Baggage 1 – Freud


In the early 1900s Freud published his influential books; through most of the century his ideas gained influence; but at the end of the century they had been abandoned by psychology. The problem is that Freud’s view of the mind still influences many people in other fields and the general public. His words and concepts are now part of the culture.

He divided each of us into a warring set of actors: ego, id, superego, conscious mind, unconscious mind. As a result, ordinary people have a feeling that they are the result of a struggle within their heads. His theory diminished our trust of rationality and responsibility by claiming that our thoughts and actions were the result of hidden infantile sexual hangups.

J. Kihlstrom says (here):

No empirical evidence indicates that psychoanalysis is more effective, or more efficient, than other forms of psychotherapy, such as systematic desensitization or assertiveness training. No empirical evidence indicates the mechanisms by which psychoanalysis achieves its effects, such as they are, are those specifically predicated on the theory, such as transference and catharsis.

Of course, Freud lived at a particular period of time, and it might be argued that his theories were valid when applied to European culture at the turn of the last century, even if they are no longer apropos today. However, recent historical analyses show that Freud’s construal of his case material was systematically distorted and biased by his theories of unconscious conflict and infantile sexuality, and that he misinterpreted and misrepresented the scientific evidence available to him. Freud’s theories were not just a product of his time: they were misleading and incorrect even when he published them.

Drew Westen, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School, agrees that Freud’s theories are archaic and obsolete, but argues that Freud’s legacy lives on in a number of theoretical propositions that are widely accepted by scientists: the existence of unconscious mental processes; the importance of conflict and ambivalence in behavior; the childhood origins of adult personality; mental representations as a mediator of social behavior; and stages of psychological development. However, some of these propositions are debatable. For example, there is no evidence that childrearing practices have any lasting impact on personality. More important, Westen’s argument skirts the question of whether Freud’s view of these matters was correct. It is one thing to say that unconscious motives play a role in behavior. It is something quite different to say that our every thought and deed is driven by repressed sexual and aggressive urges; that children harbor erotic feelings toward the parent of the opposite sex; and that young boys are hostile toward their fathers, who they regard as rivals for their mothers’ affections. This is what Freud believed, and so far as we can tell Freud was wrong in every respect. For example, the unconscious mind revealed in laboratory studies of automaticity and implicit memory bears no resemblance to the unconscious mind of psychoanalytic theory.

This theory, because it permeates common culture, especially literature, hinders the development and acceptance of a satisfactory understanding of consciousness.

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