How Relevant Is Freud Today

Published: 2021-10-08 03:30:13
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Sigmund Freud was arguably one of the most influential psychologists in the investigation of personality, and his work can still, to some extent, be considered relevant today. His methods allowed for the first time the investigation of phenomena that were previously difficult to tackle, such as dreams and sexual desires. “Yes and No” is a justified reply to the question of whether Freud is relevant today in that his ideas on personality were the first to investigate the role of childhood trauma, and have been reflected in the work of many other psychologists since, either as a continuation of his work or as a reaction to it.
In this essay, the relevance of Freud’s Personality Theory will be assessed, with reference to conflicting theories, such as social-cognitive, trait and biological approaches. It can be argued that Freud’s original ideas still have relevance today as they sparked off much research, leading to the development of more thorough and relevant theories, as well as the development of techniques for research and therapy. Most other personality theories were developed at least partly due to the limitations of his work (Pervin et al, 2005).
However, the relevance can be thrown into question in terms of Freud’s outdated methods, and his inability to accept new evidence or research that conflicted with his ideas. Central to Freud’s psychoanalytical theory is the idea that peoples’ actions are driven by powerful, innate biological urges that must be satisfied (Schaffer, 2008). Many of his ideas caught on early in the twentieth century, as they covered a wide scope, and even today his insights are still influential, however many psychologists have severe criticisms of his methods, and disagree with his theories.
One such criticism is that the empirical testing of Freud’s theory is very difficult, almost impossible, therefore the scientific status of psychoanalytic theory can be questioned. “We can no more test Freudian hypotheses on the couch than we can adjudicate between the rival hypotheses of Newton and Einstein by going to sleep under the apple tree” (Eynsenck, 1953, cited by Pervin et al). The terminology used in psychoanalysis can be vague and ambiguous, for example how can we define libido? Gleitman et al, 2004). Also, the energy model, while it is a useful metaphor for personality functioning, it cannot adequately explain the complexity of human behaviour. Freud’s theory does not allow for predictions in the future, and does not explain phenomena from the past, therefore it is no surprise that “many psychologists believe the theory should be set aside in favour of other, more powerful conceptions. ” (Gleitman et al, 2004) A major critic of Freudian theory was Hans J.
Eynsenck, who believed that a serious shortcoming of psychoanalytic theory was the lack of precise, reliable measures (Pervin et al, 2005). Eynsenck placed emphasis on the biological basis of personality traits, and used the method of factor-analysis to establish the basic traits of personality. It can be argued that trait approaches to personality are more relevant to today’s study of personality than earlier Freudian ideas, as Freud and other early theorists relied heavily on pure intuition while trait theorists rely on an objective, statistical procedure (Pervin et al, 2005).
The Five-Factor Model of Personality was developed as a solution to the fact that there are many different words that can describe personality traits; in English alone, there are more than 5,000 words to describe personality characteristics (Pervin et al, 2005). Everrett (1983) suggested that the number of factors used for determining personality traits should be decided by comparing rotated solutions in different samples and using the one solution that could be replicated (McCrae, 1987).
The five factor solution showed high replication of all factors, demonstrating that when compared to psychoanalytic theory, trait theories have higher reliability and relevance in today’s scientific study of personality. However, trait theory also cannot be completely objective and is culturally biased toward western society; other reactionary theories can provide further evidence for the relevance (or lack of relevance) of Freud’s ideas. Another important alternative to psychoanalytic theories of personality development is the social-cognitive approach.
Cognitive psychologists would argue that Freud’s theory has little relevance for today’s scientific study of personality, and would place far more emphasis on behaviour as situation-specific, cognitive thought processes and the social origins of behaviour (Pervin et al, 2005). The theoretical principle of reciprocal determinism contradicts Freudian theories, and states that “personality, behaviour and the environment must be understood as a system of forces that mutually influence one another” (Bandura, 1997, cited by Pervin et al, 2005). Additionally, biological theories of personality can be used to undermine the relevance of Freud’s ideas.
Behaviour geneticists use various techniques to find scientific evidence that some degree of the variation in characteristics is genetically determined. In selective breeding studies, animals with a particular characteristic are chosen and mated together to produce offspring with this specific trait. In this way, it has been illustrated that genes can contribute to problems that had before been considered the fault of the individual, for example, research on mice has found that “genetic factors present some individuals with severe vulnerabilities to lifelong problems with alcohol,” (Hamer & Copeland, 1998, cited by Pervin et al,2005).
Twin studies have also supported the idea that genetic factors are of considerable importance in explaining normal variation in personality types, while there is consistent evidence that the effects of a shared home environment is minimal (Thapar & McGuffin,1993). This discredits the idea that childhood experiences shape personality, questioning the relevance of Freud’s theory. Further evidence of a biological basis to personality rather than the explanations offered by psychoanalytic theories come from the neuroscience of personality.
For example, the amygdala, located within the limbic system, appears to be vital for processing all emotional stimuli (Pervin et al, 2005). In addition to this, neurotransmitter functioning provides more evidence for the idea of biological influences on the development of personality traits. The drugs involved in alleviating depression, Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitors, (SSRIs), were administered to ‘normal’ individuals and have been found to “reduce negative affective experience and to increase social, affiliative behaviour,” (Knutson et al, 1998, cited by Pervin et al, 2005).
Support for biological theories also comes from the case study of Phineas Gage. Before an accident in 1848 which involved his tamping iron being blown completely through his skull, destroying his left frontal lobe, Gage’s personality was that of a serious, industrious, energetic and responsible man (Pervin et al, 2005). After the accident, however “in this regard his mind was radically changed, so decidedly that his friends and acquaintances said he was ‘no longer Gage” (Harlow, 1868, cited by Macmillan et al, 2010).
Phineas Gage’s personality had been completely transformed after the accident, supporting the theory that biological processes play an important part in the development of most personality traits. Despite all this, the early ideas of Freud cannot simply be disregarded as being irrelevant to today’s scientific study of personality. Freud noted, for the first time ever, that scientists had only been studying what he called the “tip of the iceberg,” and claimed that most psychic experience lay below the level of conscious awareness (Schaffer, 2008).

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