Freudian psychoanalysis

Stop a hundred people in the street and ask them to name any psychologist, living or dead. There would be no question about the outcome of this informal survey – Sigmund freud would be the winner hands down, with Skinner a distant second. No matter what one thinks about his theories you cannot deny that Freud, both as a thinker and a therapist, has had a remarkable impact on the people of the twentieth century. His ideas have gained an influential hold on historians, sociologists and political scientists, spreading beyond the formal boundaries of organized disciplines into the thinking of artistic elites around the world.

Despite (or because of? ) the overt and sometimes perverse sexual nature of many of his theories “Freudian” concepts are now firmly implanted in the unexamined beliefs of the average man and woman. No one can seriously challenge the fact that Freud’s theories are now a basic part of our cultural substance. In this essay I shall be evaluating how well these theories stand up to the test of the available scientific literature. First I will argue that the whole spectrum of psychoanalysis was new, which is one of the reasons it has stood the test of time, and is still practised widely around the world.

Then I will present the scientific evidence that supports and contradicts Freudian psychoanalysis, both as a theory of psychology and a method of psychotherapy. I will argue that Freud’s theories are scientifically unsound as a method of research and that the crucial issue is not about their truth but about their efficacy. Plagiarist, unimaginative, dull, apathetic – none of these words apply to Freud or his writings. Just as natural selection will always belong to Darwin, relativity theory to Einstein, so psychoanalysis will always be Freud’s.

Freud’s theories were not just new, they were revolutionary, and to a society just recovering from Darwin, they were horrifying. Freud’s psychoanalysis covered every aspect of the human personality, from trivial aspects such as jokes and slips of the tongue, through to the reasons for war and aggression. He argued that we are all driven by our most base, primitive desires – food, warmth and sexual gratification. Our development is characterized by wishes of incest, murder and masturbation, and that is in your normal, healthy child!

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No subject was taboo for Freud – religion, homosexuality, sado-masochism, fetishists, all were explained away by psychoanalysis. Furthermore, Freud argued that all these wishes were unconscious; no man, no matter how moral or pious, was exempt from them. Darwin and Einstein may have removed reason from the universe, but Freud removed reason from ourselves. Freud wrote a prodigious number of ground-breaking, innovative texts between the years of 1900-1936, yet since his death psychoanalysis remains practically unchanged.

This stagnation is a direct consequence of Freud’s style of work. While many scholars were intrigued by Freud’s intuitions, they felt that no scientific discipline could be founded on the basis of clinical interviews and retrospectively constructed personal histories; moreover, they deeply resented the pretence of a field that did not leave itself susceptible to disconfirmation. This point will be returned to at the end of the essay.

Despite Freud’s claim that psychoanalysis can only be investigated by the method of psychoanalysis itself, many scientists have carried out empirical studies designed to put Freud’s theory of psychology to the test. It is to these that we shall now turn our attention. Many of these studies have been concerned with Freud’s theory of personality types, especially the oral and the anal. Goldman-Eisler (1948) and Lazare (1966) found evidence for the oral personality – pessimism, passivity, aloofness, verbal aggression and autonomy tend to cluster together, as do their opposites.

As for the anal personality Kline (1972), Fisher and Greenberg (1977), and Pollak (1979) found evidence for the clustering of three major character traits, namely orderliness, parsimony and obstinacy. However, the fact that there is substantial evidence for the existence of oral and anal personality types, does not, of course, mean that these traits come about in the way that Freud believes. So what is the evidence that these personality variables are related to early oral/ anal experiences?

Fisher and Greenberg (1977) found that the evidence is often contradictory; for example, Goldman-Eisler (1951) found a correlation between her orality factor and length of breast-feeding whilst Thurstone and Mussen (1951) didn’t. As to the anal character, Finney (1963), Hetherington and Brackbill (1963) and Sears (1965) all failed to verify that the anal person differs from other types in age of initiation or completion of toilet training or in severity of training procedures. Thus Freud’s observations appear to be accurate, but his explanations of why they occur are probably incorrect.

There is a lot more significant evidence concerning defense mechanisms. Both Wilkinson and Cargill (1955) and Levinger and Clark (1961) found that emotive material is more easily forgotten than neutral material. Repression, displacement, sublimation and intellectualization have all been demonstrated by Miller and Bugelski (1948), Wallach and Greenberg (1960), and Halpern (1977). Again Freud seems to have been faultless with his observations, but his theory that it is these processes that are responsible for neuroses remains uninvestigated and pure conjecture.

As for the existence of the unconscious, although it was pure conjecture at the start of the century, it is now, more or less, accepted as scientific fact. Dixon (1971) reviewed several studies which show that verbal stimuli which are too quick or dim to be consciously perceived will nonetheless affect the subject’s associative processes. Marcel and Patterson (1978) found that associations following the subliminal perception of a word were linked to its meaning and O’Grady (1977) found increased GSRs to the subliminal perception of emotive picture stimuli.

The relevance of these is that thoughts in the form of associations may occur in the absence of awareness; also emotions can be elicited from subjects without awareness of their source. This implies that consciousness is not essential to cognition and it only periodically samples the ongoing processing of information, a view highly consistent with Freud’s. This brief sweep of what has been found to be supportive of Freud is intended to convey the wide-ranging sectors in which his thinking has proved to be scientifically sensible. Where then do the faults in his invention lie?

