The psychodynamic approach - Approaches

AQA A-level Psychology: Revision Made Easy - Jean-Marc Lawton 2017

The psychodynamic approach


The psychodynamic approach sees conscious behaviour occurring through the influence of the unconscious mind, formed during childhood as an individual develops through a series of psychosexual stages. This occurs through instincts and drives that motivate the development of personality and behaviour. Personality has three parts: the id, which develops from birth to 18 months and seeks selfish pleasure (based on the pleasure principle), the ego, which develops from 18 months to 3 years of age and tries to balance the unrealistic demands of the id and the super-ego (based on the reality principle), and the super-ego, which develops from 3 to 6 years of age, which seeks to be morally correct (based on the morality principle). Individuals also progress through a series of psychosexual stages where the libido (positive life force) is focused on different erogenous zones. The first is the oral stage, with the libido centred on the mouth, second is the anal stage with libido focused on defecation, third comes the phallic stage, with libido centred on the genitals, and finally the latency and genital stages before adulthood is reached. Defence mechanisms are used by the unconscious mind to reduce anxiety, for instance repression — where unresolved traumas encountered during development are repressed into the unconscious mind where they affect adult behaviour; denial — where external events are blocked from awareness; and displacement — where emotions are focused on a neutral target.


Fig 5.5 Sigmund Freud, founder of the psychodynamic approach

Focal study

Freud (1909) performed a case study on a 5-year-old boy, ’Hans’, the details of which were reported to him by the boy’s father. Hans had a phobia of horses. The key features of the analysis were (1) that Hans’ interest in his own and the horse’s penis showed he was in the phallic stage (where the libido is centred on the genitals), (2) Hans enjoyed having his mother to himself, indicative of him having an Oedipus complex (where a boy desires his mother and hates his father) and (3) Hans had a castration complex as he feared his father would castrate him as a rival for his mother’s affections. Freud saw this as supporting his psychodynamic approach, especially for the existence of the phallic stage and the concept of an Oedipus complex.


• Williams (1994) found that 38 per cent of women diagnosed in childhood as having suffered sexual abuse had no recall of the abuse and of those who did recall it, 16 per cent had at one time not been able to recall it. This supports the Freudian concept of repression.

• Wiszewska et al. (2007) found that women who had been well treated by and had close relationships with their fathers were attracted to men who resembled their fathers. This supports the Freudian concept of the Electra complex, where girls fall in love with their fathers.

• Snortum et al. (1969) found that 46 males exempted from military service for being homosexual had more controlling mothers and detached fathers than a control group of heterosexual men. This supports the Freudian idea of men who fail to resolve their Oedipus complex becoming homosexual.

Positive evaluation

Image The approach highlights the importance of childhood experiences to overall and later development, illustrating the value of carefully nurturing children to become competent and balanced adults.

Image Freud created a great interest in the human mind and psychology itself, stimulating further research and the development of the subject. He can be credited as probably the first person to investigate our hidden mental world.

Image Freud can also be credited as having popularised the use of the case study research method in psychology. The study method is especially useful when investigating unique or rare examples of individuals.

Negative evaluation

Image Freud’s theory was based upon very few case studies, which presents problems of generalisation, as the findings from single participants cannot be said to be representative of the population as a whole.

Image Hans had developed his phobia of horses after seeing one fall over in the street, therefore his phobia may be explicable through behaviourism as due to classical conditioning rather than having a psychodynamic explanation.

Image The psychodynamic approach is not scientific, as it cannot be falsified since many of the approaches’ ideas and concepts cannot be subjected to experimental research. For example, the idea of an unconscious mind is merely hypothetical and cannot be proven.

Practical application

The main practical application of the approach is in psychotherapy, where a trained psychoanalyst uses various techniques to access an individual’s unconscious mind in order to give them insight into their problems so that they are more able to come to terms with them.