Critique of Psychoanalysis

Note: Parts of this chapter were originally prepared for an essay in Hilgard's Introduction to Psychology, 14th Ed., and later revised for subsequent editions. Other portions of previously appeared in an article,"Psychodynamics and Social Cognition: Notes on the Fusion of Psychoanalysis and Psychology", which appeared in the Journal of Personality (1994), and other places.

Freudian psychoanalytic theory, and its later offshoots, constitute a dramatic and provocative picture of personality, mental illness, and psychotherapy -- of individuals continually best by internal and external conflicts, trying to cope with primitive sexual and aggressive urges that, being unconscious, are literally beyond their ken; and of heroic psychoanalysts trying both to deliver patients from their neuroses and to convince the rest of us to adopt their view of human nature.

Freud himself was very clear on this point, because he regarded himself as the last in a line of heroic scientific figures who changed our very conception of human nature. As he wrote (Freud, 1915-1917/1961-1963, p. 285) :

Of course, the progress of science will by its very nature correct popular misunderstandings of how the world works, and occasionally reveal surprising, even unpleasant, truths about ourselves. Sigmund Freud famously situated himself in line with Copernicus, who taught us that Earth is not at the center of the universe, and Darwin, who taught us that humans are creatures of nature just like any other. For Freud, the third blow against 'human megalomania' was his discovery (as he claimed it was) that conscious experience, thought, and action was determined by unconscious, primitive drives:

[H]uman megalomania will have suffered its third and most wounding blow from the psychological research of the present time which seeks to prove to the ego that it is not even master in its own house, but must content itself with scanty information of what is going on unconsciously in the mind

Put another way:

  • Copernicus taught us that humans were not the center of the universe.

  • Darwin taught us that humans were just another species of animal.

  • Freud taught us that humans were not rational actors, but rather are driven by unconscious, primitive, instinctual desires.

Well, OK, then -- if it's really true.But is it really true? Is there scientific evidence that supports the propositions of Freudian psychoanalytic theory?

Every once in a while someone tries to connect psychoanalysis to academic psychology. The first person to attempt this was, of course, Freud himself. In the Project for a Scientific Psychology (1895/1966), Freud tried to produce what he described to Fliess (Letter 23, April 27, 1895; see Masson, 1985) as a "Psychology for Neurologists" (see also Pribram & Gill, 1976; Sulloway, 1979). Somewhat later, of course, there was Dollard and Miller's (1950)Personality and Psychotherapy, which translated the psychoanalytic theory of neurosis into the language of Hullian learning theory. More recently, both Erdelyi (1985) and Horowitz (1988) have attempted to interpret psychoanalytic principles from the framework(s) of information-processing theory and other viewpoints within cognitive psychology and cognitive science.

Whatever the era, the attempt to link psychoanalysis with scientific psychology must always be interesting, if for no other reason than that there are so many different forms of psychoanalysis, and thus so many ways to make connections. Rapaport (1959, reprinted 1960) noted that there are at least five different levels of psychoanalytic theory: (1) The neuroscientific theory of the Project for a Scientific Psychology (Freud, 1895/1966); (2) the intrapsychic dynamics of The Interpretation of Dreams (Freud, 1900/1953); (3) the ego psychology of The Ego and the Id (Freud, 1923/1961), especially as elaborated by Hartmann and by Rapaport himself; (4) the structural concepts detailed in The Problem of Anxiety; and (5) the psychosocial views of Horney, Kardiner, Sullivan, Erikson, and Hartman. To Rapaport's list we can now add at least one other level: (6) the psychoanalytic object-relations theories that began with Fairbairn, Melanie Klein, and Winnicott, and continued with Kernberg, Kohut, and others (for a review, see Greenberg & Mitchell, 1983).

Just how rewarding these connections can be, at least in principle, is illustrated by selections from the early volumes of Psychological Issues -- the house-organ of ego-psychology. At a time when academic psychology was still dominated by functional behaviorism, sensory psychophysics, and S-R theories of animal and verbal learning, this journal was publishing investigations of life-span development, memory for connected discourse, attributions of causality, individual differences in cognitive style, cognitive development in infants and children, preconscious processing, and mental imagery. It's enough to make a cognitive psychologist cry. Much like the monks of the Middle Ages, the ego-psychologists held fast against the behaviorist onslaught, preserving what was most interesting in psychology until psychologists were ready to study the mind again.

