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Psychodynamic Approach in Psychology: Definition & Explanation

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  • 0:01 Psychodynamic Approach…
  • 0:51 Id, Ego & Superego
  • 2:11 Stages of Psychosexual…
  • 4:03 Defense Mechanisms
  • 4:54 In Modern Psychology
  • 5:47 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Lawrence Jones

Lawrence "LoJo" Jones teaches Psychology, Sociology, Ethics and Critical Thinking

Do dreams reveal our hidden subconscious thoughts and motivations? Could something traumatic in your childhood be the reason behind bad habits, fears or phobias? The psychodynamic approach in psychology may be the answer to those questions and more.

Defining the Psychodynamic Approach in Psychology

In the early 20th century, famed psychologist Sigmund Freud proposed the idea that our personalities are shaped and motivated by subconscious and conscious forces, with a strong influence from childhood experiences. Through psychoanalysis, an insight-oriented therapy that aims to bring up and confront forgotten hurts, unfulfilled desires and frustrations, Freud thought that psychologists could resolve dysfunction in one's current life. This technique of unveiling the psychological forces that influence human personality and functioning came to be known as the psychodynamic approach in psychology. This lesson will discuss Freud's breakdown of the components of one's personality, examine his ideas on stages of psychosexual development and look at how our personalities use defense mechanisms.

Parts of the Psyche: The Id, ego and Superego

Freud proposed that our psyche, which can be defined in many ways - our thoughts, feelings, mind, self-perception and personality - is composed of three elements: the ego (which represents our conscious thoughts), the superego (which represents our social conscience) and the id (which represents our subconscious, pleasure-seeking, inner desires). Think of our psyche, as described by Freud, as an iceberg adrift in the sea. While we can see the ego and superego above the surface of the water, the largest part of who we are is hidden away underneath within the inky depths of our subconscious.

The id isn't logical or reasonable, the ego tries to satisfy the id in a safe manner and the superego keeps track of our guilt and social norms. I like to think of it within the context of seeing the dessert cart roll up at a nice restaurant, loaded with gorgeous piles of sweet calories and unhealthy dining. We've all seen these, yes? The ego says, 'Well, I can have one small slice or maybe share one with my friend. That won't be unhealthy.' The superego says, 'A moment on the lips a lifetime on the hips!' For some reason my superego sounds like a personal trainer. And the id says, 'Give me the entire cart! Hulk eat! Nom nom nom!' You get the idea. The battle between these three forces in the subconscious of our psyche defines us.

Stages of Psychosexual Development

Freud was an advocate of the idea that the primary force of our energy in our psyche was the libido, an energy created by survival and sexual needs below the level of conscious thought. This libido is constantly seeking satisfaction of the desires to be safe and experience pleasure, but as we grow older, the need to control our basic wants and needs comes into conflict with the rampaging id.

According to Freud, there are five stages of psychosexual development:

  1. Oral stage (birth to 18 months)
  2. Anal stage (18 months to three years)
  3. Phallic stage (three to six years)
  4. Latency stage (six years to puberty)
  5. Genital stage (puberty and beyond)

As we go through these stages, we develop new conflicts and open the potential for unresolved issues that impact our future happiness and functionality. Freud proposed that over-gratification or under-gratification during one of these stages could lead to fixations during adulthood. Let's look at a few examples.

Oral Stage

Have you ever seen a baby who didn't want to put whatever it could get its hands on into its mouth? This natural desire could become over-gratified (possibly through too much use of the famous 'binky,' or too frequent feedings) and thus as an adult this desire is still strong, leading to oral fixation in adult behaviors such as finger nail biting and/or chewing, hair chewing, overeating and even smoking.

Anal Stage

Children are pleased by relieving themselves in their diapers. But during potty training time, along come mom and dad to take away that pleasure and require the child to control his or her pleasure until they can use the potty. This war over the control of pleasure can result in a subconscious desire to control other factors in one's life. Thus, anal retentive behavior can result as an adult.

Defense Mechanisms

According to Freud, the ego develops strategies to defend you from daily conflicts that may cause stress or anxiety due to your id's desires and your superego's attempts to control those desires. These protective strategies are called defense mechanisms. Here are a few common defense mechanisms.

  • Repression: You push guilty or threatening thoughts into the basement of the subconscious.
  • Denial: You don't like certain information, so you refuse to take it seriously and instead ignore it.
  • Projection: You attribute certain feelings, desires or impulses to other people rather than seeing it in yourself.
  • Displacement: You transfer desires or impulses to someone or something else.
  • Sublimation: You transfer desires or impulses into a form that is socially acceptable.

Psychodynamic Perspective in Modern Psychology

While there are those who still believe that Freudian concepts are a powerful tool to understanding and explaining human behavior, there are many criticisms leveled by modern experts in the field of psychology. The greatest weakness, according to some, is that Freud's theories offer no insights into predicting behavior, which is one of the primary goals of modern psychology. There are those who find little evidence that psychoanalysis actually helps people to change behavior either, again, a primary goal of modern psychology.

We have to remember that Freud's concepts are the result of living in a male-dominated, turn-of-the-century world in which scientific rigor in the psychological field was still being developed. Many question his methods of research as well as the conclusions he reached. However, it is undeniable that his ideas have greatly impacted the field, and he is most likely one of the most well-known stars of the psychological universe.

Lesson Summary

Let's review. In the early 20th century, psychologist Sigmund Freud proposed the idea that our personalities are shaped and motivated by subconscious and conscious forces, with a strong influence from childhood experiences. His therapeutic technique of unveiling the psychological forces that influence human personality and functioning came to be known as the psychodynamic approach in psychology.

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