What Are the Strengths & Weaknesses of Psychoanalytic Theory?

By David NaarLast Updated May 12, 2021 3:04:46 PM ET
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According to Great Ideas in Personality, one of the greatest strengths of psychoanalytic theory is that it can be used to explain the nature of human development and all aspects of mental functioning. However, critics of psychoanalytic theory claim that it grossly exaggerates and generalizes human behavior. So, with this in mind, we’re delving into both the strengths and weaknesses of psychoanalytic theory as well as its origins.

Freud's Psychoanalytic Theory

In 1896, when Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud was 40 years old, he first coined the term "psychoanalysis." Freud defined psychoanalysis as a kind of therapy for treating mental illness, as well as explaining the intricacies of human behavior by focusing on the mind's unconscious. Specifically, he posited that what a person goes through as a child plays a significant role in shaping their personality and behavior as adults.

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At the root of Freud's psychoanalytic theory is a specific goal: to bring the contents of a person's unconscious or subconscious mind to the level of consciousness. He believed that people often had repressed emotions they buried so deep that they did not have access to them. The work of a psychoanalyst is to uncover repressed memories and emotions to treat mental illness and neuroses.

Freud graduated with his medical degree in neurology in 1881 and set up a private practice shortly thereafter where he treated patients with psychological disorders. However, it wasn't until his teacher and colleague, Josef Breuer, treated "Anna O" that Freud saw his career take a meaningful turn. The case of Anna O, which Breuer shared with Freud, was significant because Breuer claimed his psychoanalytic treatment worked.

Anna O was diagnosed with hysteria, and dealt with symptoms like hallucinations, paralysis, and convulsions, all without a known physical cause. Because of her treatment with Breuer, Anna O was able to recall repressed memories and traumatic events from her past, which reportedly cured Anna O of her paralysis.

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As a result, Freud experienced a "lightbulb moment" when Breuer shared Anna O's story with him. Freud believed that physical symptoms often had repressed emotions and traumas at their root. Before Freud brought it to life, this theory didn't exist.

Psychoanalytic Model

Freud's psychoanalytic model separates the mind into three sections: conscious, preconscious, and unconscious. The conscious mind contains current thoughts, feelings, and attention, while the preconscious mind, more commonly referred to as the subconscious, contains information that we can remember and retrieve from our memories. According to Freud, the unconscious mind exists at a deeper level. In it, we store the mechanisms that drive our behavior, including our inherent desires and instincts.

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Further into his career, Freud developed an even more structured model of the mind that originated from the three levels of consciousness he previously theorized. This model consisted of three layers of the mind once again:

  • The id is part of the unconscious mind. It works at an unconscious level based on instinct. Freud said that human biological instincts have two kinds of functioning: Eros activates life-sustaining behaviors. It is the instinct to survive. Thanatos is its opposite, the death instinct. It activates aggressive and destructive activity.
  • The ego begins development during infancy. It works in service of the id while also acting as a check-and-balances system. Largely connected to reality, the ego makes sure we behave in ways that are socially acceptable.
  • The superego, also part of the unconscious mind, is home to our sense of morality. It advocates for morally based, principled action.

Psychoanalytic Approach

Freud's psychoanalytic approach was largely based on his model of the human mind. In practice, he operated with the belief that the id, ego, and superego were always acting in conflict with one another because of their contrasting primary goals, hence our reliance on mental defense mechanisms.

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For example, Freud believed that repression was a defense mechanism of the ego to protect the conscious mind from disturbing thoughts. He also posited that projection, another defense mechanism, was the ego's solution for improper thoughts and feelings; that is, your mind would put them on another person instead of allowing you to face them.

In practice, psychoanalysis focused on the unconscious mind — not the conscious mind. As the field of psychology has developed and transformed over the years with new scientific research and insights, experts have developed modern talk therapy, which has some roots in Freud's original psychoanalytic model.

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Weakness of Psychoanalytic Theory

Freud's theory of psychoanalysis has received its fair share of criticism from psychologists, many believing that it is either bad science or not science at all. Those who fall into the camp that psychoanalysis is bad science, or "pseudoscience," say this because it was not based on enough quantitative and experimental research. Instead, Freud used the clinical case study model to defend the legitimacy of psychoanalysis, which does not scientifically verify that psychoanalysis works.

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Even some psychoanalysts feel that psychoanalysis isn't science and never had any intention of being science. Those in this camp believe psychoanalysis to be a philosophy that helps to explain some of the connections between childhood events and adult personality and behavior. This definition would make psychoanalysis as a form of professional psychological treatment unethical.

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Freud's theory of psychoanalysis neglects individual differences in patients. Because patients are not all the same, using the same system of psychoanalysis for everyone is likely not the most effective way of treating mental illness. As a result, psychoanalysis becomes unaccountable. Additionally, psychoanalytic theory is largely based on exploring a person's childhood and their potential repressed memories from that time. It may not always be the case that the issue stems from something that happened in childhood, which would make psychoanalysis unhelpful for some.

Strengths of Psychoanalytic Theory

Patients looking to dive deep into their psyche to understand the motive of their behaviors often find psychoanalysis useful. Furthermore, patients who want to understand and deal with certain experiences that have left them confused might also find value in psychoanalysis.

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Because of its nature, psychoanalysis is a long, drawn-out, intensive treatment that can provide a lot of insight into what drives a person's behavior. Long-term, deeply analytical therapy has been shown to have subsequent long-term positive results. Research has shown that it can be effective for many different mental and behavioral disorders and that the results are further-reaching than medical treatments. This is in part because patients learn life skills during the course of their treatment that they can take with them into their day-to-day lives.

Without Freud's psychoanalytic theory, modern-day talk therapy would not exist. While many of Freud's ideas have been updated or replaced by methods backed by science and research, his groundbreaking contributions to the field of psychology are evident.

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