Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud is arguably the most influential psychologist in history. Born in Freiberg, Moravia (now Pribor, Czech Republic), lived in Vienna, Austria from about age 5 until his forced exile to London in 1938. Completing his medical degree in 1881, Freud’s early interest was in neurology; he studied hypnosis as a treatment for neurosis under Charcot in Paris. Returning to Vienna, he married Martha Bernays, with whom he had six children, and began private practice.

Throughout his career, Freud developed many collaborations, although most of them dissolved acrimoniously. His first, and perhaps most influential, was with Josef Breuer, a Viennese physician treating “Anna O,” a young woman suffering numerous hysterical symptoms. From this collaboration, Freud theorized that hysteria stems from conflict in the unconscious and that bringing this material into consciousness allows resolution and relief of hysterical symptoms. Initially using hypnosis to access the unconscious, Freud finally settled on various talking methodologies, including free association, speaking whatever comes to mind with no editing, and dream analysis.

Freud developed the theory of psychosexual development of a three-structured personality (i.e., the id, ego, and superego) that develops as it moves through three conflicts between infantile sexuality and a repressive society (the oral, anal, and phallic stages). Following these three stages, much of this material is repressed, buried in the unconscious; during this latent stage, identification with the same sex parent and socialization into the expected roles of men and women can occur. Around puberty, the fully developed, sexual, adult personality emerges in the genital stage. Although later personality theories have abandoned many of the sexuality factors, most contain elements of the Freudian conceptualization of the id, ego, and superego.

Freud’s major contributions to psychology can be summarized as follows:

  1. Freud provided the first, formally organized theory of personality development; its controversial nature stimulated the development of alternatives fostering growth in the field of personality development.
  1. Although not unique, Freud’s insistence that childhood was psychologically unique from adulthood is, today, a cornerstone of developmental theory.
  1. Believing personality development largely complete by age 6, Freud was instrumental in showing that events of childhood influence who we are as adults.
  1. Freud maintained we have strong feelings for our parents, and  these  feelings  influence  how  we develop; unobscured by Oedipal fantasies, this notion is seen in much of the work on attachment and parenting today.
  1. Freud’s ego defense mechanisms, which explain behavior as biologically motivated and often unavailable to conscious awareness, rather than rational and conscious, remain useful in clinical practice today.


  1. Breger, (2000). Freud: Darkness in the midst of vision. New York: Wiley.
  2. Crews, F.  (Ed.).  (1998).  Unauthorized  Freud:  Doubters confront a leg New York: Penguin.
  3. Gay, P. (1988). Freud: A life for our time. New York: W. W. Norton.