A Critical Review of the Psychodynamic Theory


The shape that contemporary Psychology sees itself in today is largely a result of the contributions made by the Psychodynamic school of thought. Interestingly, despite the fact that human behavior is as old as the creation of man itself, however, a refined and exclusive branch of study in this realm wasn’t available until only 100 years ago. Before this, behavior was studied as an offshoot of multiple sciences and Para-sciences, including physiology, neurology, philosophy, astrology, astronomy, etc. The dynamics of human behavior have always been so complex to be analyzed, that a simple science never vowed to enter this particular domain. However, gradually but surely, the psychodynamic model explained concepts that were novel to this science, and in its purest form, gave rise to the science that is now known as Psychology. This feat alone, is by far the greatest achievement of this school of thought. For once, such theories were given, that had no medical or theological connotation to them – they were purely related to the behavioral context of humans. The current paper tends to cover and analyze theoretical framework of psychodynamic theory.
The term psychodynamic refers to a wide group of theories that emphasize the overriding influence of instinctive drives and forces, and the importance of developmental experiences in shaping personality (Berzoff et al., 2016, p.186). These are an amalgamation of theories in a school of thought, that gave rise to ideas and concepts that are and shall be responsible for the most intricate and in depth theories of personality to date. The primary works should be considered those written by Sigmund Freud. Wittig states that, “Psychodynamic Theory was developed from Freud’s attempts to design therapeutic techniques” (2002, p. 113). His genius gave rise to the most prominent and controversial theories of Psychology. “Freud created the first, and still the most influential theory of personality” (Robinson, 1995, p. 243). Primarily an MD and a neurologist by specialty, he ventured into the depth of understanding behavior that no one before him had thought of. His greater works ultimately developed into the realm of Psychoanalysis, essentially the precursor for the Psychodynamic theories.
Psychoanalysis is probably the best known by the public psychological theory. This in itself does not come as a surprise. Regardless of how intangible and at times superficial the original thesis presented by Freud was, the fact remains that the concepts were something that triggered the thought of the layman. It described ideas that were so concrete, they were practically irrefutable. This is one the major reasons why Freud’s theories have always remained controversial and never have really been disproved as such. It can probably be best understood in the form of descriptive analysis of behavior that is subjective in primarily all ways. Feist et al.
believe that “Psychoanalysis is the most comprehensive of all conceptions of personality” (2012,

  1. 52). It attempts to explain personality in a way that is diverse to the extent of being vague, and hence require a great amount of faith in the science itself for the observer to ascertain an optimum level of belief. Contrary to the liking of many hardcore followers of natural sciences, the psychodynamic concept therefore provides very less in quantitative or objective terms that can be tested or evaluated. Ironically, however, majority of the criticism that has been done on this school of thought is also subjective in nature! “Psychodynamic theories are in basic agreement that the study of human behavior should include factors such as internal processes, personality, motivation and drives, and the importance of childhood experiences” (Berzoff et al., 2016, p. 56).

The Iceberg
Introduction of the world with the word ‘unconscious’ is one fact alone that can pardon all sins for the Psychodynamic school of thought. Literally, every psychologist now owes his livelihood to this concept; one can declare to the layman that an issue with the unconscious (that is beyond his own reach) is responsible for the existing state of affairs! On a more pragmatic and scientific note, Freud explored that there was much more than met the eye, as far as behavior was concerned. He claimed that the evident operational processes were in fact a direct consequence of what was embedded within. He compared this to an iceberg, whereby merely the tip was visible to the naked eye, whilst the majority and core of function structure was actually under the sea and in effect hidden. Though multiple sublets of the psychoanalytic school have sprung over the century, yet this concept of the hidden part of personality is not only agreed to, it actually forms the basis of psychodynamic theories and subsequent treatment. So much so, that even the critics have had to agree with this analogy, and had to succumb to the influence which the concept of the ‘hidden unconscious’ presented.
