Sigmund Freud in Popular Psychology

Though his influence on the current generation of child and clinical psychologists is small, Sigmund Freud casts a giant shadow on the history of psychology and psychiatry and remains the psychological thinker whose work is most likely to be familiar to non-psychologists. Both his admirers and his detractors would agree that his impact on the way Americans and Europeans think of themselves has been greater than that of anyone else in the field. This is evident even in popular entertainment, as television and movie portrayals of psychotherapists continue to heavily favor psychoanalysis as the method of choice, though most actual therapists now follow other approaches.

Born in Freiberg, Moravia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in 1856 to a poor and uneducated Jewish trader, Freud was the eldest of seven children. Although they moved to Vienna when he was four years old, his family never lived a life of privilege or even comfort. The first member of his family to attend a university, Freud specialized in physiology and neuroscience and graduated with his M.D. in 1881. His training as a neurologist, however, would soon be left behind, beginning with his introduction to his first hysteric patient.

Hysteria refers to a general, nonspecific set of ailments consisting of psychological and physical symptoms with no apparent physical cause. Several of his patients, for example, experienced glove anesthesia, in which a loss of sensation in the hand occurs that is inconsistent with known nerve pathways. The name given to hysteria is emblematic of the sexism that was rampant in nineteenth-century science: the root of the word refers to the uterus, and hysteria was believed to affect only women. Josef Breuer, who brought Freud his first hysterical patient, also introduced Freud to the idea of the “talking cure,” that is, the idea that hysterical symptoms are due to unresolved conflicts and that a cure can be effected by helping the patient to think and talk about the events that generated the symptoms.

Although he specialized in neurological and brain disorders, Freud spent more time with hysterical patients who were referred to him by Breuer. Through his work with these patients, which often included hypnosis as an aid to uncovering buried thoughts and memories, Freud began to formulate both the theory and the technique that would become known as psychoanalysis.

Working with hysterics whose physical symptoms had no apparent physical cause led Freud to reason that the cause must be psychological, and the fact that the patients were unaware of this cause led directly to the most basic and most influential insight of Freud’s psychoanalytic theory: the existence of the unconscious mind. Freud argued that the psychologists (such as Wilhelm Wundt, for example) who attempted to study the human mind through introspection were mistaken in assuming that the mind’s contents were available for that sort of examination in the first place.

Freud believed instead that much of what motivates a person’s actions is unknown to them. This is partly because of instinct. Humans, in Freud’s view, are driven by two sets of instincts, which he labeled Thanatos (death instincts) and Eros (life instincts). Though humans are driven instinctively to do good, positive, constructive things, we are also equally driven by destructive impulses, and the conflict between these two sets of drives is a source of psychological problems. Freud explored this conflict further by dividing the personality or mind—psychoanalysis does not clearly distinguish between them—into three structures: the id, ego, and superego.

The id is the only structure a person is born with and in later life is the most inaccessible portion of the mind. The id is entirely unconscious, and it can only be known indirectly through dream contents and through the symptoms, such as anxiety, that it helps to cause. The id is the location of the instincts, including such basic needs as food, water, sexual gratification, and avoidance of pain. The id exists to satisfy these needs in accordance with the “pleasure principle,” the impulse to seek pleasure and satisfaction that is pursued without regard for values or morality. The id is irrational and has no concept of time, meaning that experiences of frustration stored by the id may be preserved unconsciously for decades, where they may continue to create trouble behind the scenes.

Clearly possession of only the id would make survival unlikely, and so the ego begins to develop soon after birth. Its purpose is to serve as a mediator between the id and reality, by consciously seeking realistic and safe ways of releasing the tensions that are constantly arising from the instinctual pressures of the id. Since it acts upon the demands of the real world rather than simply seeking pleasure, the ego is said to follow the “reality principle.” Later psychodynamic theorists have frequently used ego interchangeably with “self.” In addition to the id, however, the ego must also deal with the demands of the superego, the ethical portion of the personality that is roughly synonymous with conscience, which begins to emerge during the first five years of life.

The superego develops as children internalize the societal standards of right and wrong presented by their parents. Though partly conscious, the superego is also largely unconscious, and its main job is to restrict the attempts of the id to obtain gratification. The ego is therefore constantly mediating between the demands of the id and the often equally irrational superego. Failure to find a morally acceptable way of satisfying the id will result in punishment by the superego, usually in the form of guilt.

