Freuds concepts and their value for contemporary psychology (2023)

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Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) is well known as the founder of psychoanalysis in psychiatry and is thought of by many as a key figure in psychology. Throughout his work Freud came up with numerous concepts and theories, many of which still cause a lot of debate amongst psychologists.

In this essay I will discuss some of Freud’s key concepts including; development of personality, personality structures and defence mechanisms. After which I will attempt to assess their significance in modern psychology and conclude whether or not I believe Freud’s concepts are of value to contemporary psychology and if we should continue to look into his work.

One key concept developed by Freud is the development of personality. He came up with five distinct stages, known as the psychosexual stage, to describe how our personalities develop from birth to about 18 years of age. He places particular emphasis on the development of sexual drives and how this shapes our personalities. Furthermore, each stage has a region, known as the erogenous zone, where the libidinal energy is focused. The five stages are: Oral stage (birth – one year old), in this stage Freud (1901) suggests that events around feeding are the focal point of pleasure for the infant, the erogenous zone includes the lips, mouth and tongue (Maltby, Day and Macaskill; 2007).

Anal stage (1year -2 years), Freud believed that bowel movement gives the baby sensual pleasure, also at this stage the child is rewarded for bladder and bowel control (Maltby et al., 2007). The anal region becomes the new erogenous zone.

Phallic stage (3 years -5 years), at this stage the child starts to mature physiologically and the libidinal energy is transferred to genital region (new erogenous zone). At this stage gratification is gained from masturbation (Maltby et al., 2007). Freud thought that girls experienced what he called ‘penis envy’ as they become aware that boys have penises and the do not. In addition, boys become sexually aware of their mother and start to view their father as a sexual rival (and experience castration anxiety – fear of losing their penis), this is known as the Oedipal complex.

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Latency stage (5 years -12 years) can be seen as a resting period of the psychosexual stage. Social interactions are most important in this stage, children develop friendships with same sexed peers, as well as, identifying with the same sexed parent (Maltby et al., 2007) resulting in socialisation of gender roles.

Genital stage (12 years +) – as this stage puberty begins, which reawakens the libidinal energy, resulting in a more mature sexual attachment, in ‘normal’ development the main sexual objects are members of the opposite sex (Maltby et al., 2007).

Freud also developed the idea of personality structures. He identifies three personality structures that develop in every person, these are the; ID (present from birth), EGO and superEGO (these two form later on in development). The ID is the primitive, pleasure seeking part of the personality, it strives for immediate gratification (i.e. I want X and I want it now!). The EGO plays an important role as the mediator and is the rational aspect of our personalities (i.e. You will find a way to get X, just be patient). Finally the superEGO is the moral, guilt driven side of the personality which then becomes our conscience (i.e. You can’t have X because its wrong).

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And finally I will talk about defence mechanisms, a well-known concept developed by Freud. Defence mechanisms can be described as the minds way of protecting itself from unacceptable or painful thoughts, as well as, conflict from the three personality structures. Freud mentions eleven defence mechanisms: Repression, denial, projection, reaction formation, rationalisation, conversion reaction, phobic avoidance, displacement, regression, isolation and undoing.

The two most known defences are: repression – the idea that we push undesirable thoughts, feelings and impulses from our conscious mind into our unconscious in order to shield ourselves from pain and protect our self-esteem. In other words Freud saw repression as the Ego and superEGO’s way of supressing the ID. Denial – is simply when we refuse to face certain situations or realities as we do not find them acceptable. Cramer (1991) states that the boundaries between these two defence mechanisms are often hard to distinguish between (cited in Baumeister, Dale and Sommer Freudian Defence mechanisms and empirical findings in modern social psychology; 1998).

The next part of the essay will aim to assess the value of some of Freud’s work in contemporary psychology.

The concept of personality development is solely based on how libidinal instincts shape us. Maltby, Day and Macaskill (2007), state that Freud does not meet the parsimony criteria in his explanation of the motivational basis of behaviour, Freud implies that sexual and aggressive instincts are the only motivators of human behaviour (Maltby et al., 2007). The psychosexual stages, do not fully explain human behaviour as they are highly reductionist and ignore the complexity of the human mind, as well as, being bias in only emphasising one aspect as the basis of all behaviour, therefore, it can be said that they are of little value to contemporary psychology.

Freud also identified problems that may occur as a result of fixation in anyone of the five psychosexual stages. He then developed treatment, known as free association, which would allow the patients to resolve their emotional conflicts, which involved catharsis, where the patients discharged their emotions by speaking freely about anything they want, leading to resolution of these issues. This method has been widely reviewed and is still used in contemporary psychology. “Greenberg (2002) concluded that emotional arousal and processing within a supportive therapeutic relationship is the core element for positive change in therapy. He emphasized the cognitive aspect of catharsis and the need to understand and make sense of emotions.” (Esta Powell; 2007). Free association is replicable making it reliable and has many applications to contemporary psychology making it valid.

