Criticising Freud? You’re in denial

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.

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3 responses

  1. As compared to its hay days from 1900-1940s psychoanalysis has become greatly less relevant towards psychology as a whole. Most attribute its decline to its inability to evolve scientifically. Specifically, it has not developed objective methods for testing the exciting ideas it has formulated earlier. Although psychoanalysis has historically been scientific in its aim, it has rarely been scientific in its method. In this sense it is far better at generating ideas than testing them and this failure has meant that it has not been able to progress, as have other areas of psychology. Some researchers have suggested that psychoanalysis might re-energise itself, by developing a closer relationship with biology in general and cognitive neuroscience in particular. With advances in technology, biology is in a good position to answer some of the questions about memory and desire. These answers will be all the richer and more meaningful if they combine both biology and psychoanalysis. This in turn would provide a more scientific foundation for psychoanalysis.

    Kandel. E, R. (1999). Biology and the future of psychoanalysis: A new intellectual framework for psychiatry revisited. Am J Psychiatry, 156(4), 505-524

  2. It is true that most non psychologists see Freud basically as what the subject is and it does have a negative effect on how trusted the subject is, however theres aspects of other sciences when they were new that people look at in disbelief (earth being the centre of the universe rather than the sun). The thing the general public should be aware of is the fact that psychology is a new science and only now is it starting to develop into more scientific principles. People remember Freuds work because it was so controversial and whilst this can be damaging, it is all part of the progresson of psychology as a science.

  3. I agree that psychology as a science can often be mocked due to little evidence of Freuds theories, ‘Penis Envy’ in particular! However, I do believe that is ignorance and those withing the field see psychology as much more than Freuds theories. All of the paradigms within psychology are progressing and becoming more relevent to the scientific community. I know many comments often come back to milgram but I think it is important to state that much of the public domain are familiar with milgram’s importance in the field of psychology. While his experiments do have ethical issues, his methods were scientific and results hugely progressive (Milgram, 1963).

    Also, although it is easy to critise Freud his theries have been important in psychology becoming a subject in its own right and in the development of many theories are still useful today. Examples are the importance of childhood experiences and the use of defence mechanisms, in particular denial (Freud, 1937).

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