts proposed by Freud cannot be tested empirically. The theory is not falsifiable. If people behave in the way predicted by the theory, it is viewed as a support; if they don’t, it is argued that they are using defense mechanisms.

Critical Evaluation

The psychodynamic approach has given rise to one of the first “talking cure”, psychoanalysis, on which many psychological therapies are now based. Psychoanalysis is rarely used now in its original form, but it is still used in a shorter version in some cases.

Psychoanalytic therapy has been seen as appropriate mainly for the neurotic disorders (e.g. anxiety and eating disorders) rather than for the psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia. It is also used for depression although its effectiveness in this area is more questionable because of the apathetic nature of the depressive patients.

Bachrach et al., (1991) suggests that psychoanalysis may not be appropriate for patients suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder in that it may inadvertently increase their tendency to over-interpret events in their life.

One of the very influential concept put forward by Freud is the lasting importance of childhood on later life and development. This has influenced Bowlby’s theory of attachment. John Bowlby (1952) was a psychoanalyst (like Freud) and believed that mental health and behavioral problems could be attributed to early childhood.

The greatest criticism of the psychodynamic approach is that it is unscientific in its analysis of human behavior.  Many of the concepts central to Freud’s theories are subjective and as such, difficult to test scientifically.

For example, how can scientifically study concepts like the unconscious mind or the tripartite personality?  In this respect, it could be argued that the psychodynamic perspective is unfalsifiable as its theories cannot be empirically investigated.

However, cognitive psychology has identified unconscious processes, such as procedural memory (Tulving, 1972), automatic processing (Bargh & Chartrand, 1999; Stroop, 1935), and social psychology have shown the importance of implicit processing (Greenwald & Banaji, 1995). Such empirical findings have demonstrated the role of unconscious processes in human behavior.

The concepts of id, ego and superego are very abstract and difficult to test experimentally, so evidence is obtained from case studies (Little Hans, and Anna O). However, the sample used in these case studies is mainly Austrian, so lacks population validity.

Kline (1989) argues that psychodynamic theory comprises a series of hypotheses, some more easily tested than others and some with more supporting evidence than others. Also, while the theories of the psychodynamic approach may not be easily tested, this does not mean that it does not have strong explanatory power.

The main problem here is that the case studies are based on studying one person in detail, and concerning Freud, the individuals in question are most often middle-aged women from Vienna (i.e., his patients). This makes generalizations to the wider population (e.g., the whole world) difficult.

Another problem with the case study method is that it is susceptible to researcher bias. Reexamination of Freud’s own clinical work suggests that he sometimes distorted his patients” case histories to “fit” with his theory (Sulloway, 1991).

The humanistic approach criticizes that the psychodynamic perspective is too deterministic. Freud suggests that all thoughts, behaviors, and emotions are determined by our childhood experiences and unconscious mental processes. This is a weakness because it suggests we have no conscious free will over our behavior, leaving little room for the idea of personal agency (i.e., free will).

The individual is not seen as responsible for their disorders however as the conflicts which lead to the disorder are unconscious there is nothing they can do about it without an analyst, they are disempowered.

The psychodynamic approach can be criticized for being sexist against women. For example, Freud believed that females” penis envy made them inferior to males. He also thought that females tended to develop weaker superegos and were more prone to anxiety than males.

Finally, it cannot explain the biological symptoms observed in some disorders, such as enlarged ventricles in schizophrenics.


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Is there a difference between psychodynamic and psychoanalytic?

The words psychodynamic and psychoanalytic are often confused. Remember that Freud’s theories were psychoanalytic, whereas the term ‘psychodynamic’ refers to both his theories and those of his followers.

What is psychodynamic in simple terms?

Sigmund Freud highlights the role of the unconscious mind, the structure of personality, and the influence that childhood experiences have on later life.

Freud believed that the unconscious mind determines most of our behavior and that we are motivated by unconscious emotional drives.

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Olivia Guy-Evans, MSc

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MSc Psychology of Education

Associate Editor for Simply Psychology

Olivia Guy-Evans is a writer and associate editor for Simply Psychology. She has previously worked in healthcare and educational sectors.

Saul Mcleod, PhD

Educator, Researcher

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in peer-reviewed journals, including the Journal of Clinical Psychology.

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