Conversely, much of Freud’s work on the psychosexual stages was largely based on his interpretations of observations of young children or self-reports of dreams and thoughts. Freud used ‘Little Hans’ primarily to support his theory of the Oedipus complex (Jennifer Stuart; 2007). “Critics contend that Freud’s theory is lacking in empirical evidence and relies too heavily on therapeutic achievements, whereas others assert that even Freud’s clinical data are flawed, inaccurate, and selective at best” (Beystehner; 1998). Thus, the validity of his work is very much in question. As these concepts, such as the psychosexual stages, cannot be operationalized and tested they are not falsifiable and are of little relevance to contemporary research.

Many of Freud’s theories are simple in a way that they are not comprised of many concepts, for example, his theory on personality structure consists of three clearly definable structures. In this sense his work can be said to be parsimonious and has formed a basis for further research.

According to Dangleish and Power (1999) the personality structure purposed by Freud has face validity as we are all aware of anxiety and conflicts in everyday life decision making (as cited in Maltby, Day and Macaskill, Personality, Individual Differences and Intelligence; 2007: 34). Face validity implies that there is support for his theory on personality structures, and so this theory can be operationalized and tested to see how personalities coexist within us and data from these tests can have practical applications.

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Furthermore, Freud’s work on defence mechanisms was widely accepted and leads to follow up research, such as that by Brewin and Andrews. After reviewing this area of psychology, Brewin and Andrews (1998) concluded that 20% to 60% of therapy patients who had been victims of sexual abuse in their childhood reported not being able to recall being abused for large periods of time in their lives (cited in Maltby et al., Personality, Individual Differences and Intelligence; 2007: 36,37). This shows us that the mind does use methods, such as repression, to protect itself from indecent memories. This shows falsifiability as it is replicable and has practical applications in life which can be used and developed in contemporary psychology.

Freud’s work is very controversial and has provoked enormous debate, much of which has led to the development of novel ideas in psychology. Not only has his work been expanded upon and developed (e.g. to better treatment of mental patients) but many breakthroughs have been made in trying to disprove his theories. Although many of Freud’s theories are subjective and based on his interpretation of dreams and thoughts which cannot be empirically tested, he has made many valuable contributions to psychology. These include the use of defence mechanisms and the idea of personality structures, both of which have supporting evidence from contemporary psychologists, e.g. Brewin and Andrews (1998) work supports the concept of defence mechanisms. As well as this he created clinical practice of psychoanalysis for treating psychopathology, developed therapeutic techniques such as the use of free association and concluded dreams are the primary insight into the unconscious mind. All of these have had practical applications and have formed the foundation of contemporary psychology. Thus, I believe that it is potent that Freud’s theories and concepts continue to be revised.


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Maltby, J., Day, L & Macaskill, A. (2007). Personality, Individual Differences and Intelligence (2nd Ed.). London: Prentice Hall

Baumeister, R.F., Dale, K. & Sommer, K. L. (1998). Freudian Defence mechanisms and empirical findings in modern social psychology: Reaction Formal, Projection, Displacement, Undoing, Isolation, Sublimation and Denial. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Stuart, J. (2007). Little Hans and Freud’s Self-Analysis: A Biographical View of Clinical Theory in the Making, 55, (3), 799-819.

Beystehner, K. M. (1998). Psychoanalysis: Freud’s revolutionary approach to human personality. Retrieved October 22, 2010, from Personality Papers Web site:

Powell, E. (2007). Catharsis in Psychology and Beyond: A Historical overview.

Visited on October 25, 2010, Web site:

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(Video) Freud’s 5 Stages of Psychosexual Development


What are the key concepts of Freud's theory? ›

Freudian theory postulates that adult personality is made up of three aspects: (1) the id, operating on the pleasure principle generally within the unconscious; (2) the ego, operating on the reality principle within the conscious realm; and (3) the superego, operating on the morality principle at all levels of ...

What is the most important contribution of Freud's theory to contemporary psychology quizlet? ›

One of Freud's most important contributions is the idea that the unconscious mind holds the key to understanding conscious thoughts and behavior, and the role that dreams play in unlocking what is hidden or repressed beneath conscious awareness.

What were some of Freud's most important contributions to psychology? ›

One of Freud's most well-known contributions to the field of psychology was the development of the theory and practice of psychoanalysis. Some of the major tenets of psychoanalysis include the significance of the unconscious, early sexual development, repression, dreams, transference, and death and life drives.

What is the concept of Freud's psychoanalytic theory? ›

Psychoanalysis was founded by Sigmund Freud. Freud believed that people could be cured by making their unconscious a conscious thought and motivations, and by that gaining "insight". The aim of psychoanalysis therapy is to release repressed emotions and experiences, i.e. make the unconscious conscious.

