The Psychoanalytic Theory of Personality

The greatest influence on personality theory has been the work of Sigmund Freud. His influence was so significant that most of the terms and concepts used in discussing any theory of personality were first used by him. If we did not use Freud's terms and concepts, our vocabulary would hardly be adequate for the subject.

Sigmund Freud was born in Freiberg, Moravia, on May 6,1856, and died in London on September 23, 1939. He wrote extensively while constantly revising his ideas. In his later writings, he often used concepts differently from the way he used them in an earlier period and, on some occasions, he even contradicted what he had said earlier. Thus, it is important to be aware of the period of

Freud's life in which a work was written. In this module, we shall deal mainly with psychoanalytic ideas from the last period of Freud's life.

As you read the text, try to answer the following questions.


Freud's early interests were in zoology and neurology. One of his first pieces of research was an unsuccessful attempt to locate the testes of eels. Ernest Jones, Freud's best known biographer, described the experiment in this way: "The future discoverer of the castration complex was disappointed at not being able to find the testes of the eel." Freud had another early professional disappointment that was more serious. He had been aware of the local anesthetizing properties of cocaine but had failed to follow up his ideas. As a result, Freud felt that he had just missed becoming known as the discoverer of anesthesia by cocaine.

Freud's work in neurology led him to the study of nervous disorders and of hypnotism. While collaborating with a well-known physician in Vienna, Dr. Joseph Breuer, he found that patients could sometimes be cured if they would just talk about their symptoms. Freud and Breuer cured many patients of hysteria by the talking-out method. This led to the method of free association. in this method the patient gives all the ideas that come to him, sometimes based on words supplied by the therapist.


Psychoanalytic theory postulates three personality components: the id, the ego, and the superego. In the ordinary activities of life, behavior is the product of the interaction of these three systems. The systems can be clearly differentiated only when they are in conflict; when impulses of one system are opposed by another.

The id consists of the inborn instinctive drives rooted in the biological nature of human beings. It includes everything that is inherited and present at birth. These drives are of two types. One type includes the sexual and life- preserving drives. The energy by which these do their work is called libido. The other type of drive includes the aggressive and destructive forces. At birth, according to Freud, the entire personality is id. Only later do the other systems, the ego and superego, develop out of it. The impulses of the id strive for immediate expres- sion or discharge. They have a peremptory, irrational character. Thus the id is said to operate in terms of the pleasure principle. The pleasure principle is the principle of tension reduction. When the tension level is raised for any reason, the id works to reduce it to a comfortable level.

The ego begins to take shape when the infant starts to recognize the difference between itself and the outside world. This system, the executive agent of the personality, mediates between the imperious demands of the id and the reality of the external world. Thus, the ego is said to operate in terms of the reality principle. The reality principle delays pleasure until a suitable object or occasion is available.

The third system, the last to appear developmentally, is the superego. This system is synonymous with the conscience. It incorporates the moral standards of one's parents, schools, and society. The incorporation of moral standards is brought about by fear. Out of fear one accepts the standards of those who are more powerful. Once these standards have been accepted, that power is no longer a threat. The price to be paid, of course, is high. When moral principles have become internalized, they must be obeyed all the time, not merely when a parent or another agent of society is present. The superego attempts to block aggressive and sexual impulses of the id.

Freud believed the unconscious contains most of the material of the mind

Freud compared the mind to an iceberg. Only part of an iceberg can be seen above the water. In the same way, he suggested, only a small part of the mind is conscious. The conscious contents of the mind consist of those things one is aware of at a particular moment. There are other things one is not aware of but can easily be brought into consciousness. These are in the preconscious. Tactile impressions from one's clothing, the pressure of the chair when one is sitting, and what one had for breakfast are all examples of preconscious contents of the mind. There are other things in the mind, however, that one remembers only with great difficulty or not at all. These are in the unconscious mind.

There are few psychologists today who would deny that much human behavior has unconscious components. Unconscious motivations can reveal themselves in slips of the tongue or pen, in post-hypnotic suggestion, and in dreams. The unconscious mind is also revealed in free association, which is used in the therapeutic method developed by Freud.