The unconscious contains the material that our ‘conscious’ is not able to or does not want to handle, and is hence suppressed down in the massive store house of the personality. Though it is out of sight, but by no means is it out of mind. It remains unseen but refrains from staying dormant. Quite the contrary, it becomes the dynamic engine that provides the impetus for the human behavior to be contoured and take effect. This hidden unconscious gave rise to the idea of repressed feelings, and the fact that there is a driving force that is there, unseen by man, yet potent in its effect. This driving energy has been explained in various ways by different psychoanalysts, including sexual drive and ego influence. Further to the unconscious, the concept of dream interpretation came to light. Even to date, this is an area which is very cautiously touched by any psychologist. Yet this was Freud’s strong point; or so he claimed. By giving hugely debatable interpretations of what symbols in our dreams stand for, he came up with the concept that dreams are the primary inlet through which he can enter the hidden persona of people.
Here, Alfred Adler’s concept vis-à-vis social impacts are very important. His ideation of inferiority and superiority complexes, that now see common usage in language and literature both, attempt at defining the intrinsic values of personality by virtue of external or social influences. According to him, deficiencies and excessive abilities were both magnified by the societal influence and as a consequence the person may feel dejected or complacent respectively, either of which are extremes and hence not desirable.
The Crux of Personality
Freud subdivided his concept of personality into three different parts, namely Conscious, Subconscious or Preconscious and unconscious. The conscious part would contain the perceptual reality of a person, what he is stating and feeling in real-time. The sub-conscious included the thoughts and ideas, which the person was aware of, but subjective and passively inaccessible to himself. And finally, the unconscious would contain elements of the hidden and unknown; all the repressed desires, unwanted feelings and uncomfortable experiences formulated its construct of the unconscious. His understanding of the personality structure, was divided into three parts of Id, Ego and Super Ego and served as another milestone in his theory. The Id worked on the biological principle, was drive oriented, and would do anything to fulfill its requirements. The Ego would be an equilibrium between the two, and play a role as a psychological stabilizer and catalyst. Whereas, the Super Ego would be the sociological parameters round a person, that would demarcate the dos and don’ts of a person. The tussle between these three, gave rise to the structure of personality, in very simple terms. The Id always wants to fulfill its needs, the Super Ego provides the impediments, while the Ego gives the best way out. Hence the use and abuse of the infamous term ‘ego’ while describing the attitude of a person. “The end result is a thinking, problem-solving being who knows how and where to meet his needs and how to resolve conflicts. In the psychoanalytic theory, individual differences result from the ways in which people resolve conflicts” (Berzoff et al., 2016, p.450).
Another contribution of his that was not only borne by later psychoanalysts but also other schools of thoughts was the concept of defense mechanisms. These were the unconscious reactions which came instinctively in human beings, in response to difficult, uncomfortable and traumatic events. Terms such as repression, regression, reaction formation, sublimation, scapegoating and rationalization for the first time got a scientific meaning to themselves. These, and similar reactions are so integral to the psychodynamic school of thought, that till date, no therapy can take place successfully without appropriate identification of the defense mechanisms. It is these mechanisms that are understood, molded or even broken by the psychoanalyst, that helps the person come out of the shackles of unwanted hidden discomforts. Without true appreciation of these feelings, concrete therapy in psychoanalysis remains shallow if not incomplete n its essence.
Here, Jung’s concept serves also as an interesting study. When he gave the concept of
‘archetypes’, he ventured into a realm that would difficult for the science-lovers to follows. Nonetheless, he gave creative and defining versions of how various threads and flavors of gender, age, animals and past influences played a vital role in defining the personality of individuals. His emphasis was on social influence and current events. He being heavily influenced by the concepts of Hinduism and Buddhism in his theories, gave the concept of being born with a ‘collective unconscious’, something that made Freud’s subjectivity look meager.
Somehow, it gave the impression that psychoanalysts were prone to give a concept that was neither explainable nor refutable.
Child as the Father of Man!
