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What is the Psychodynamic Approach?

Updated on September 11, 2015
Sigmund Freud (1856) looking sharp.
Sigmund Freud (1856) looking sharp. | Source

What is the Psychodynamic Approach?

The psychodynamic approach of psychology is all about the following:

  • The subconscious mind and the conflicts that your inner desires have with each other.
  • Childhood experiences formulating our behaviours as adults.
  • Determinism - All of our behaviours, even supposed accidents, happen for a reason (and so naturally we do not really have free will).

Sigmund Freud (1856), the father of the original psychodynamic approach, spent his entire life developing this theory which concluded in many now famous ideas such as the Oedipus complex in children. It is important to stress that a lot of Freud's work is now seen as being invalid and has either been outright rejected or drastically improved upon. However, even many incorrect beliefs of his are still propagated today and so it is with caution that you should take the following information as true or not.

When you mention the psychodynamic approach today you are not so much talking about what Freud believed but about a more complex, accurate version of his approach. Psychologists such as Adler (1927), Erikson (1950) and Jung (1964) have built upon Freud's work.

These corrections do not take away from Freud's achievements since he was the first to start creating and propagating these novel and often controversial ideas. At the very least, he showed us what is not true.

Note: Freud is known to be the founder of psychoanalysis which is both a therapy and a theory. This is soley his work and should not be associated with other psychologists.

Freud's Stages of Child Psychosexual Development

Freud believed that all children go through certain stages and sub-stages of development in a particular order. Each stage is heavily associated with one particular erogenous zone and if a child does not leave a particular stage then they remain there until they do. Freud argues that many people never progressed through one of the stages and are still stuck; being stuck in a particular stage results in behaviour that is heavily to do with the erogenous zone associated with the stage.

  1. Oral Stage - this is the stage that children are born in. Freud claims that they see their mouth as the centre of pleasure. If a person gets stuck in this stage, they become fixated with oral-related things and problems arise e.g. they are more likely to smoke, overeat and take drugs orally. Freud extends being stuck in a stage to personalities too: either the person embraces the stage they are stuck in or overcompensates and becomes the opposite. In the oral stage, either people are gullible and trusting or the opposite: pessimistic and aggressive.
  2. Anal Stage - This is the next stage and occurs between the ages of 18 months and 3 years of age and is the one in which children supposedly focus on gaining pleasure from retaining and expelling faeces. If one were to get stuck in this stage then one would expect to be either: overly cleanly and obsessed with control and perfection (called 'anal retentive') or the opposite: messy and careless (called 'anal expulsive').
  3. Phallic Stage - Anywhere between the ages of 3 and 6 and a child leaves the anal stage and enters the phallic stage. Children now consider their genitals as pleasure zones and boys develop sexual attraction towards their mothers. They subsequently feel jealousy for their fathers as well as fear, worrying that their fathers will punish them for their inappropriate feelings. This whole process is known as the Oedipus Complex. After Freud, other scientists then hypothesised that girls go through the same process during the phallic stage only developing sexual attraction for their fathers instead (similarly dubbed the 'electra complex'. Curiously enough, Freud was completely against this idea. Being stuck in the phallic stage means being either over or under-interested in sexual experiences or being confused sexually.
  4. Latency Stage - this is the period of time between age 6 and puberty. It is not described so much a stage insofar as it doesn't have its own new characteristics like the others but an intermediate stage between phallic and genital stage. During the latency stage, children are repressing their desires for the opposite sex and subsequently play with peers of the same sex.
  5. Genital Stage - this is the stage we are in from puberty onwards. Adolescents direct their sexual urges towards the opposite sex with the intention of gaining pleasure from their genitals.

The Id, Ego and Superego

Freud states that the mind is like an iceberg: we can only see the tip (consciousness) - a lot more is happening below the waters (unconscious decisions). The Ego and Superego are observable, but the Id's primary urges are not.
Freud states that the mind is like an iceberg: we can only see the tip (consciousness) - a lot more is happening below the waters (unconscious decisions). The Ego and Superego are observable, but the Id's primary urges are not. | Source

Freud's Id, Ego, Superego

Freud believed that the mind was split into the following three systems:

The Id
A newborn has only the id to start off with and develops the other two system as he grows. The Id caters for primary desires like sexual desire (which Freud believed even children had) and hunger, thirst and other basic desires. If we only had an Id then we would try to get instant satisfaction without thinking about the consequences at all. Some call the needs our ID tries to satisfy our instincts.

The Ego
The ego 'polices' the urges of the Id and makes us think twice before trying to satisfy our primary urges. It is what considers the outside world and its circumstances - it is the system of reason. When we feel like we want to have sex with someone, our Id says do it regardless of the consequences - our ego considers all of the complex social standards that we as a society have in place, for example, it may reason that sex in this case is unreasonable (despite its pleasure) because you already have a sexual partner and it would result in harm later.

It must be noted that the ego is not your conscience, it is simply your reasoning faculty that decides whether satisfying an urge will have bad consequences or not. If the consequences are not harmful for you, then the ego will consider it as a good decision.

The Super Ego
The super ego is a kind of moral policing system for the Id and the ego. Using the moral values you learned as a child (the super ego develops during the phallic stage) your super-ego controls the Id and its inappropriate or immoral impulses. It does this by influencing the Id's control system, the ego, by making it consider morality as well as just danger.

Freud actually splits the Super Ego up into two different parts: the conscience and the 'ideal self'.

The conscience is the punishment system in place to keep the ego in check. If the ego gives into primal id impulses, then the super ego can punish the ego for not controlling the id well enough by making us feel guilt.

The ideal self is the part of us that judges everything we do by whether it would be what the ideal version of us would do. Thus, when we act not according to how we think we would act if we were ideal, the super-ego's ideal self punishes the ego with guilt. When we act accordingly (fighting off primal urges to become a better version of ourselves) the super-ego rewards us with the feeling of pride.


1. Evidence is based on Case Studies (mainly Freud's) and so conclusions are subjective. Case studies in psychology are written reports of the treatment of a single patient with a disorder. Most of psychodynamic theory is based around Freud's case studies and because the reports are written up by Freud the results are not only open to scrutiny for his bias (he would likely have bent the truth to make his results more believable/important) but are also subjective because the conclusions are made upon Freud's opinion. Everything in the report was Freud's opinion - that a patient had been successfully treated based on what he saw was his opinion and not objective (undeniable) fact. Furthermore, the patients of the case studies were from a very small sample of Freud's patients and therefore any conclusion made about them might not be applicable for other people (this is known as having low ecological validity).

2. Unscientific. The reason these case studies cannot be based on objective knowledge is that the things Freud attempts to treat and theorise are all unable to be tested scientifically. You cannot, for example, experiment on things concerning the Id, Ego and Superego empirically.

3. Unfalsifiable - Linked in with being unscientific is the idea that we cannot actually prove or disprove certain parts of psychodynamic theory like theories based on the mind because we have so little objective knowledge of what it actually is. This makes believing in the theories as unappealing because it makes no sense to believe in something that you know may not be the case at all.

4. Deterministic - humans like to think that they have free will and the psychodynamic theory leaves very little space for this belief. Some people, particularly adherents of the humanist approach, criticise the psychodynamic theory for not accommodating the idea that we have free agency (the ability to choose our decisions for ourselves) and aren't forced to act by the subconscious powers at hand.


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