What are the key concepts about theory? ›

Theory provides concepts to name what we observe and to explain relationships between concepts. Theory allows us to explain what we see and to figure out how to bring about change. Theory is a tool that enables us to identify a problem and to plan a means for altering the situation.

How important are Freud's ideas in today's society? ›

Others developed theories that reflected their own spin on psychoanalysis, but Freud's theory of unconscious dynamics was widely accepted. Today, a concept of the unconscious is embedded in almost every model of human behavior and in every profession from psychiatry to marketing, from coaching to teaching.

What is the main focus of contemporary psychologists? ›

The goals of modern psychology are to provide mental healthcare that is informed by the latest available knowledge, appropriate and individualised for its clients, and promotes community wellbeing by providing increased access to and education about mental health.

What is the most important stage of Freud's theory? ›

The most important aspect of the phallic stage is the Oedipus complex. This is one of Freud's most controversial ideas and one that many people reject outright. The name of the Oedipus complex derives from the Greek myth where Oedipus, a young man, kills his father and marries his mother.

Why is Freud so important in psychology? ›

Considered the father of modern psychology, his theories and ideas on the connections that exist between the conscious mind, the subconscious mind, the body, and the world around us are still as widely known as they were when he first espoused them at the turn of the 20th century.

What was one of the main benefits of Freud's theory? ›

Freud contributed to personality psychology by explaining how the right balance between something called the id, ego, and superego can lead to a healthy personality. An imbalance between the three will only lead to maladaptive personalities.

What is the most important goal in Freudian therapy? ›

The goal of Freudian Psychoanalysis is to understand the personality through levels of awareness and our three minds: conscious, preconscious and unconscious. The conscious mind is everything that we are aware of and is also the part of our mentality that uses rationality.

What are 5 main ideas of Freud's personality theory? ›

Psychosexual development: Freud's theory of psychosexual development posits that there are five stages of growth in which people's personalities and sexual selves evolve. These phases are the oral stage, anal stage, phallic stage, latent stage, and genital stage.

What is an example of Freud's psychoanalytic theory? ›

Freud believed that during our childhood, certain events have great influence on how our personality is shaped, which carries over into our adult lives. For example, if a child experiences a traumatic event, the event would be suppressed, As an adult, the child reacts to the trauma without knowing why.

How would you describe Freud's concept of personality development? ›

Freud's Theory

According to Freud, the development of personality depends on instinctual drives, unconscious processes, and early childhood influences; thus, a person's personality is more or less solidified within the first five years of life.

What are the types of concepts? ›

Types of Concepts: Superordinate, Subordinate, and Basic.

What are the concept of psychological theory? ›

Psychological theories are systems of ideas that can explain certain aspects of human thoughts, behaviors and emotions. Psychology researchers create these theories to make predictions for future human behaviors or events that may take place if certain behaviors exist.

What are key concepts examples? ›

Often, the concepts chosen as 'key' are complex and abstract, such as 'place', 'chronology' or 'grammar'. However, they could also be simpler and concrete, such as 'crown', 'tree' or 'coin'.

What is the status of Freud's theory in psychology today? ›

Freud's Ideas Today

Nevertheless, psychologists continue to find wisdom and meaning in Freudian concepts, such as projection and other "defense mechanisms," and modern psychoanalytic therapists owe much to Freud's methods, as do therapists who employ psychodynamic approaches.

What impact did Freud's theory have on the society? ›

Freud's most obvious impact was to change the way society thought about and dealt with mental illness. Before psychoanalysis, which Freud invented, mental illness was almost universally considered 'organic'; that is, it was thought to come from some kind of deterioration or disease of the brain.

What is the importance of psychoanalysis developed by Freud to modern society? ›

However, psychoanalysis was incredibly influential for modern-day therapy. Freud's approach to therapy and the idea that mental illness was treatable was an important concept. The idea that talking about your problems could help you feel relief heavily impacted the current approach to treating mental illness.

What is the importance of contemporary psychology? ›

Essentially, psychology helps people in large part because it can explain why people act the way they do. With this kind of professional insight, a psychologist can help people improve their decision making, stress management and behavior based on understanding past behavior to better predict future behavior.

What is an example of contemporary psychology? ›

Examples include memory, mate choice, relationships between kin, friendship and cooperation, parenting, social organization, and status (Confer et al., 2010). Evolutionary psychologists have had success in finding experimental correspondence between observations and expectations.

What is contemporary psychology based on? ›

Contemporary psychology is interested in an enormous range of topics, looking at human behavior and mental process from the neural level to the cultural level. Psychologists study human issues that begin before birth and continue until death.

What are the four major concepts of Freud's theory of personality? ›

Freud proposed that the mind is divided into three components: id, ego, and superego, and that the interactions and conflicts among the components create personality.


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