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Potential Weaknesses

Many have criticised Freud’s alleged overemphasis of instincts (and especially the sex instinct) and underemphasis of social relationships.  Neo-Freudian approaches, in general, have even played down the importance of the unconscious itself, preferring to attribute a more prominent role to the ego in directing behaviour, and to recognise more fully the influence of social and cultural factors in human development. [Aspects of post-Freudian theory may be touched upon during the course – refer also Brown (1961).]

Others (e.g., those of behaviourist orientation) have highlighted the unscientific nature of psychoanalysis, claiming the absence of testable and bidirectional hypotheses (i.e., hypotheses predicting the future as well as inferring the past).  It is as though psychoanalysis were immune to disproof. This appears to be due, partly, to the diffuse (and even poetic) nature of key concepts making for difficulties in quantification and measurement, and also to the prevalence of contradictory ideas providing the facility to account retrospectively for all eventualities. On this latter theme, frequently quoted is a study by Scodel (1957) in which the idea was tested that men who liked small breasts would be more dependent than those who preferred large breasts. The opposite actually turned out to be the case, which merely resulted in hardline followers of psychoanalysis dredging up the old faithful stand-by of reaction formation as an explanation.

Additional weaknesses in Freudian theory may include:

*          inaccuracies in Freud’s developmental theories (e.g., masturbation being shown to occur as early as the first year of life [if not in the womb], the so-called latency period not being particularly latent, and question marks concerning the universality and validity of the Oepidus and Electra complexes);

*          restricted selection of patients (psychoanalysis being subject, e.g., to the “YAVIS” effect, suitable patients being young, articulate, verbal, intelligent and successful – criteria so stringent that it is not unknown for scientific studies on analysis to be abandoned [e.g., Candy et al., 1972]);

*          and the allegation that Freudian theory is a product of its patriarchal times and of limited relevance and applicability currently (e.g., being based upon a biased patient group largely comprising middle/upper class Viennese women suffering from hysteria, and incorporating a value system viewing homosexuality and perfectionism,  for instance, as abnormal).

Potential Strengths

A prominent, yet perhaps undervalued, strength of Freudian theory is its emphasis upon factors arising within the person as leading to psychological difficulties.  This more humanitarian perspective than hitherto advanced a trend originated by Philippe Pinel (1745-1826) away from barbarous explanations implicating the devil or evil spirits.

Three cornerstones of Freudian theory – namely, the influence of childhood experience, primitive impulses and the unconscious – could also be considered as assets.  Greater acknowledgement and understanding of such factors has undoubtedly arisen. Particular benefits may have accrued from a greater appreciation of the potential legacy of early trauma colouring a lifetime of perceptions and behaviour.  The emotional needs of children have been given greater priority and respect as a consequence.

Regarding more specific aspects of Freudian theory, defence mechanisms appear noteworthy as especially pertinent to everyday experience and influential upon several other forms of psycho-therapy. Furthermore, some psychoanalytic therapy techniques – such as free association and dream analysis – were undoubtedly innovative and have been instrumental in helping many patients to overcome difficulties and to develop as individuals.


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