Freud and his Ideas: The Most Famous Psychologist of all Time

Psychology 101: The 101 Ideas, Concepts and Theories that Have Shaped Our World - Adrian Furnham 2021

Freud and his Ideas: The Most Famous Psychologist of all Time

In science, the universe did not change when Einstein thought of relativity, but man did change a little after Freud. (Marie Jahoda, Models of Man, 1980)

The demise of Freudianism can be summed up in a single word: lithium. (Tom Wolfe, Sunday Independent, 1997)

Freud’s concept of sexuality is thoroughly elastic, and so vague that it can be made to include anything. (Carl Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul, 1950)

Freud, the father of psychoanalysis and one of the most famous psychologists of all time, was born in 1856 in Austria. While he was still very young, his family moved to Vienna where he continued to live for most of the remaining 78 years of his life. Initially, he specialized in neurology and neurobiology.

However, the fact that he was a Jew in an anti-Semitic environment limited his job opportunities until he ended up in psychiatry. One of his teachers was Josef Breuer, who strongly believed in hypnosis and its ability to bring out suppressed thoughts and emotions. Based on that, Freud formed his psychological theory of personality and personality disorders. His main goal was to unlock the unconscious. Using psychotherapy, he aimed to help his clients reach the deepest areas of their brain and bring out repressed memories and feelings. Below are some of the key ideas and concepts associated with Freud’s work.


• Behaviour is a result of fights and compromises among powerful, often unconscious, motives, drives and needs.

• Behaviour can reflect a motive in a subtle or disguised way.

• The same behaviour can reflect different motives at different times or in different people.

• People may be more or less aware of the forces guiding their behaviour and the conflicts driving them.

• Behaviour is governed by an energy system, with a relatively fixed amount of energy available at any one time.

• The goal of behaviour is pleasure (reduction of tension, release of energy, the pleasure principle).

• People are driven primarily by sexual and aggressive instincts.

• The expression of these drives can conflict with the demands of society — so the energy that would be released in the fulfilment of these drives must find other channels of release.

• There is a life (eros) and death (thanatos) instinct.


Free association: A procedure during psychoanalysis in which Freud made his clients talk about their dreams in a completely relaxed way without making any effort to concentrate. In other words, their trail of thought was not manipulated at all and clients could talk about whatever they felt like. Freud believed that the way in which each thought followed the other showed what lay in their unconscious and could be the cure of some symptoms caused by repressed thoughts.

Ego, superego and id: Around 1920 Freud came up with a model of personality which stated that personality is formulated from three parts of the mind. The first part he called the id and he identified it as the place where innate, ’animal’ instincts lie. These include, but are not limited to, our sexual and survival instincts. This part of the brain is driven by the pleasure that these instincts bring. It is demotivated by feelings such as pain and un-pleasure. A good example of who is primarily driven by their id is a newborn child. An infant’s only needs are food and affection, both of which are provided by its parents.

Later on in its life the child will need to find out how to satisfy its needs realistically. The infant understands that it can no longer cry in the middle of the night in order to be fed or be held in its mother’s arms. It therefore has to find practical ways to achieve pleasure and this is called the person’s ego. The ego is the rational part of one’s mind that strives to find realistic solutions to gratification. The superego can be viewed as the internalization of the parental agency. In other words, as the person grows up they start acquiring inhibitions against indulging in their impulses. Societal rules as well as ethics and morals provide some constraints to the person’s actions towards fulfilling their instincts. Therefore, the superego is the result of the ego measuring itself, and functions as our conscience and self-observation.

Freudian slips: According to the Freudian school of psychoanalysis, a Freudian slip is an effort of the unconscious to make its appearance in the conscious world. Freud believed that our unconscious is full of thoughts and emotions, usually associated with lust and fear that would be too provocative if expressed. Therefore, our mind causes some slips of the tongue that represent those unconscious feelings.

Stages of psychosexual development: In 1905, Freud developed his theory of psychological development in childhood, which was based on the concentration of libido (sexual drives and instincts) on a specific part of the body each time. He proposed that children go through the following five stages: Oral (nought to one years), Anal (one to three years), Phallic (three to six years), Latency (six to puberty) and Genital (puberty to adulthood). He suggested that some people get stuck in one of these stages and never fully develop, which can lead to personality and other disorders.

Penis envy: Freud believed that around the age of three to six, which he called the Phallic phase (Oedipal phase) of development, children understand the differences between each sex’s genitalia. He supported that girls will be jealous of the boys’ penis which, according to Freud’s system, was the superior and only organ. Boys at that stage will think that girls have been punished with castration for some reason and will therefore develop castration anxiety. On the other hand, girls will believe that they have already been castrated and will blame their mothers who have suffered the same fate for it. In return they will develop strong feelings of longing for a penis and develop a preference for their father (Electra’s syndrome) and for males in general in whom they will seek a penis substitute in the form of a child.

Despite the fact that Freud will probably remain the most famous figure in psychology forever, his theories have been much criticized and many rejected, especially after the 1960s. Yet his fame and his followers endure.


Kline, P. (1995). Fact and Fantasy in Freudian Theory. Second Edition. London: Routledge.

Storr, A. (1996). Freud. Oxford: Oxford University Press.