Recent reports (Goode, 1999) of research on dreams may well support some of Freud's ideas that dreams are the expression of emotional memories.

Earlier research on dreams by Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley of Harvard, had maintained what was called the "activiation-synthesis" model of dreaming. This position explained dreams as the result of some random neural signals coming from the primitive brain areas when there was rapid eye movement (REM). The higher brain centers then presumably attempted to make sense out of these noisy signals.

But Dr. Mark Solms, a neuropsychologist from London points to work by Allen Braum of NIH which reports that accompanying REM activity is also activity in the centers for emotion, motivation, memory, etc. Further, there appears to be a decrease in higher brain centers. This would seem to support Freud's contention that dreams result from emotional memories, and that the ego (conscious control and supervision) relaxes to permit these centers to opperate.

What are the relations between the systems of personality and the levels of awareness? All of the id is unconscious. The ego and superego have parts at all levels of awareness. Neurotic conflict is a result of the opposition between the demands of the id and the demands of the other systems of the personality.


Personality stages are related to areas of the body .

Freud emphasized the importance of early childhood experiences in the formation of personality. He believed that children normally pass through a sequence of psychosexual stages. Each stage is characterized by the zone of the body from which the child receives the most pleasurable stimulation. If the child is over- or underindulged or otherwise hurt (traumatized as Freud called it) during any one of these stages, he may remain fixated at that stage.

In the first year of life the greatest pleasure is received through stimulation of the mouth and lips in nursing and sucking. This is the oral stage. Since the baby is so dependent during this stage, lasting feelings of dependency may develop if the child is fixated early in life.

J. McV. Hunt attempted to test experimentally one of the cornerstones of psychoanalytic thinking. He hypothesized that if infantile experience plays such a great role in adult personality, rats that had suffered food deprivation at an early age would exhibit a greater tendency to hoard food in adulthood than rats that had not suffered food deprivation.

The results of Hunt's experiment substantiate psychoanalytic theory. Rats of various ages were put on a reduced diet for five days. They were then permitted unrestricted access to food. The rats that had been deprived of food in infancy hoarded more than those that had been deprived at a later age or those that had not been deprived at all.

Traumatization during one stage results in fixation in that stage

Another study to investigate the validity of a psychoanalytic concept was done by Blum and Miller (1952). The ``oral character" in psychoanalytic terms has a receptive orientation. An oral individual feels that the source of everything good is outside himself and that the only way to get it is from that source. The problem of love is that of being loved rather than loving. Oral characters are dependent on others for help and make little effort on their own. They have great fondness for food and drink. Blum and Miller wanted to see if these features of the oral character were always found together.

Trained observers watched a group of eight-year-old children carefully. They counted all instances of oral activity, such as thumb sucking, licking the lips, and chewing on toys. This permitted a ranking of orality. They found that orality (as operationally measured) is correlated with interest in food, with social isolation, and with the need for approval. However, the correlation between orality and dependence WAS not significant. Taken as a whose, the study tended to support the validity of the psychoanalytic concept of the oral character.

From the second to the third year of life the child's interest shifts to the stimulation of the anal region through retention and expulsion of feces. This period is called the anal stage. The method of toilet training and the mother's feelings about defecation during this stage are thought to have a great effect on the child's personality.

Freud proposed that certain character traits would be found in those individuals who suffered fixation at the anal stage of libidinal development. These traits, called the obsessive triad, are obstinacy, orderliness, and stinginess. These anal character traits, according to Freudian theory, would be formed largely because of conflicts involving toilet training.

Subsequent research has developed some evidence of the influence of fixation

Does such a triad actually exist? Do these traits tend to cluster? Robert R. Sears (1936) studied this question by asking 37 men living in college fraternities to rate each other on the three traits. The correlations of the traits he obtained were: obstinacy and orderliness .36; obstinacy and stinginess .37; orderliness and stinginess .39. The correlations are not high, but they are all positive and in the predicted direction. The results appear somewhat more striking when we consider that orderliness is viewed as a desirable trait, while both obstinacy and stinginess are viewed as undesirable.

