Individual Differences


Major Themes & Assumptions
Psychoanalytic Theory

Last updated:
21 Sep 2003


Firstly, it is important to understand that psychoanalytic theory was not designed as a personality theory per se.  Rather, it was the first major, coherent, psychological theory.  Psychoanalytic is broad in scope and offered unique, controversial insights into how the human mind worked.  In addition, psychoanalytic theory provided a new approach to psychotherapy, thus it provided new treatment techniques for psychological problems that had previously puzzled doctors and others.  Unlike other personality theories, the psychoanalytic theory is relatively cohesive (e.g., the Biological Theory consists of many different, separate ideas, models and theories).  This approach to personality takes up the challenge of explaining what is going on when what is going on is difficult to understand.


The main thrusts of the psychoanalytic perspective on personality are that:

  1. Psychic energy is needed to make the mind go & the energy (motivation) cannot be destroyed, it must be expressed: The psychoanalytic approach assumes that the psychological apparatus of the mind needs some kind of energy to make it go. This energy is used in psychological work such as planning, thinking, feeling, remembering. The psychic energy is thought to come from 2 main drives: Eros (or libido, the life and sexual instincts) and Thanatos (death instinct). The thinking is that at any time there is only a finite amount of energy available and if itís busily being used say to repress memories, and deal with anxieties, then itís not being used fruitfully.  If the neuroses can be resolved, then the psychic energy can be freed to use more creatively and productively.

  2. Psychic Determinism: Everything that happens in a personís mind and everything a person does has a specific, identifiable cause i.e. psychic determinism. Psychoanalysis has no room for miracles, accidents or free will. All seeming contradictions of mind and behaviour can be resolved: nothing is accidental, e.g., it is not accidental when you forget someoneís name, drop something, say one thing and do another. The purpose of psychoanalysis is to dig these hidden causes out, bring them into conscious awareness, and through this insight, the cause can be resolved.

  3. Humans have base instincts (unconscious urges): In Freudian psychology, the unconscious is extremely important in determining behaviour. This is a pervasive theme of the approach: that a lot of desires, motivations and conflicts are seething below the surface, below the level of consciousness. Freud believed that people are driven, fundamentally, by unconscious, animalistic, instinctual urges, particularly lust (eros) and aggression (thanatos).  These urges are often in conflict with the demands of society.  For example, humans desire pleasure, but society places limits on the kinds of pleasure-seeking which it deems acceptable.  Freud emphasizes the extent to which humans are motivated by psychosexual pleasure. 

  4. Topography of the psyche (unconscious, pre-conscious, conscious): Using an iceberg metaphor, the unconscious is understood to be the large part of the mind, which is hidden from view.  The pre-conscious is represented by the waterline - but it is the zone in which there are fleeting glimpses of the unconscious, "flickering" across the screen of consciousness.  Finally, the relatively small part of the iceberg which sticks of the water is seen as equivalent to the small amount of conscious awareness that the human experiences.  Freud also believed that if there was information that was too painful for the conscious part to bear, that defense mechanisms would act to push it down it into the unconscious part of the mind.

  5. Structure of Mind (Id, Ego, Superego): The mind has an internal structure -- three parts with separate motivations: Id (irrational and emotional part of the mind); the Ego (rational part); and the Superego (the moral part).

  6. The Way Psychic Conflicts are Resolved Shapes Personality: Personality characteristics are determined by the way in which a person learns to resolve unconscious conflicts amongst the Id, Ego & Superego.  This evolves from how people handle several psychosexual stages during childhood.  Personality is very strongly influenced by early experiences. Freud was the first to really emphasize the importance of early childhood experiences.  People's Id, Ego and Superego develop characteristic patterns of interaction which for them resolve the urges for psychosexual pleasures. However, in some people, a psychosexual stage may not be effectively resolved and this leads to adult personalities characterized being "stuck" at a particular psychosexual stage (e.g., anally retentive or anally expulsive if the 2nd psychosexual stage "anal" (learning how to "let go" of faeces)) is not resolved, depending on which of the Id, Ego, and Superego becomes more dominant.  The quality of a person's mental health was seen as determined by the extent to which psychic conflicts had been effectively resolved.  If the forces of mind are in balance, according to Freud, then good psychological health ensued.  Personality is viewed as a dynamic set of process which are always in motion i.e. psychodynamic.  Because of the dynamism, it is possible for an adult personality characteristic to be altered quite dramatically through therapeutic (psychodynamic) insight.

  7. Life is Painful, Therefore We Use Defense Mechanisms to Shield Our Psyche's from the Pain: Psychological defenses are proposed as important aspects of human functioning.  Because of human's desire for pleasure (note, they also have destructive instincts), life is essentially too painful for the human being to endure consciously, therefore much of the pain and conflict is diverted via defence mechanisms and kept within the unconscious.  It is within the hidden unconscious that much of the conflict takes place, and these conflicts in the unconscious mind are seen as the root of behavior and conscious experience.  Apparently paradoxical or irrational behaviors can be accounted for by these inner conflicts, i.e., psychic determinism.

  8. Unconscious Leaks Into Conscious Awareness via dreams, slips of the tongue, psychosomatic symptoms, and so on: The unconscious is dynamic, and the psychic energy must go somewhere, plus there is psychic determinism.  In other words, whilst the unconscious conflicts may be largely kept from conscious awareness, they still significantly influence behaviors, psychosomatics, plus leak into the preconscious.

  9. Therapeutic Relief Can be Achieved Through Insight into the Unconscious: Therapeutic relief can be effected by helping a person to bring underlying conflicts, often related to past negative learning experiences during critical psychosexual stages.  To the extent that insight and understanding can be achieved, and a person can resolve many psychological problems.  Note that the therapeutic emphasis on the role and value of achieving "self-insight" is a notion later explored by humanistic psychology.  Psychoanalytic therapy was the first "talk therapy" -- it was noticed for the first time formally in psychology that talking about it helps!  Psychotherapy may also use project assessment techniques, such as the Rorschach Inkblot Test.