While attempting to satisfy all three (id, reality, and superego), the ego will inevitably fail with some frequency, resulting in anxiety. Failure to resolve inner conflicts effectively is the source of psychological problems in general, so it is important that the ego has some tools available to prevent anxiety from getting out of hand. Freud proposed a set of such tools, a group of mental strategies known as defense mechanisms. These mechanisms, although they are controlled by the ego, operate unconsciously and reduce anxiety by distorting reality to some degree. The following are some example of these mechanisms in operation:

  • Repression: Anxiety-arousing thoughts and feelings are banished from consciousness. Repression underlies the other defense mechanisms, as they all serve the purpose of protecting the mind from unwelcome thoughts and impulses. This is the source of Western society’s widespread belief in buried memories of trauma.
  • Regression: A person retreats to an earlier, more infantile state of development, as when a child reverts to thumb-sucking during the first few days of school.
  • Reaction formation: The ego unconsciously makes unacceptable impulses look like their opposites. This is often seen on school playgrounds, where information that one is “liked” by another child is often greeted by exaggerated revulsion.
  • Projection: Threatening impulses are disguised by being attributed to others. The individual sees his/her fault very clearly—in someone else. “He hates me!” may, in other words, be the projection of the actual feeling “I hate him!”
  • Rationalization: Self-justifying explanations are generated unconsciously to conceal from oneself the actual reasons for one’s actions, as when the habitual heavy drinker says that he or she drinks “just to be sociable.”
  • Displacement: Sexual or aggressive impulses are diverted onto a safer target than the one that aroused the feelings in the first place. A child upset with his parents may kick a pet, for example.

Another way that the unconscious mind releases the tension created by intrapsychic conflict is by allowing the forbidden content to surface in dreams. Dream interpretation is an important part of psychoanalytic theory, as our dreams, which are beyond conscious control, allow the expression of impulses and feelings that the conscious ego cannot. Even in dreams, however, the controversial content must be disguised to cause as little anxiety as possible. Freud defined two levels of content to every dream: manifest content is the actual surface content of the dream, whereas latent content is the hidden, buried stuff, concealed by the symbols that make up the surface content. For example, a dream involving a journey by train, past a waterfall, and into a tunnel has only the train, the waterfall, and the tunnel as manifest content, but the latent content would be of a sexual nature—Freud wrote about all three items as symbols of sexual impulses. Freud explained this in great detail in The Interpretation of Dreams, which remains his best-selling book, though it was considered a failure when first released.

Possibly the most controversial portion of Freud’s theory is his view of child development. Freud saw personality development as proceeding through an orderly, invariant set of five stages, each named for the primary source of sensory pleasure for the id at the time. Freud believed that if conflicts that arise are not resolved in a satisfactory manner, it is possible to become fixated on the particular stage, resulting in an abnormal preoccupation with that stage’s source of pleasure later in life. A heavy smoker or gum-chewer, for example, might be regarded as fixated at the oral stage, during which the primary focus of sensual pleasure is the mouth. The stages are as follows:

