Free Association

Free association is an inadequate translation into English of the German term freier Einfall (meaning “free irruption”), which Sigmund Freud used to characterize ideas that irrupt into consciousness. Freud first described this irruption when he was investigating the causes of symptoms, parapraxes (slips of the tongue), and dreams. As a precondition of analyzing these phenomena, Freud required his patients to attend to what was being analyzed while at the same time suspending their judgment and reporting everything that came to mind. Seemingly irrelevant ideas then often forced themselves into consciousness. The candor required of the patient constituted the fundamental rule of psychoanalysis, and the patient’s reporting what came to mind was the method of free association.

The thoughts and associations reported by the patient were not complete, continuous, or orderly, and Freud assumed that the gaps pointed to unconscious psychological processes that, when discovered, could be interpolated into and complete the trains of thought that would lead to the source of the patient’s conflict. Freud claimed natural science status for psychoanalysis because the interpolated unconscious processes were logically identical to the unobservable physical processes postulated in chemistry and physics.

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Freud assumed that the determinants of trains of association were internal and relatively unaffected by influences external to the thinker, including unconscious suggestion from the particular analyst. Free association should, therefore, contribute to the clinical goal of building a picture of the patient’s past that was essentially complete and corresponded to the patient’s real history. Freud made explicit claims for the reliability and validity of the method; differences in orientation among analysts contributed only in a minor way to what patients reported and would not distort the overall picture. Suggestion from therapist to patient could be disregarded altogether.

Whether they related to a single element of a dream or symptom, a whole train of thought, or some complex aspect of a patient’s history, associations had to be interpreted by the analyst. Freud set out no rules by which interpretation could be guided or judged. Nevertheless, it is clear that he valued the internal consistency of his interpretations. It was important to Freud that the elements of his interpretations were related to the phenomenon being analyzed in a coherent manner. He placed a higher value on this consistency than on the correspondence of the interpretation with the patient’s past experiences.

The absence of specific guidelines for the interpretation of free associations suggests interpretations could easily be influenced by the analyst’s theoretical perspectives. It is known that in clinical situations resembling psychoanalysis, patients produce material consistent with the theoretical beliefs and expectations of their therapists. Beginning in the mid-1920s with the separation of Freud and Otto Rank, and continuing through the 1960s, numerous “schools” of psychoanalysis developed, each strongly influenced by its founder’s perspectives and supported by different kinds of free associations and largely incompatible interpretations.

These differences point to two fundamental problems: the low reliability and validity of free association, and the basic indeterminacy of interpretation. It is clear that associations are not as free of external influence as Freud believed. Nevertheless, very few analysts have questioned the reliability or validity of free association or raised the problem of the indeterminacy of interpretation. It is also clear that the clinical situation is a very difficult arena from which to gather data that leads to good theories about patients and clients.


  1. Macmillan, M. (1997). Freud evaluated: The completed arc. Cambridge: MIT Press.
  2. Macmillan, M. (2003). Challenges to psychoanalytic methodology. In M. C. Chung & C. Feltham (Eds.), Psychoanalytic knowledge and the nature of mind (pp. 219-238). London: Palgrave.
  3. Macmillan, M., & Swales, P. J. (2003). Observations from the refuse-heap: Freud, Michelangelo’s Moses, and psychoanalysis. American Imago, 60, 41-104.

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