About two years later, the anal stage is followed by the phallic stage. During this period manipulation of the genitals becomes the chief source of bodily satisfaction. Many sexual problems have their origins in this stage. At the height of the phallic phase a phenomenon occurs which Freud considered one of his greatest discoveries. During this period the child has sexual desires toward the parent of the opposite sex. He has hostile feelings or even death wishes toward the parent of the same sex. Freud called this the Oedipus complex. (Oedipus was a king of Thebes who, in the play by Sophocles, unwittingly killed his father and married his mother.)

Freud recognized variations in the Oedipus complex. Modern Freudian theorists are aware that the specific attachments, positive or negative, of the child will depend on the family structure in which he is reared. In single- parent families, where one of the parents does not live with the child, the child will develop different attitudes than in the typical two-parent household. The general view of the Oedipus complex is that, in the phallic period, the child's sexual and aggressive desires and wishes are attached to those─usually adults─ important in the environment. These desires and wishes provide a psychological rehearsal for the child's future sexual role. Freud felt that the resolution of the Oedipus complex caused the superego to undergo its final development.

Sigmund Freud's daughter, Anna, became a leader in the continuing development of psychoanalytic theory. She and Sophie Dann (1951 ) studied six young children whose parents were killed in the gas chambers of a Polish concentration camp in World War II. The infants were sent to various transit camps for the duration of the war. After the war, they were placed in a nursery in England. At that time their ages ranged from three years to three years and 10 months. None of the children had ever experienced a conventional family structure. Their total experience consisted of group living in a camp or in an institution.


The children had positive attachments only for members of their own group. They did not care for anyone else, and they became upset if one of the members was separated from the group even for a short time. The emotional dependency they displayed made itself evident in another way. There was almost a complete absence of jealousy, rivalry, and competition among the children. Such feelings, which constitute "sibling rivalry," are invariably dis- played by brothers and sisters in the usual family structure.

The six children allied themselves against any adult they felt was threatening or unjust to any one of them. In addition, if one were offered a special treat, he demanded the same for the other five children.

There was much less anxiety in these children than one would expect. A possible explanation is that there was little emotional contact with adults, and the communication of feeling that usually takes place between mother and child did not occur. This study shows the effects of a situation in which the Oedipus conflict could not have developed.

The latency stage follows the phallic stage and lasts from about the ages of six to twelve. In this stage, interest in bodily pleasures subsides, or is "latent." The final genital stage is attained at puberty.

The psychoanalytic view of personality emphasizes three things. One is the importance of sexual drives for all behavior. The influence of the unconscious mind on behavior is also emphasized. Early childhood experiences are ex- tremely important in psychosexual development.


Now test yourself without looking back.

1. Write a brief description of each system.

a. Id______________________________________________________

b. Ego_____________________________________________________

c. Superego__________________________________________________

2. Match.

1) Conscious mind ______________

2) Unconscious mind_______________

3) Preconscious mind_________________

a. Can be remembered only with difficulty
b. Cannot be remembered at all
c. Is known at the moment
d. Can be remembered quite easily stage of development appropriate to each of the following.

a. A baby at birth__________________
b. A toddler____________________

c. A 3-year-old ___________________

d. A 10-year-oid___________________

e. An adolescent_________________

4. In which stage does the Oedipus complex develop?________________________

5. Fixation in which stage causes feelings of dependency to persist?_________________________

6. Which of the following would be emphasized by a psychologist subscribing to the psychoanalytic theory of personality?
a. The importance of sexual drives for behaviors that are not apparently sexual
b. The influence of the unconscious on behavior
c. The importance of adult experiences in the development of the id
d. The importance of experiences in early childhood





Id -- inborn instinctual drives
Ego -- mediates between id and outside world
Superego -- conscience

Refer to the definitions above and write id, ego, or superego enter each of the following descriptions.

