16
$\begingroup$

I guess this question is quite context dependent, and here in Sweden there is a general movement for more evidence-based psychology. I think one of our biggest medical universities recently abandoned psychodynamics in favour of a more empirical approach to the field. In this general context it feels like it often happens that Freud and his work gets ridiculed and seen as pseudo-science by a lot of people.

I have only a basic knowledge and overview in the field, but I have to confess that I currently subscribe to the pseudo-science view of Freud's work as well. Is there anything he proposed or accomplished that actually has a sound scientific basis? Have there been any studies providing empirical support for freudian psychoanalytic concepts that I can use to form a critical view of his work which is more balanced and fact-dependent?

$\endgroup$
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I' ve edited your question in a way that I think will get you better answers. Feel free to correct me if I misunderstood your purpose. I happen to have some things in mind for an answer which I would like to write when I find more free time. In the meantime, you can check the wikipedia page on psychoanalysis en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychoanalysis#Criticism and this article annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.1146/… which however draws some conclusions which are questionable in my opinion. $\endgroup$ – Lazaros Mitskopoulos Oct 12 '14 at 18:22
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @Alex, as a tangential addendum to my answer, I'd like to insist on the fact that there's little reason to study Freud outside of his historical, social and literary significance. You're not going to gain an understanding that even remotely approaches that which modern science has revealed by studying Freud, Jung, Lacan, etc. You're more likely to be mislead than anything else. This isn't to stifle your curiosity (I've read much of Freud's work myself!), but if you're trying to get a 30,000-foot view of the field of psychology, don't start with them. $\endgroup$ – blz Oct 13 '14 at 13:14
12
$\begingroup$

Freudian psychology (and it's derivatives) are indeed pseudoscience, by and large. That said, Freud was arguably the first to systematically theorize and study human behavior and cognition, and in so doing laid the foundation for the scientific study of psychology. It's generally useful for the purpose of such discussions to distinguish between Freudian psychoanalysis and Freudian psychodynamics. The latter is generally sound though embryonic to the point of near-uselessness to contemporary students (except of course, from a historical perspective). As such, there are concepts in Freud's work that have been scientifically validated.

The basic premise that we're unaware of the majority of our mental processes, for example, is perfectly valid. More generally, the idea that behavior is the sum of concrete biological forces (what Freud called psychic energy) has been substantiated by quantitative evidence time and time again. Once again, the problem is that it's very superficial and hand-wavy by modern standards, not to mention its propensity to be severely abused.

Modern attachment theory, that is, the idea that emotional bonds are an essential part of infant development, also very clearly originates with Freud.

Most interestingly, IMHO, is the concept of defense mechanisms. Indeed the study of psychology and cognitive science has been impeded for years because of an over-reliance on subjective self-report. Thanks to Freud, we recognize that people can be unaware of their own misrepresentations of fact.

It's actually quite difficult to find a nook of cognitive science that hasn't been positively influenced by Freudian psychology in some meaningful way. Freud got many things right, but wasn't very concerned with establishing the validity of his claims. In practical terms, this means that studying Freud from a historical perspective will be quite informative, but one will have a hard time applying his theories directly to modern research or therapy. And of course, there are a significant number of Freudian claims that have been positively disproven in all but the most metaphorical sense (the general "death wish" comes readily to mind).

Another way to look at this is as a modeling problem. Freudian psychology proposes a number of models of how the human psyche works, most notably the Id/Ego/Superego hierarchy. At the time, this was a very useful model, but it has since been supplanted by better models that better predict behavior. This having been said, Freud's groundwork is readily visible: everybody agrees that automatic non-conscious processing occurs and that it influences conscious perception. Similarly, it's well known that top-down influences of expectation, cultural bias or attention can affect conscious processing. In this sense, the Id/Ego/Superego model is alive and well... it's just been refined a great deal.

$\endgroup$
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ To add a literature suggestion (covering all these points and more) to a great answer: Eric Kandel's "The Age of Insight". It's highly enjoyable & informative. $\endgroup$ – user6682 Oct 13 '14 at 12:19
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Nice answer, although I 'd like some references for the points you make. Also, the difference between psychoanalysis and psychodynamics is not all that clear, except for the length of treatment that each approach prefers. Many use the term psychodynamics to refer to an umbrella of approaches originating from Freud simplypsychology.org/psychodynamic.html but others use the terms interchangeably bpc.org.uk/about-psychotherapy/what-pp If anything was embryonic in terms of theoretical development, I think that has to be Freud's metapsychology, which is rarely seen nowadays. $\endgroup$ – Lazaros Mitskopoulos Oct 13 '14 at 12:38
  • $\begingroup$ @LarryM. What is it, specifically, for which you'd like a reference? If you want to do bibliographic research, you could, for instance, read Freud's work and then read the literature on subjective self-report. My claims are general enough that google scholar should be all you need, I think. Concerning the difference between psychoanalysis and psychodynamics, it's exactly the same distinction as that between clinical psychology and experimental psychology. The former aims to treat illness whereas the latter is fundamental research. $\endgroup$ – blz Oct 13 '14 at 13:05
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @StrangeLoop, Duly noted! Thanks for the recommendation! =) $\endgroup$ – blz Oct 13 '14 at 13:05
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @blz I think some references for the points where you mention or imply that research has been conducted would be educative for the people with little or no experience with psychology who visit this site. Concerning the distinction you make I don't think the clinical-experimental distinction is analogous. The links in my earlier comment plus the wikipedia page on psychodynamics should make this clear. $\endgroup$ – Lazaros Mitskopoulos Oct 13 '14 at 13:19
4
$\begingroup$

Hard question to answer. Some of his ideas appear to have found little in the way of experimental support, some of his ideas are at present untestable, some have been supported by experimental studies. The late psychometrician Paul Kline conducted a number of studies and found mixed results. I can recommend his book on Freudian theory and psychology. He breaks down Freud's theory into various hypotheses and examines each to see what is supported and what isn't.

Some of Kline's research:

One of his books on Freudian theory:

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ Links to or DOIs from the book or papers from the experiments would be helpful. $\endgroup$ – Krysta Oct 15 '14 at 12:22

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.