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The psychodynamic model of abnormality

Freud believed adult abnormality was caused by unresolved conflicts in early childhood

The unconscious mind stores repressed memories, desires and urges

Personality is constructed from the id, ego and superego

Children pass through psychosexual stages of development

Main assumptions of the psychodynamic approach to abnormality
According to Freud (1925) behaviour is motivated by internal or psychological forces, and abnormality is caused by an imbalance in the internal forces that motivate behaviour. He believed that mental illness arises from unresolved conscious conflicts, and these usually occur in early childhood (e.g. the Oedipus complex).

The components of personality
Freud believed an adult's personality consisted of three components that develop during childhood. These are the id, ego and superego.
  • The id consists of sexual, aggressive instincts and is concerned with immediate gratification. The motivating force for the id is the libido, which is the body's pleasure seeking (often sexual pleasure) force. The id is totally unconcerned as to how it gets what it wants, as long as gratification is achieved.
  • The ego is the rational part of the mind, and is concerned with behaving in a way that is socially acceptable. It operates on a reality principal, and ensures that the id gets what it wants but by socially appropriate and acceptable means. It must also balance the desires of the id with the control of the superego.
  • The superego is a person's conscience, and is concerned with moral judgements and feelings of guilt. It will allow the id to get what it wants as long as it is not immoral to do so. The superego is the last part of the mind to develop.
The id, ego and superego can all contribute to abnormality, for example:
  • Weak ego: Well adjusted people have a strong ego that is able to cope with the demands of both the id and the superego by allowing each to express itself at appropriate times. If, however, the ego is weakened, then either the id or the superego, whichever is stronger, may dominate the personality.
  • Unchecked id impulses: If id impulses are unchecked they may be expressed in self-destructive and immoral behaviour. This may lead to disorders such as conduct disorders in childhood and psychopathic (dangerously abnormal) behaviour in adulthood.
  • Too powerful superego: A superego that is too powerful, and therefore too harsh and inflexible in its moral values, will restrict the id to such an extent that the person will be deprived of even socially acceptable pleasures. According to Freud this would create neurosis, which could be expressed in the symptoms of anxiety disorders, such as phobias and obsessions.

The unconscious
According to Freud, the unconscious forms about 90% of the human mind, and the remaining 10% is conscious. People are not able to access the contents of their own unconscious mind. Traumatic memories, inappropriate desires, and unresolved conflicts are buried in the unconscious mind by ego defence mechanisms such as repression. The contents of the unconscious mind, for example a childhood trauma, may still influence behaviour and this can lead to abnormality.

Ego defence mechanisms
Ego defence mechanisms protect the ego from the potentially damaging demands of controlling the id and superego. There are 6 main defence mechanisms:
  • Repression. Unacceptable or traumatic desires, wishes, emotions and memories are hidden in the unconscious mind. The individual has no control over what is moved from the conscious mind to the unconscious one as it is an involuntary and automatic process. Once in the unconscious mind, the repressed memories still exert an influence over behaviour, but the person cannot consciously recall them.
  • Projection. This is where a person sees their own undesired personality traits in someone else. For example, an angry person may accuse another person of being angry when in fact they are not. At its extreme, projection can lead to feelings of paranoia.
  • Denial. This is simply where a person denies facts or events relating to them - e.g. the alcoholic that says they are not dependent on alcohol.
  • Regression. This is regressing to childhood behaviour as a response to anxiety or a traumatic event. Behaviours might include stamping and having tantrums when stressed.
  • Displacement. This is where feelings toward a particular person are diverted to someone else. E.g. a child who is angry at its parents may bully other children because he cannot take out his anger on his parents.
  • Sublimation. This is the process of transferring emotions about another person or situation onto something else - e.g. playing an aggressive sport such as rugby when you are angry or frustrated with your boss at work.

Psychosexual stages of development
Freud believed that children pass through five psychosexual stages of development, and that each stage was marked by behaviour from which the child achieved an almost sexual satisfaction.
  • The Oral Stage (0-1 year). During this stage the child receives pleasure from putting things in its mouth, for example sucking a nipple. This stage is successfully passed through when the child is weaned.
  • The Anal Stage (1-3 years). During the anal stage, the child is most concerned with pleasurable feelings from the bladder, bowel and anus. Potty training is an important feature of this stage: too harsh potty training may lead to an obsessively tidy personality (an anal personality), and too much indifference to potty training may lead to a messy or disorganised personality.
  • The Phallic Stage (3-6 years). During the phallic stage, the child feels pleasure through self exploration of the genitals, and becomes aware of its own gender for the first time. An important milestone of this stage is for boys to successfully resolve the Oedipus complex and girls to resolve the Electra complex (see below).
  • The Latency Stage (7 years - puberty). During this stage children are less sexually motivated, and instead spend time forming social relationships and making friends.
  • The Genital Stage (puberty - adulthood). With the onset of puberty, libido is once again raised and sexual pleasure comes from forming and exploring heterosexual relationships.

