Psychodynamics: Definition & Theory

Instructor: David White
Psychodynamics has been a popular set of theories in psychology since emerging from Europe in the 19th century. Through this lesson, you will learn how to define psychodynamics and explore some of the more prominent theories that comprise the psychodynamic approach to psychology.

What Is Psychodynamics?

Have you ever wondered how it is that you've become the person you are today? You have, of course, had many experiences and influences from others that have helped to shape your identity, but surely there's more to it than that. From the psychological perspective, there are a number of different theories that attempt to explain how we develop our personalities, but among those, psychodynamics has been one of the most popular.

The term psychodynamic theory or psychodynamics doesn't refer to a single theory; rather it references a number of different psychological theories that make up the psychodynamic perspective. These theories collectively suggest that the individual personality is a combination of early childhood experiences and unconscious impulses or desires.

Say, for example, that you were conducting research in order to understand why a person has committed a series of violent crimes. If you adhered to psychodynamic theory, you would likely conclude that the person had many negative or violent experiences as a child and that these experiences have led to an unconscious desire to harm others, which eventually becomes a conscious desire.

Freud and Psychodynamics

Emerging from Europe during the 19th century, the psychodynamic approach gained considerable attention through the work of one of the most - if not the most - influential figures in the field of psychology, the Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud. Though he didn't establish the concept of psychodynamics, Freud is widely regarded as a pioneer in the area of psychodynamics for the wealth of work that he produced on the subject.

Sigmund Freud, 1909

According to Freud, human personalities are made up of three parts:

The id is the part of the brain that operates unconsciously based on what Freud called the 'pleasure principle.' This part of the personality, according to Freud, is driven by instant gratification and pleasure, while avoiding anything that would cause discomfort or pain.

Unlike the id, which was unconscious and irrational, the ego is the part of the personality that negotiates between the id and the real world. According to Freud's theory, one could not solely pursue pleasure and still be a functional member of society, so the ego exists to provide some balance for the id, which is purely motivated by self-interest.

The final piece of Freud's three-pronged theory is the super ego, which exists to keep a person from deviating from social expectations or engaging in amoral behavior. Perhaps the most conscious part of the personality, the super ego adheres to all of the things that children learn in the very early part of their lives, such as social or cultural standards.

Consider this scenario: your id unconsciously desires to spend your whole life eating unhealthy food, drinking excessively, and stealing money (because working is unpleasant). Your ego, on the other hand, consciously knows that these things are unhealthy and socially unacceptable so it attempts to prevent you from doing those things. Meanwhile, your super ego, operating on the moral lessons learned in childhood, knows that these things are considered bad and in some cases amoral, which reinforces the prevention of the unconscious pleasure driven behaviors.

In light of Freud's theories, the psychodynamic approach to behavior analysis attempts to explain or understand human behavior using these concepts of unconscious desire, conscious social constraints, and the lessons of morality or right and wrong that are learned from parents and community in early childhood.

Carl Jung and Psychodynamics

Sigmund Freud may be the most recognizable figure in the field of psychology, but he is followed closely by Swiss psychologist Carl Jung. Inspired by Freud, Jung took a psychodynamic approach to psychology that built on Freud's own model. Unlike Freud, however, Jung minimized the sexual development aspects that were prominent in Freud's writing.

Carl Jung, date unknown

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