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How do psychodynamic theories explain personality?

How do psychodynamic theories explain personality?

Psychodynamic theorists are not content with studying traits. Instead, they try to probe under the surface of personality—to learn what drives, conflicts, and energies animate us. Psychodynamic theorists believe that many of our actions are based on hidden, or unconscious, thoughts, needs, and emotions. What psychodynamic theorists tend to share in common with trait theorists is the view that human personality is based on a set of biological dispositions.

As we discussed in Chapter 1, psychoanalytic theory, the best- known psychodynamic approach, grew out of the work of Sig- mund Freud, a Viennese physician. As a doctor, Freud was fasci- nated by patients whose problems seemed to be more emotional than physical. From about 1890 until he died in 1939, Freud evolved a theory of personality that deeply influenced modern thought ( Jacobs, 2003; Schultz & Schultz, 2009). Let’s consider some of its main features.

The Structure of Personality How did Freud view personality? Freud’s model portrays personality as a dynamic system directed by three mental structures: the id, the ego, and the superego. According to Freud, most behavior involves activity of all three systems. (Freud’s theory includes a large num- ber of concepts. For your convenience, they are defined in ■ Table 12.2 rather than in glossary boxes.)

The Id The id is made up of innate biological instincts and urges. The id operates on the pleasure principle. It is self-serving, irrational, impulsive, and totally unconscious. That is, it seeks to freely

express pleasure-seeking urges of all kinds. If we were solely under control of the id, the world would be chaotic beyond belief.

The id acts as a power source for the entire psyche (sigh-KEY), or personality. This energy, called libido (lih-BEE-doe), flows from the life instincts (or Eros). According to Freud, libido underlies our efforts to survive, as well as our sexual desires and pleasure seeking. Freud also described a death instinct. Thanatos, as he called it, produces aggressive and destructive urges. Freud offered humanity’s long history of wars and violence as evidence of such urges. Most id energies, then, are aimed at discharging ten- sions related to sex and aggression.

The Ego The ego is sometimes described as the “executive,” because it directs energies supplied by the id. The id is like a blind king or queen whose power is awesome but who must rely on others to carry out orders. The id can only form mental images of things it desires. The ego wins power to direct behavior by relating the desires of the id to external reality.

Are there other differences between the ego and the id? Yes. Recall that the id operates on the pleasure principle. The ego, in contrast, is guided by the reality principle. The ego is the system of think- ing, planning, problem solving, and deciding. It is in conscious control of the personality and often delays action until it is practi- cal or appropriate.

The Superego What is the role of the superego? The superego acts as a judge or censor for the thoughts and actions of the ego. One part of the superego, called the conscience, reflects actions for which a person

has been punished. When standards of the conscience are not met, you are punished internally by guilt feelings.

A second part of the superego is the ego ideal. The ego ideal reflects all behavior one’s parents approved of or rewarded. The ego ideal is a source of goals and aspirations. When its standards are met, we feel pride.

The superego acts as an “internalized parent” to bring behavior under control. In Freudian terms, a person with a weak superego will be a delinquent, criminal, or antisocial personality. In contrast, an overly strict or harsh superego may cause inhibition, rigidity, or unbearable guilt.

The Dynamics of Personality How do the id, ego, and superego interact? Freud didn’t picture the id, ego, and superego as parts of the brain or as “little people” run- ning the human psyche. Instead, they are conflicting mental pro- cesses. Freud theorized a delicate balance of power among the three. For example, the id’s demands for immediate pleasure often clash with the superego’s moral restrictions. Perhaps an example will help clarify the role of each part of the personality:

Freud in a Nutshell Let’s say you are sexually attracted to an acquaintance. The id clamors for immediate satisfaction of its sexual desires, but is opposed by the superego (which finds the very thought of sex shocking). The id says, “Go for it!” The superego icily replies, “Never even think that again!” And what does the ego say? The ego says, “I have a plan!”

This is, of course a drastic simplification, but it does capture the core of Freudian thinking. To reduce tension, the ego could begin actions leading to friendship, romance, courtship, and marriage. If the id is unusually powerful, the ego may give in and attempt a seduction. If the superego prevails, the ego may be forced to displace or sublimate sexual energies to other activities (sports, music, danc- ing, push-ups, cold showers). According to Freud, internal struggles and rechanneled energies typify most personality functioning.

Is the ego always caught in the middle? Basically yes, and the pres- sures on it can be intense. In addition to meeting the conflicting demands of the id and superego, the overworked ego must deal with external reality.

According to Freud, you feel anxiety when your ego is threat- ened or overwhelmed. Impulses from the id cause neurotic anxi- ety when the ego can barely keep them under control. Threats of punishment from the superego cause moral anxiety. Each person develops habitual ways of calming these anxieties, and many resort to using ego-defense mechanisms to lessen internal conflicts. Defense mechanisms are mental processes that deny, distort, or otherwise block out sources of threat and anxiety.

Key Freudian Concepts

Anal stage The psychosexual stage corresponding roughly to the period of toilet training (ages 1 to 3).

Anal-expulsive personality A disorderly, destructive, cruel, or messy person.

Anal-retentive personality A person who is obstinate, stingy, or compulsive, and who generally has difficulty “letting go.”

Conscience The part of the superego that causes guilt when its standards are not met.

Conscious The region of the mind that includes all mental contents a person is aware of at any given moment.

Ego The executive part of personality that directs rational behavior. Ego ideal The part of the superego representing ideal behavior; a source

of pride when its standards are met. Electra conflict A girl’s sexual attraction to her father and feelings of

rivalry with her mother. Erogenous zone Any body area that produces pleasurable sensations. Eros Freud’s name for the “life instincts.” Fixation A lasting conflict developed as a result of frustration or

over-indulgence. Genital stage Period of full psychosexual development, marked by the

attainment of mature adult sexuality. Id The primitive part of personality that remains unconscious, supplies

energy, and demands pleasure. Latency According to Freud, a period in childhood when psychosexual

development is more or less interrupted. Libido In Freudian theory, the force, primarily pleasure oriented, that

energizes the personality. Moral anxiety Apprehension felt when thoughts, impulses, or actions

conflict with the superego’s standards. Neurotic anxiety Apprehension felt when the ego struggles to control

id impulses. Oedipus conflict A boy’s sexual attraction to his mother, and feelings of

rivalry with his father. Oral stage The period when infants are preoccupied with the mouth as a

source of pleasure and means of expression. Oral-aggressive personality A person who uses the mouth to express

hostility by shouting, cursing, biting, and so forth. Also, one who actively exploits others.

Oral-dependent personality A person who wants to passively receive attention, gifts, love, and so forth.

Phallic personality A person who is vain, exhibitionistic, sensitive, and narcissistic.

Phallic stage The psychosexual stage (roughly ages 3 to 6) when a child is preoccupied with the genitals.

Pleasure principle A desire for immediate satisfaction of wishes, desires, or needs.

Preconscious An area of the mind containing information that can be voluntarily brought to awareness.

Psyche The mind, mental life, and personality as a whole. Psychosexual stages The oral, anal, phallic, and genital stages, during

which various personality traits are formed. Reality principle Delaying action (or pleasure) until it is appropriate. Superego A judge or censor for thoughts and actions. Thanatos The death instinct postulated by Freud. Unconscious The region of the mind that is beyond awareness,

especially impulses and desires not directly known to a person.

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