Why Is the PsychoDynamic Theory So Damned Persistent?

When the psychodynamic theory came onto the scene, it was unique in its own right. Freud, the father of the psychodynamic theory, asked many questions that up to that point in history had not been asked, let alone answered. Cervone and Pervin (2010) mention that in place of focusing his questions on one conceptual model, Freud focused on two. First, are the contents of the mind something humans are aware of? Second, what does each mental system do? While Freud’s views did not answer every aspect of the human psyche, they opened the door for others to explore; he raised questions that might otherwise have gone unasked. Adler (1927) was among the first to be influenced by Freud, followed by Erikson (1950) and Jung (1964). Each of these men, from Freud to Jung, looked at human thoughts, feelings, and behaviors from a slightly different view that was held together by a common thread; the psychoanalytic theory. To understand why this theory lasted, one must look into Freud’s influence, why these theorists dissented from Freud’s view, the common links between each theory, and the relevance of certain concepts in today’s culture.

Why so Influential?

To begin, one must explore Freud’s fame and why Freud’s work was so influential. From his youth, Freud had visions of grandeur (i.e. he wished to become a general or government leader) (Cervone & Pervin, 2010). However, anti-Semitic views plagued the military and government, so Freud changed direction and pursued a medical degree (Cervone & Pervin, 2010). It was here that Freud met his mentor Joseph Breuer (1842-1925). Many of Freud’s ideas arose because of his relationship with Breuer (Breger, 2009). Yet, Freud’s fame grew and Breuer’s did not. When Freud visited America, he initially gave credit to Breuer; that was until Freud’s fame in America, and internationally, led to an evolution of the psychodynamic theory (Breger, 2009). Freud became an international celebrity before his death in 1939 and this celebrity left a legacy of well-known concepts and terms (Cervone & Pervin, 2010). One could argue that fame and celebrity are what led to Freud’s influence.

Dissent from Freud

Freud held a mechanistic view of the mind—something that was influenced by his education in Vienna (Cervone & Pervin, 2010). Therefore, the brain was thought of as an energy system; a system developed by nature to store and direct energy on the psychic apparatus (Cervone & Pervin, 2010). Additionally, Freud believed that an individual’s place in society impacted his or her thoughts and behaviors. He believed that individuals are born with innate drives and that society helps people curb these behaviors and thoughts, and that many of the ailments that people face in adulthood arise from childhood experiences (Cervone & Pervin, 2010). Freud also believed that much of what humans did was influenced by unconscious forces (Cervone & Pervin, 2010). While much of what Freud claimed was empirically unsound, he was right in the sense that childhood experiences impact adult behaviors (Muris, 2006).


Adler was among the first to challenge Freud’s views. He was shunned by his peers when he proposed that social urges and conscious thought were at the core of human feelings, thoughts, and behaviors (Cervone & Pervin, 2010). Adler believed that an individual’s feelings of inadequacy, inferiority, and insecurity would drive him or her to compensate (i.e. make up for the lack by striving for adequacy, power, and security) (Cervone & Pervin, 2010).


Erikson followed suit when he proposed that personality development was a life-long process and not just a childhood process; something Freud devoted little time to (Cervone & Pervin, 2010). Capps (2004) describes Erikson’s theory as occurring in stages: Three occur in infancy, one in childhood, one in adolescence, and three in adulthood. Erikson believed that development was not only a psychosexual issue, but psychosocial as well (Cervone & Pervin, 2010). Many believe he took his ideas from Shakespeare; who posited that people went from mewling infants to whining schoolboys, from schoolboys to lovers and fighters, from fighters to just and fair individuals, from justice to a stage of ridiculousness and childishness, and ultimately, a return to infancy and death (Capps, 2004). While these stages outline the life-cycle, they left out one important aspect that Erikson discovered while driving from a conference in Berkeley; a stage crucial to adulthood—generativity or stagnation (Capps, 2004). This crucial step, along with the others, created a clear path for development throughout one’s life and was not limited to the childhood experiences that Freud proposed. Erikson demonstrated that development was ongoing.