Childhood gets immense importance in the psychodynamic methods. No other division of psychology plays as much emphasis upon the early experiences in life than this one. It is believed, that not only these help shape and define the personality of a person, they also stick permanently to the mind of the child/adult, and keep referring back adult behavior to be a consequence of what happened in the childhood. Many psychoanalysts would take it to be a victory, if in a session they would be able to successfully submerge themselves into the childhood of a person, and hence reach to the root-cause for the deviation in behavior. Freud gave an elaborated explanation of the ‘psychosexual stages of development’. These ended up being the most controversial part of his theory, and yet paradoxically remain an integral continuant of both curriculum and practice of psychology worldwide! His idea of identification with sexual desires at the earliest possible age, gave rise to criticisms on account of subjectivity and cultural bias.
However, Erik Erikson very objectively and intensely divided the childhood stages into eight different stages of development. These were not only more agreeable, they also became the foundations for future studies, including the non-psychodynamic works of Jean Piaget in Child
Psychology. Erikson’s works give immense insight into what the study of the hidden experiences withholds, and gives the psychodynamic viewpoint a more quantifiable stance.
The Cognitive-Behavioral Dimension
A contrasting viewpoint was adopted by the behavioral school of thought, which matched in context wit the cognitive approach. “Cognitive psychology is the psychological science that studies cognition, the mental processes that underlie behavior, including thinking, deciding, reasoning, and to some extent motivation and emotion” (Wikipedia). The attention now changed from intrinsic feelings to intellectual thoughts. Therefore, any activity committed by a human being would in effect qualify to be a cognitive process, and hence the strength of this concept.
The primary focus was on watching the model’s behavior – anybody performing and act is likely to trigger a similar one by the observer.
Similarly, with behaviorism, came the concept of learning based behavior, stimulus response theories, and behavior modification through the use of reinforcers. Mischel undertakes that “We can know people only by examining their behavior – the things they say and do” (1986, p. 274). This goes on to advocate the stance that behavior is both observable and in way, tangible. This makes human actions quantifiable, analytical, and easy to mold. It has to be understood that every action is the result of a consequence; if this reason is highlighted, then it can be used for the good of the person. Conceptualizing behavior in terms of behavior itself made it extremely simple and scientific for this method to gain popularity, and eventually success.
In comparison with the psychodynamic model, they both accept the use of the scientific method. This in turn implies that issues pertaining to self-evaluation, contemplation and thoughtbeyond-thought were considered as invalid. They emphasize immensely on the importance of mental processes, and the role the brain and the senses play in developing the dynamics of behavior. Though many psycho-dynamists would gladly accept this stance as well, yet without the essential ingredient of being able to rivet through the individual’s defenses, their methodology seems incomplete. Simple mental processes, they argue, are same for every normal human being; then why the difference in behavior?
The Humanistic-Existential Perspective
An analogous school of thought is presented with the amalgamation of the humanistic and existential theorists. Though different in their own particular rights, yet their footing is on the same grounds. “The human being is a ‘being-in-the-world.’ That is, the human kind of being is always already involved in meaningful projects with others and alongside things” (Robbins). The concept that they try to portray, is that human being lives in real-time, and gives response to actual situations. Hypothetical or unknown/hidden things are not in their domain, nor do they pay much heed to this idea. They believe that humans live in reality, and a pragmatic approach requires for the human to react as a being, and respond to the stimuli presented. In response to others, there is always a sense of having an entity of oneself, and hence the concept of being. A human is a human by virtue of his existence, thus appreciating and identifying with the concept of existentialism is the core of understanding human behavior. Living up to one’s full potential and understanding what can be done is imperative to this concept.
Supplementary to this is the concept of Humanistic Psychology. It was more of a reactionary theology, in response to both behaviorism and psychoanalysis. It is explicitly concerned with the human dimension of psychology and the human context for the development of psychological theory. The perspective of the human is foremost, and it has to be taken in the terms as he represents himself. Interpretation of information that he is not aware of himself is considered to do no good to the cause of that person. Actualization with one’s priorities, standings, and self-awareness is the focal point of humanistic psychology.
