Psychology 101: The 101 Ideas, Concepts and Theories that Have Shaped Our World - Adrian Furnham 2021
Anality and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: The Need to be Orderly
Perfection can be a fetish. (Bernard Leach, The Potters’ Challenge)
Perfect numbers, like perfect people, are very rare. (Rene Descartes, Mathematical Circles Squared)
In an essay entitled ’Character and anal eroticism’ Freud argued that character traits originate in the warding off of certain primitive biological impulses. Freud identified three main traits associated with people who had fixated at the anal stage: orderliness, parsimony and obstinacy with associated qualities of cleanliness, conscientiousness, trustworthiness, defiance and vengefulness.
Parental behaviour, it is argued, in this phase can cause obsessive-compulsive behaviour. Further, children will parent as they were parented. Hence rigid vs. permissive, premature vs. delayed ’potty training’ can have long-lasting effects. The anal character retains childhood ambivalence and inhibitions towards issues like money.
Studies have found evidence that anal personality characterized by obstinacy, orderliness and parsimony enjoyed toilet humour more than non-anal types, providing modest evidence for the theory. According to the theory, all children experience pleasure in the elimination of faeces. At an early age (around two years) parents in the West toilet-train their children, some showing enthusiasm and praise (positive reinforcement) for defecation, others threatening and punishing a child when it refuses to do so (negative reinforcement). Potty- or toilet-training occurs at the same stage that the child is striving to achieve autonomy and a sense of worth.
Often toilet-training becomes a source of conflict between parents and children over whether the child is in control of its sphincter or whether the parental rewards and coercion compel submission to their will. Furthermore, the child is fascinated by and fantasizes over its faeces, which are, after all, a creation of its own body. The child’s confusion is made all the worse by the ambiguous reactions of parents who on the one hand treat the faeces as gifts and highly valued, and then behave as if they are dirty, untouchable and in need of immediate disposal. Yet, the children who revel in praise over their successful deposits, come to regard them as gifts to their beloved parents to whom they feel indebted, and may grow up to use gifts and money freely. Conversely, those who refuse to empty their bowels except when they must, later have ’financial constipation’.
Thus, the theory states quite explicitly that if the child is traumatized by the experience of toilet-training, it tends to retain ways of coping and behaving during this phase. The way in which a miser hoards money is seen as symbolic of the child’s refusal to eliminate faeces in the face of parental demands. The spendthrift, on the other hand, recalls the approval and affection that resulted from submission to parental authority to defecate. Some people equate elimination/spending with receiving affection and hence felt more inclined to spend when feeling insecure, unloved or in need of affection. Attitudes to money are then bimodal; they are either extremely positive or extremely negative.
Evidence for the psychoanalytic position comes from the usual sources; patients’ free associations and dreams. Freudians have also attempted to find evidence for their theory in idioms, myths, folklore and legends. There is also quite a lot of evidence from language, particularly from idiomatic expressions. Money is often called ’filthy lucre’, and the wealthy are often called ’stinking rich’. Gambling for money is also associated with dirt and toilet-training: a poker player puts money in a ’pot’; dice players shoot ’craps’.
Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder is well-known. It has a number of well-known characteristics noted by Oldham and Morris (1998):
1 Perfectionism that interferes with task completion, e.g., inability to complete a project because one’s own overly strict standards are not met.
2 Preoccupation with details, rules, lists, order, organization or schedules to the extent that the major point of the activity is lost.
3 Unreasonable insistence that others submit to exactly his or her way of doing things, or unreasonable reluctance to allow others to do things because of the conviction that they will not do them correctly.
4 Excessive devotion to work and productivity to the exclusion of leisure activities and friendships (not accounted for by obvious economic necessity).
5 Indecisiveness: decision-making is either avoided, postponed or protracted, e.g. the person cannot get assignments done on time because of ruminating about priorities (do not include if indecisiveness is due to excessive need for advice or reassurance from others).
6 Over-conscientiousness, scrupulousness and inflexibility about matters of morality, ethics or values (not accounted for by cultural or religious identification).
7 Restricted expression of affection.
Amazingly, those who suffer with OCD are unable to discard worn-out or worthless objects even when they have no sentimental value. They hoard rubbish at home and in the workplace. They are reluctant to delegate tasks or to work with others unless they submit exactly to his or her way of doing things. They do not let go and pay the price. They are misers towards both self and others; money is viewed as something to be hoarded for future catastrophes. Because they never fully spend their budget they never get it increased. In short they show rigidity and stubbornness and are very unpleasant to work for.
Freud, S. (1908). Character and Anal Eroticism. London: Hogarth.
Furnham, (2015). The New Psychology of Money. London: Routledge.
Oldham, J., & Morris, L. (1991). Personality self-portrait. New York: Bantam.