Jung is unique in his dissent. Freud and Jung were close. In fact, Freud believed Jung would be the one to carry on his legacy; that was until Jung disagreed with Freud’s view on libido (seeing it as a general life energy and not a sexual instinct) (Cervone & Pervin, 2010). This was only the beginning of their differing views. Jung also believed humans had the ability to dissociate themselves from their mental functions (Noll, 1989). Jung believed that individuals were not the result of repetition and their pasts as Freud proposed. Instead, he felt people had the ability to use conscious thought to influence the outcomes of their lives (Cervone & Pervin, 2010). He also believed these abilities impacted one’s development (Noll, 1989).

Finding Links

Interestingly, the common thread between all of these theories is the impact of instinctual/innate and social factors on human development. Whether it is Freud’s views on the mechanisms of the brain and society’s ability to curb instincts or Adler’s views that behaviors originate from society and that thoughts occur at a conscious level, one can see a common thread; people develop based on internal and external forces (Cervone & Pervin, 2010). Even Erikson and Jung had aspects of social forces in their theories. In some cases, these forces influenced life choices or they merely acted as catalysts for change (Cervone & Pervin, 2010). In all of these theories, one end seems to arise more than any other, challenges in one stage of development can impact one’s performance in another stage (Cervone & Pervin, 2010; Muris, 2006; Noll, 1989).

Relevance to Today’s Culture

All of these theories yielded concepts that are useful in today’s culture. While the following are only a handful of these concepts, they give insight into the importance of these theories in the world of psychology.

Consciousness and Unconsciousness

The first, the concepts of consciousness and unconsciousness help individuals create an idea of forces that may or may not be in his or her field of awareness (Cervone & Pervin, 2010). A person may not be aware of every mechanism behind his or her thoughts, feelings, or behaviors, but it does not undermine the existence of these forces. Freud was among the first to research these unconscious phenomena (Cervone & Pervin, 2010). Even today, there is much to learn about conscious and unconscious thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.


Freud was right in thinking that people limit access to negative memories and experiences (Cervone & Pervin, 2010). Palyo and Beck, (2005) demonstrate the utility of this concept in helping individuals who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Palyo and Beck share that there is a significant difference in the levels of PTSD between repressors and those who are anxious or defensive. They actually showed that repressors had greater control of their lives. Again, another area that deserves further research.


A third concept is identification. Freud believed that all major aspects of personality occurred during early development (Cervone & Pervin, 2010). Current research suggests that identity is developed through interactions between one’s genes, motives, traits, narratives, abilities, roles, reputation, and culture (Borghans et al, 2011). Understanding each of these factors can help researchers understand what goes into development.


In closing, if Freud accomplished anything, it would be the propagation of the idea that human development is based on innate and social factors. Were it not for his fame and controversial stance, many questions might still remain unanswered. Erikson, Adler, Jung, and many others can thank Freud for getting their creative juices flowing. If it were not for Freud, their theories might never have existed. All of these theories share a common thread and many concepts that were developed by Freud are still useful today. Though the understanding of development has improved, it would not be where it is without Freud. Freud’s questions and the answers he proposed to these questions opened the door to new ideas. Perhaps this is what makes him such an important and influential character.


Breger, L. (2009). A dream of undying fame: How Freud betrayed his mentor and invented psychoanalysis. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Borghans, L., Golsteyn, B., Heckman, J., & Humphries, J. (2011). Identification problems in personality psychology. Personality and Individual Differences, 51(3), 315-320. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2011.03.029

Capps, D. (2004). The decades of life: Relocating Erikson's stages. Pastoral Psychology, 53(1), 3-32. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1023/B:PASP.0000039322.53775.2b

Cervone, D., & Pervin, L. (2010). Personality: Theory and research (11th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Muris, P. (2006). Freud was right... about the origins of abnormal behavior. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 15(1), 1-12. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10826-005-9006-9

Noll, R. (1989). Multiple personality, dissociation, and C.G. Jung's complex theory. The Journal Of Analytical Psychology, 34(4), 353-370.

Palyo, S., & Beck, J. (2005). Is the concept of “repression” useful for the understanding chronic PTSD? Behaviour Research and Therapy, 43(1), 55-68. doi:10.1016/j.brat.2003.11.005

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