a. Everything present at birth______________

b. Sexual and life-preserving drives________________

c. Takes shape when the child knows the difference between himself and the outside world ______________________

d. Incorporates morals of those in power __________________________

_________________________ 3

The pleasure principle is involved with immediate reduction of ten- sion. This principle controls the______________________________________________1

The reality principle delays the reduction of tension until an appropriate object is available. The reality principle:
a. is synonymous with the conscience.
b. increases the action of the pleasure principle.
c. opposes the immediate pleasure principle.
d. (none of these)

____________________________________ _8

The superego is synonymous with conscience. It incorporates the moral standards of whoever is in power. The superego:
a. blocks the sexual drives of the id.
b. includes the basic drives of sex and aggression.
c. substitutes moral goals for the goals of the ego.
d. mediates between the id and the outside world.

____________________________________ 5

List the three systems in the psychoanalytic structure of personality in order of development.





Freud compared the mind to an iceberg. He meant that:
a. only a small part of the mind is conscious.
b. the mind is very cold and rational.
c. the mind is composed of a single structure.

_______________________________________________ 7

Conscious -- what you are aware of at a given moment
Preconscious -- what you can remember quite easily
Unconscious -- what you can remember only with dif ficulty or not at all

At which level of consciousness would each of the following be found?

a. Your thoughts right now ____________________________ b. Memory of what you had for breakfast__________________________ c. Your weaning experience_____________________________ d. Your toilet training___________________________termdescription

_____________________________________________ 2


1 id
2 a. conscious b. preconscious c. unconscious d. unconscious

3 a. id
b. id
c. ego
d. superego

4 id, ego, superego

5 a, c
6 consciousness
7 a
8 c


Stages of Psychosexual Gevelopment

Oral Stage .. Sucking
Anal Stage ... Toilet training
Phallic Stage ... Masturbation
Latency Stage .. .Disinterest in bodily pleasures
Genital Stage . . . Mature sexual behavior

Write the name of the appropriate stage after each of the following descriptions.

a. An 8-year-old boy has no interest in sensual things.______________________________

b. A 2-year-old girl fights toilet training._________________________

c. A 4-year-old boy is extremely interested in his genitals.___________________________

d. A 20-year-old woman becomes pregnant.__________________________

e. A 2/-month-old baby is dependent on his mother for 5 bottles of milk per day.________________________________________________3

The Oedipus complex occurs at about four or five years of age. It occurs during the stage.
____________________________________________ 8

Number the following stages in the correct developmental sequence using 1 for the earliest stage and 5 for the latest stage.

Genital ____
Phallic _____
Oral _____

A basic emphasis of psychoanalytic theory is the importance ot sex drives in explaining behavior that is apparently non-sexual. When a child is fixated at the anal stage, what kind of personality is he likely to develop?

a. Dependent and compliant
b. Obstinate, orderly, and stingy
c. Amoral and remorseless
d. (none of these)


Another basic emphasis of the psychoanalytic theory is the impor- tance of the____________________________________________(conscious/unconscious) mind.

The third basic emphasis is the importance of:

a. experiences in the latency stage.
b. early childhood experiences.
c. prenatal influences.

The three basic emphases of the psychoanalytic theory of personality are: a. the importance of_____________________drives,

b. the influence of the____________________mind, and

c. the importance of____________________experiences.



1 Unconscious

2 a. sexual
b. unconscious
c. early childhood

3 a. latency
b. anal
c. phallic
d. genital
e. oral

4 5

5 b -

6 latency stage

7 b

8 phallic



1. In psychoanalytic theory the system of the personality that acts as the conscience is the ___________________________________________________

2. The system that is present at birth is the________________________________

3. The psychoanalytic theory of personality is primarily concerned with the (conscious/unconscious) mind.

4. During the phallic stage, children are sexually attracted to the parent of the opposite sex. This is called the _______________________________

5. Write the appropriate stage of development after each of the following descriptions.

a. Feelings of dependency may develop._______________________________

b. Toilet training methods may affect personality._____________________________

c. A child has little interest in bodily pleasures._________________________________

6. The development of the personality can be most drastically affected by___________________________________ (childhood/adult) experiences.

7. When does the ego begin to develop?




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