Combined, they both standup against the psychodynamic theory by virtue of a difference in surface and depth. Simply put, the humanistic-existential theory prides on things as they are; on the face of it. However, psychoanalysis will do anything but that. It thrives on probing the hidden unconscious, believes ardently in the fact that behavior is determined by forces that are not visible to the naked eye, and hence the conscious human can do very little about it.
From The Critic’s Eye
An important consequence of the wide variety of psychoanalytic theories is that psychoanalysis is difficult to criticize as a whole. Many critics have attempted to offer criticisms of psychoanalysis that were in fact only criticisms of specific ideas present only in one or more theories, rather than in all of psychoanalysis.
However, the fact of the matter remains that the Psychodynamic Model in scientific terms present a lot of information that is both invalid and non-reliable. It is not valid because many theories do not measure or explain what they purport to describe. They end up extrapolating such vague and extensive ideas, that are even difficult for the practitioner to understand, let alone the layman. The lack of reliability derives from the fat that the expected results are not repeatable; once a theory projected form one person may never be applicable on any person ever.
Mischel believes that “Psychodynamic assessments rely primarily on the intuitions of the personality assessor” (1986, p. 172). Nonetheless, the staunch and resilient description of human unconscious given by this school of thought must be respectfully refuted. It must be admitted, that the mere words with which we are criticizing Freud’s psychoanalysis, are the words that Freud taught us himself! Nobody has been able to tackle the dream world or the unconscious phenomena like the master himself. Notwithstanding, however fascinating his concept might be, it has to be applicable and repeatable for the scientific world to respect it in its entirety. Sadly, though, even in Freud’s life, many neo-Freudians had already left his thesis on the stance of being too psycho-sexual oriented.
More recent forms of psychoanalysis seek, among other things, to help patients gain selfesteem through greater trust of the self, overcome the fear of death and its effects on current behavior, and maintain several relationships that appear to be incompatible. It has to be mentioned, that patients do, even until now, are getting successful treatment at the hands of psychodynamic practitioners – there has to be some fire where the smoke is coming from!
Furthermore, Brown emphasizes that “It is not useful for persons in crisis who require immediate relief of symptoms” (2000, p. 125).
The Claim of The Psychodynamic Theory
Schultz declares that “The Halo Effect involves the familiar tendency to judge all aspects of a person’s behavior or character on the basis of a single attribute” (2002, p.147). The psychodynamic model is a victim of the use and abuse of the same effect. Misnomers about certain Freudian concepts have rendered the entire repute of the school of thought under scrutiny. At the same time, the magnanimity of Freud alone has ensured that the psychodynamic rule of law sustained the wrath of time and criticism.
With contemporary psychology only a century old, no theory can be termed as perfect. However, there are defining moments in the evolution of every science, and it can be stated with confidence that psychoanalysis was one such moment for psychology. If nothing else, its greatest favor was to separate this science from its multiple parents, none of whom were willing to own it. The unconscious, dream analysis, hidden feelings, and childhood experiences are just a few of the gifts that have been given to modern therapists through this concept. Ironically, however diverse a psychologist may be ultimately, yet the start they take is either from accepting or refuting the Freudian construct, making it an indispensable part of psychology.
Berzoff, J., Flanagan, M. L., Hertz, P. (2016) Inside Out and Outside In: Psychodynamic Clinical Theory and Psychopathology in Contemporary Multicultural Contexts. Lanham:
Rowman & Littlefield.
Brown, R. (2000). Therapeutic Counseling. New York: Brooks/Cole.
Feist, G., Feist, J., Roberts, T. (2012). Theories of Personality. McGraw-Hill Humanities.
Mischel, W. (1986). Introduction to Personality. New York: HRW, 4th edition.
Robbins, B.D., (1999) “Freud and psychoanalytic theory: an introduction to the tradition”. Mythosandlogos.com. Retrieved from http://mythosandlogos.com/psychandbe.html
Robinson, D.N. (ed.) (1995) An Intellectual History of Psychology. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
Schultz, D. (2002). Psychology & Work Today. India: Pearson Education.
Wittig, A. (2002). Introduction to Psychology. Ohio: McGraw Hill.

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