If you ask someone who has a limited knowledge of psychology about the subject, they will have most certainly heard of the name Freud, or at least an aspect of one of his controversial theories. Despite having no previous psychological understanding, many will ridicule Freud’s ideas, mocking the idea of ‘penis envy’ or the psychosexual stages. Yet none of these people will mention Beck’s innovative cognitive triad, or Piaget’s theories of childhood development that have provided the basis to education. When people think of psychology, they tend to think of Freud, and the stigma he has attached to psychology often causes people to misinterpret and underestimate the complex, and scientific subject.
The integration of Freud’s research into pop culture has played a part in this taboo. However it is not just those ignorant to the subject that are influenced by Freud’s theories. For example, “The Interpretation of Dreams” by Freud (1900) has been cited 12444 times in research articles. His work has provided a baseline that many psychologists such as Melanie Klein and Carl Jung have developed upon, creating a paradigm that still withstands today.
Despite his popularity, it is naive to assume that Freud’s theories are worth the acclaim they have previously received. Freud considered himself a scientist (Eysenck, 1986), yet his research struggled to fit this criteria. Only through falsification did Popper (1959) believe research could be scientifically verified, and due to the subconscious nature of Freud’s research, falsification of his work is practically impossible. Criticism, as Eysenck (1986) suggested, is the “lifeblood of science”, and only through recognising limitations and finding alternatives can science progress. Freud’s refusal to consider alternative hypotheses to his theories has prevented him from participating in the field of science. Thus, creating research to validate his findings is difficult, as Freud’s work is based on the untestable unknown.
Objectivity is also vital for producing scientific research. Freud’s methods of psychoanalysis involved a lot of subjective decisions. He would have wanted to create research that supported his theories; therefore experimenter bias is likely to have occurred. It is difficult to make replicable research when it is based on subjective experience.
Another criticism in his methodology is his choice of samples. The participants he chose for his studies were outliers of society. There were very few of them, with only six of his studied cases developed into full accounts (Storr, 2002). His participants were often his patients, with signs of mental illness. In modern day research, if we focused on outliers when analysing a data set, and used these to make inferences about society, our research would be vastly criticised. Therefore the generalisability of Freud’s research is most certainly questionable.
We cannot deny that Freud’s ability to combine such complex ideas to create a paradigm, which in its time was so influential, is not a work of art. However therapies have been developed from this flawed research, and the use of them is open to discussion. The importance of building on past research is prominent in psychology, but what happens when the very foundations of an idea are weak and insubstantial? Does this reduce the stability of the blocks above? As said by Crews (1995), “Step by step, we are learning that Freud has been the most overrated figure in the entire history of science and medicine—one who wrought immense harm through the propagation of false etiologies, mistaken diagnoses, and fruitless lines of inquiry.” Although I’m sure Freud would suggest this is our subconscious, resisting the truth of his theories.
Crews, F. (1995). The memory wars: Freud’s legacy in dispute. New York: The New York Review of Books
Eysenck, H. J. (1986). Decline and fall of the Freudian empire. London: Penguin.
Freud, S. (1900). The interpretation of dreams. London: Hogarth Press.
Popper, K. (1959). The Logic of Scientific Discovery. Hutchinson.
Storr, A. (2002). Freud: a very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.