The Oedipus complex
The Oedipus complex is a conflict that every child must successfully resolve during the phallic stage, according to Freud. Boys develop a sexual attraction for their mothers (and girls for their fathers - the Electra complex), and engage in an unconscious rivalry with the same sex parent over the opposite sex one. Boys will fear their father's anger and develop castration anxiety because they are afraid their father will remove their genitals as punishment. Girls develop penis envy and desire to grow a penis like their father's. The complex is resolved when the child identifies strongly with the same sex parent - boys take on their father's characteristics and want to be like him, and girls move from a desire to have a penis to a desire to have a baby. Failure to resolve the Oedipus and Electra complexes may lead to relationship difficulties and anxieties later in adult life.

Evaluating the cognitive model of abnormality
Has explanatory power, but lacks scientific validity
The psychodynamic model is able to provide believable explanations for the causes of abnormality, e.g. childhood traumas, but it lacks the empirical research evidence needed to support the theory. Freud based his ideas mainly on his own subjective analysis of middle class Viennese women.

Psychoanalysis depends on the therapist's subjective interpretation
Psychoanalysis depends heavily on the therapist’s interpretation of what the client says. Does a dream about swimming in the sea really mean that the client has dreamt about sex? Freud said that if the client accepted the interpretation then it was probably correct. However, if the client vehemently rejected the interpretation it may simply be the client’s conscious mind rejecting an unacceptable but accurate interpretation. Either way therapist wins!

Psychoanalysis is time consuming and expensive
Treatment typically involves 2 sessions per week for around a year. Each session may cost £60 per hour, and so one year's psychoanalysis may well cost in excess of £6,000.

Freud used a biased sample
Freud studied a group of largely middle-class Viennese women aged between 20 and 44 years, all of whom had serious emotional problems, and so his sample cannot reliably generalise to the general population. He also only studied one child (Little Hans) when developing his theory of psychosexual development, and even then he only corresponded with the boy's father by letter.

The psychodynamic approach focuses on psychological causes of abnormality
Freud's theory has been extremely influential because of its, at the time, revolutionary focus on psychology as the cause of abnormal behaviour. Freud's assertion that disorders, such as hysteria and phobias, could be caused by psychological traumas or conflicts changed the thinking at the time that abnormality was caused by medical or other causes such as evil spirits. Therefore the psychodynamic approach paved the way for other psychological models to be developed (e.g. behavioural and cognitive).

Adult mental health disorders can be caused by childhood trauma
There is evidence that adult disorders develop as the result of childhood trauma, for example children that fail to form secure attachments may develop anxiety around relationships as adults. Therefore, even though it lacks scientific support, Freud’s overall assumption does seem to be largely correctt.

Over focus on sexual issues
Psychodynamic theory as developed by Freud tended to focus too much on sexual issues, and de-emphasised the importance of interpersonal and social factors in causing and maintaining mental disorders. Is it more likely that failing to resolve the Oedipus complex causes abnormality, or could a dysfunctional parenting style leading to an insecure attachment be the cause?

The psychodynamic approach is very determinist as it says that suffering childhood trauma will lead to abnormal behaviour in adulthood, however it ignores the influence of genes (biology), reward (behaviourism), and thinking patterns (cognitive approach).

A Level exam tips
Answering exam questions (PSYA2 AQA A specification)
Outline and evaluate the psychodynamic model of abnormality (12 marks)
6 AO1 marks. Explain and elaborate on the main assumptions of the psychodynamic model of abnormality. Explain that behaviour is the result of childhood trauma that has been repressed. Explain the role of the unconscious, psychosexual development, and how unresolved conflict can lead to abnormality. DO NOT fall into the trap of simply describing the id, ego and superego unless you are also going to explain how an imbalance between them can cause abnormality.

6 AO2 marks. Write a commentary on the effectiveness of the psychodynamic model as an explanation for abnormality. An essential discussion point is the lack of scientific evidence and subjective interpretation of a biased sample. Explain the strengths of its explanatory power and its influence on understanding abnormality as a psychological rather than a biological concept.

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