His understanding of dreaming has been contradicted by many scientific observations (for example; Reiss, 1951; Sheppard and Karon, 1964; Proctor and Briggs, 1964). There is no empirical backing for his thesis that a dream is a camouflage wrapped around an inner concealed wish. Like wise, the accumulated research grossly contradicts his theory that dream functions importantly to preserve sleep. Freud’s concepts of development seem to be untenable in the face of what has been discovered (for example; Ammons and Ammons, 1949; Kagan and Lemkin, 1960; Ward, 1969).

Contrary to Freud’s expectations, the male does not resolve his conflicts with his father and identify with his masculinity primarily out of fear of him, rather that the boy’s masculine identification and development of moral standards are most facilitated by a positive, nurturing attitude on the part of the father. Many of Freud’s formulations concerning women are so vague they cannot be staked out as testable hypotheses; those that can have been empirically refuted – the process of achieving like-sex identity is no more difficult or complex for the female than the male.

In conclusion Freudian psychoanalysis cannot be accepted or rejected as a total package. Freud’s observations have largely proved very accurate; it is his theorizing that is his weakness, particularly concerning dreaming (of which, paradoxically, Freud was most proud) and the development of the individual. This latter point is hardly surprising – Freud only studied adults (with the dubious exception of Little Hans) yet postulated a theory of personal development.

We now turn to psychoanalysis as a treatment for psychoneurotic symptoms; its goal is to make the unconscious conscious, to undo unsatisfactory defences and, through a therapeutic regression, to re-experience repressed feelings and wishes, which have been frustrated in childhood, in a safe context and to express them, as an adult, in a more appropriate way with a new ending. This is achieved via free association, which leads to resistance and transference, the interpretation of which unlocks the unconscious, providing the client with insight, self-knowledge and self-understanding.

Eysenck (1952) reviewed five studies of the effectiveness of psychoanalysis and found that only 44% of psychoanalytic patients improved. In addition roughly 66% of patients improve without any treatment (“spontaneous remission”) and so Eysenck concluded that psychoanalysis simply does not work – it achieves nothing that would not have happened anyway without therapy! Bergin (1971), however, reviewed some of the papers in Eysenck’s review and concluded that, by choosing different criteria of “improvement”, the success rate could be raised to 83%.

Relatedly, several studies (for example; Oberndorf, Greenacre, and Kubie, 1949; Glover, 1958; Sasz and Naminoff, 1963) have shown that psychoanalysts differ considerably in their concept of psychoanalytic therapy, their therapeutic practices, and their modes of interpretation of the same clinical therapy – it is difficult to view therapy as a monolithic unified approach. Freud exacerbated the problem by never specifying the necessary and sufficient conditions for achieving a therapeutic effect.

In conclusion, there is virtually no evidence that therapies labelled “psychoanalysis” result in longer-lasting or more profound positive changes than approaches that are given other labels and that are much less time consuming an costly, the most successful of which is cognitive behaviour therapy. We shall now evaluate Freudian psychoanalysis as a method of research, and it is here that the fundamental weakness of the whole theory lies. Earlier this century Popper was searching for the underlying reasons that some scientific theories seem to lead to advances in knowledge and others lead to intellectual stagnation.

Einstein’s relativity theory, for example, lead to startlingly new observations precisely because its prediction were structured so that many possible events could have contradicted them and thus falsified the theory. Popper pointed to psychoanalysis as a stagnant theory; it used a complicated structure that explains human behaviour after the fact, but predicts nothing in advance. It could explain everything, and it was this property that made it scientifically useless, since it could make no specific predictions.

Adherents of psychanalytic theory spent much time and effort in getting the theory to explain every human event, from individual quirks of behaviour to large-scale social phenomena, but their success at making it a rich source of after-the-fact explanation robbed it of any scientific utility. Freudian psychoanalytic theory currently plays a much larger role as a spur to the literary imagination than it does as a theory of contempary psychology and its decline within psychology can be traced in part to its failure to satisfy the falsifiability criterion.

Consider the following example : Scodel (1957) predicted, based on Freud’s theories, that highly dependent men would prefer large -breasted women (dependency is an oral trait and the breast can be regarded as a symbol of state dependency). Scodel in fact found the opposite to be true – dependent men tended to prefer small-breasted women so Freud’s theory seems to have been falsified.

However, Kline (1972) invoked the concept of reaction formation in order to show that Scodel had confirmed the theory, since a fixation (unconscious) with big breasts may show up as a preference (conscious) for small breasts – Freud’s theory is thus unfalsifiable and empirically untestable. Freud’s rejoinder to this drew a parallel between astronomy and psychoanalysis – since no-one criticized astronomers for being unscientific because they had difficulty doing practical experiments on the heavenly bodies, it was unfair to criticize psychoanalysis for not doing experiments on the unconscious.

However, Freud overlooked two crucial achievements of astronomy- quantitative observations and accurate predictions. In conclusion, despite Freud’s remarkably accurate observations regarding human behaviour, psychoanalysis as a theory of psychology fails to stand up to empirical testing, doesn’t work as a method of psychotherapy, and is unsound as a method of research. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to compare psychoanalysis to astrology rather than to astronomy – both have captured the human imagination but neither has yet given its divinations of character and behaviour a firm scientific base.