  • Oral stage: It occupies approximately the first two years of life, during which casual observation reveals that children do indeed use their mouths to explore new objects and enjoy putting things in their mouths. Freud explained that this occurs in part because the child’s first contact with the mother in feeding is via the mouth and that the child’s bond with the mother is therefore inextricably bound up with oral contact. He further speculated that oral fixation might be a result of either insufficient time or too much time spent nursing, depending on the case.
  • Anal stage: Between ages two and four, the child gains control over his/her bowels, making the act of defecation one of the very few things the child can control in an environment which is almost entirely determined by the whims and preferences of adults. How parents handle the task of toilet training can therefore influence subsequent development, including the creation of two different types of fixation. The anal-retentive person learned as a child to exercise control and get what he wants by refusing to excrete; and as an adult is excessively concerned with neatness and organization, controlling his environment by keeping everything in its place. The anal-expulsive type may have instead controlled his parents by excreting freely and liberally, and as an adult may attempt to control others through sloppiness.
  • Phallic stage: This is the period, roughly from four to six years old, during which a boy discovers his penis and derives pleasure from contact with it. Some boys also fear that they may lose theirs as a punishment; Freud called this castration anxiety. As with the oral stage, the evidence that boys go through something like this is easily obtained; getting little boys to understand that they mustn’t sit with their hands in their pants is a major concern in preschools and day-care centers. Not to leave anyone out, Freud would point out that girls are also concerned with penises during this stage, specifically with the question of why they don’t have one. Observing that boys have penises and girls do not, a little girl may wish that she did and suspect deep down that she had one at one time and that it was removed. Freud called this penis envy. This is also the stage in which Freud suggested the existence of the Oedipal conflict or complex, named for the Greek protagonist Oedipus, who inadvertently kills his father and marries his mother. During the phallic stage, boys go through a period in which they bond strongly with their mothers and show less interest in their fathers. According to Freud, the boys fantasize about growing up and marrying their mothers. Only one thing stands in the way: Dad. Recognizing his powerlessness against his father, who might take away the penis if he finds out, the boy resolves this conflict by identifying strongly with the father instead of competing with him for Mother’s affection. When the same essential conflict occurs in girls (substitute Father for Mother in the above), it is called the Electra complex. Freud, like much of the psychological community until the early 1970s, regarded homosexuality as a disorder and believed it had its roots in a failure to properly resolve the Oedipal conflict.
  • Latency period: This period follows the phallic stage with several years of concentration on schoolwork until sensual concerns blossom again with the coming of adolescence.
  • Genital stage: This period begins with the onset of puberty, when the id turns its attention outward in the direction of contact with others, usually of the opposite sex.

Much of the controversy over this portion of the theory may have been exacerbated by the name by which the stages have become known: stages of psychosexual development. While Freud’s concern was indeed the id’s quest for sensual pleasure, most of what he was suggesting about children was not at all sexual in nature. It also should be noted that this was the first fairly comprehensive view of child development based on stages, an idea which Jean Piaget would later use to further revolutionize the study of child development.

Freud’s impact on the field of psychology, and indeed on the world as a whole, has been full of contradictions. This most influential of psychologists was judged by no less than Nobel Laureate Sir Peter Medawar to be the perpetrator of “the most stupendous intellectual confidence trick of the century.” Indeed, modern empirical research has not been kind to Sigmund Freud. A large body of research on human memory suggests that repression of traumatic or uncomfortable memories, a centerpiece of psychoanalysis, is extremely rare and may not be a normal part of memory function at all. As for the unconscious mind, modern cognitive research is a bit gentler on Freud, showing that there are many mental processes of which people are unaware as they happen. The type of unconscious processes that go on, however, largely concern automation of information processing (see example below), not buried conflicts and repressed feelings and memories.

Here’s an example of non-Freudian unconscious information processing: A subject is asked to think of his/her mother. What’s her middle name? If they’re like most people, the answer “popped” into their head without any effort, certainly without any apparent search of memory. Modern cognitive psychology suggests that a search certainly occurred, but the person was unaware of it because it occurred automatically and involuntarily. Here’s another example: A subject is asked not, under any circumstances to imagine a black-and-white spotted dog wearing a multi-colored, striped party hat and a name tag that says, “Hi, My Name Is Bob.” Most subjects can’t resist the suggestion, and picture exactly that.

The larger problem with Freud’s theory, at least from the point of view of those who prefer to regard psychology as a science, is that his ideas are simply not scientific. Where the goal of scientists is usually to use observations to make predictions about future events, psychoanalysis excels at providing post hoc explanations, but doesn’t produce testable hypotheses. His defenders point out, correctly, however, that Freud was not aiming at empirical precision in the first place. He was seeking a better explanation for normal and abnormal human behavior than existed at the time. In this he was successful, especially if success is to be measured by the number of his terms and concepts that remain part of the modern lexicon. In the words of Drew Westen: “Many aspects of Freudian theory are indeed out of date, and they should be: Freud died in 1939, and he has been slow to undergo further revisions.”


  1. Freud, S. The Interpretation of Dreams (Reissue edition). New York: Avon, 1980;
  2. Gay, P. Freud: A Life for Our Time. New York: W. W. Norton, 1988;
  3. Westen, D. “The Scientific Legacy of Sigmund Freud: Toward a Psychodynamically Informed Psychological Science.” Psychological Bulletin, 124 (1998): 333–371.