“The unexamined life is not worth living” is a message attributed to Socrates and adopted by Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis. Today, the theories of Freud are often considered dated at best and sexist at worst. Modern personality psychology, however, still gains a lot of value and influence from Freudian theory.
Recently on The Science of Personality, cohosts Ryne Sherman, PhD, chief science officer, and Blake Loepp, PR manager, spoke with Robert Hogan, PhD, founder and president of Hogan Assessments, about why Freud matters.
Let’s dive into seven relevant scientific ideas from Freud.
Does Freudian Psychoanalysis Work?
People want more out of life than just financial rewards. They want to know what life is about—how to achieve wisdom and happiness. This is why some may pursue psychotherapy, such as Freudian psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis is expensive and time-consuming, Dr. Hogan pointed out. It typically appeals to wealthy, smart people who have time on their hands and want to understand themselves better.
Cognitive behavioral therapy, one of the most common types of modern psychotherapy, has the focused goal of treating mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression. In contrast, the goal of long-term psychoanalysis is to create a deep, profound personal understanding beyond simple introspection. “It’s about a total psychic overhaul,” Dr. Hogan said. As to whether psychoanalysis “works” . . .
It can be life-changing in that it provides thorough, intimate self-knowledge. Self-awareness doesn’t necessarily lead to ultimate happiness. Freud himself was clear that the goal of psychoanalysis is not to make you happy. The goal is to persuade you to exchange your “neurotic unhappiness” for the “common misery” of humanity. By this, Freud meant directly facing reality with no illusions. This degree of intellectual and emotional honesty borders on philosophical existentialism, which can seem bleak. Yet, contrary to the belief that it is unscientific, psychodynamic psychotherapy is indeed an effective therapeutic approach.1
Seven Important Concepts in Freudian Theory
“People are the most dangerous and deadly invasive species in the history of the earth,” Dr. Hogan said to explain why studying human personality is so significant. “Wouldn’t it make some sense to know something about people? The one discipline that has the nature of human nature as its explicit subject matter is personality psychology,” he added.
Yes, we know some parts of Freudian theory to be nonsensical today. But Freud created a systematic model for understanding people. Modern personality psychology is built on his framework, which makes it a good place to start. “There are about seven points about psychoanalysis that are absolutely true and that provide the scaffolding for a proper understanding of the nature of human nature,” Dr. Hogan said. He emphasized that the points do not have a priority order but are each fundamental.2
Psychic determinism is the assumption that there are no accidents in our mental lives. All psychic phenomena have a cause. Our dreams, memories, impulses, speech, and behavior—everything has a meaning and can be interpreted. “I love that as a discipline for understanding people,” Dr. Hogan said.
Personality is rooted in biology and human evolution. Evolutionary psychology stands on the assumptions that the study of human origins is essential for understanding human psychology and the fundamental human impulses have evolutionary implications. Freud claimed that the core human motives were sex and aggression. His notion of “sex” can be interpreted as social acceptance (getting along with others) and “aggression” as social competition (getting ahead of others). “Everything of significance in psychology is rooted in biology, and everything of significance in biology is rooted in evolution,” Dr. Hogan concurred.
All human relationships are fundamentally ambivalent, according to Freud. In other words, there is no love without some hate, no good without some bad. Human motivation is likewise ambivalent. To get along with other people, we should avoid competing with them. However, success in life necessarily involves competition. That tension is unavoidable and leads to a struggle to accept others and ourselves.
Freud argued that we are typically unaware of why we do what we do. As Freud knew, self-awareness is a prerequisite for successful relationships and careers. Many people lie to themselves about their identity, creating a gap between how they perceive themselves and how they are perceived by others. Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman’s famous theory of behavioral economics describes how people deceive themselves in decision-making, a concept built on Freud’s foundational views about self-deception.
Attitudes toward authority are a fundamental component of personality. Freud wrote that human attitudes toward authority are established at about age five with the development of the superego, broadly defined as the conscience or morality. “Will you accept, internalize, believe, comply with authority, or will you reject, criticize, fight against, struggle against authority?” Dr. Hogan asked. Too much compliance can lead to suppression of creativity, while too much resistance makes a bad organizational citizen. Attitudes toward authority form early and are easy to measure, such as with the Socialization scale of the California Psychological Inventory or the Prudence scale of the Hogan Personality Inventory.
Primary and Secondary Process Thinking
Freud’s distinction between primary and secondary process thought is a precursor to Tversky and Kahneman’s distinction between fast and slow thinking. Primary process thinking is fast, impulsive, and directed toward immediate pleasure, which Freud called the pleasure principle. Secondary process thinking concerns setting aside immediate gratification for the sake of longer-term rewards, or delayed gratification. “The degree to which people adopt one or the other of these two forms of thinking has major implications for a person’s success in life,” Dr. Hogan said. It’s the difference in mindset, for example, between someone who drops out of high school to party and someone who works hard to earn an undergraduate degree to study a topic they really enjoy in graduate school.
Freud was keenly interested in politics and the psychology of populist leaders and demagogues. To explain some of Freud’s social theory, Dr. Hogan said, “There’s the kind of person who will offer up outrageous, opportunistic claims, and there’s the kind of people who respond to it. Freud said you need them both to understand populist leadership.” The people who respond are looking for meaning in the message of the populist leader. “This connection between the needy bourgeois and the populist demagogues create these powerful movements,” he added, mentioning Charles Manson and Jim Jones.
Why Freud Matters
“Freud was a raging sexist,” Dr. Hogan said. While he may have been smart and sensitive, Freud was also a chauvinist. Many of his ideas are wrong, yet many others are also right. These seven points outline what a proper theory of personality should look like. They focus on the nature of human nature, which academic psychology has largely ignored or forgotten. “The most interesting part of modern of modern personality psychology is where personality intersects with clinical psychology,” he added.
Dr. Hogan reminded us that just as Plato and Aristotle are to philosophy, Freud and Jung are to psychology. Freud is part of the legacy of Western civilization that we would be wrong to forget. “With Freud, it’s a journey, not the completion of the trip, right? It’s worth doing,” he said.
Listen to this conversation in full on episode 73 of The Science of Personality. Never miss an episode by following us anywhere you get podcasts. Cheers, everybody!
- Shedler, J. (2010). The Efficacy of Psychodynamic Psychotherapy. American Psychologist, 65(2), 98–109. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0018378
- Hogan, R., & Smither, R. (2008). Sigmund Freud and Psychoanalytic Theory. In Personality: Theories and Applications. Hogan Press: 45-76.