Unfortunately, most of this work was ignored by mainstream academic psychologists. Part of the problem, of course, was the fact that the concepts of psychoanalysis were mentalistic. Even if one could tolerate the mentalism, though, the theory just seemed to resist any kind of empirical test (Grunbaum, 1984). But part of the problem came from the other side, as well: too many psychoanalysts seemed to feel that the theory, if it was not entirely self-evident, was shown to be true by the success of psychoanalytic treatment. When two parties treat each other with contempt, it is hard to find common ground.

Psychoanalytic Metapsychology

Beginning in the 1970s, just when academic psychology began to get interested in the mind again, organized psychoanalysis seemed to give up any pretense of being scientific at all. The milestone here was George Klein's (1969, 1973) distinction between two versions of psychoanalytic theory, the metapsychology and the clinical theory. In Klein's view, Freudian metapsychology was reductionistic, too heavily loaded with quasi-physical concepts to be a pure psychology, and too grounded in mechanistic conceptions of causality that seemed embarrassingly outmoded. Instead, Klein argued that psychoanalysis should focus on the clinical theory, with its repertoire of technical procedures such as free association and transference, its theories of infantile sexuality and Oedipus complex, repression and other mechanisms of defense, and interest in meaning and interpretation. In short order, psychoanalysis was transformed from a scientific discipline, tied (at least in principle) to the natural and social sciences, to a hermeneutic one, tied to the arts and humanities. The result was a shift in emphasis from historical truth to narrative truth (Spence, 1982, 1994): the goal of psychoanalysis was no longer to find out what caused a patient's problems, in a manner that is consistent with scientific knowledge about how the mind works, but rather to make up a good story about the origins of those problems. It is not therefore an accident that contemporary psychoanalysis finds a warmer welcome in departments of comparative literature than in departments of psychology.

I hasten to note that the burden of this shift should not be placed entirely on Klein's shoulders, because recent historical studies have made it clear that Freud himself had a strong preference for narrative over historical truth (Macmillan, 1991; see also Crews, 1993, 1994). Two examples (both from Macmillan, 1991) will suffice.

  • (1) Although Freud (1933, p. 120), recounting the original infantile seduction theory of neurosis, wrote that "almost all of my women patients told me that they had been seduced by their father", examination of the actual cases referred to by Freud (1896a, 1896b, 1896c) reveals not a single instance in which this was the case (for documentation see Schimek, 1987, whose conclusions are different from mine). In most cases, the seducer was either another child or an adult unrelated to the child; in any event, there is no evidence that any patient ever told Freud she had been seduced by her father. This is nothing more than an inference on Freud's part -- an interpretation that was critical when it came time to abandon the infantile seduction theory for the theory of infantile sexuality.
  • (2) In his initial presentation of the theory of infantile sexuality, Freud (1905, p. 179 ff) cited as evidence a study of "pleasure-sucking" (e.g., sucking the thumb rather than breast or bottle) carried out by Lindner (1879-1880/1980) which, Freud asserted, showed that pleasure-sucking was common among infants, and was in turn commonly associated with such behaviors as rubbing of the breasts and genitals, masturbation, orgasm-like motor behaviors, and post-sucking sleep. In fact, Lindner found that pleasure-sucking was rare, and the behaviors noted by Freud even rarer still (Macmillan, 1980).

In any event, I want to argue that Klein was mistaken, and so were those, like Gill (1976), Holt (1976), and Schafer (1976), who followed his lead. The reason for this is that the natural-science framework ostensibly embraced by Freud (if only as a public-relations gesture) is not necessarily reductionistic. One can do perfectly respectable science at the psychological and socio-cultural levels of analysis, without incurring any obligation to reduce psychological and socio-cultural concepts to biological and physical ones. While Klein was quite right to reject Freud's physiologizing, this was not the whole, or even an important part, of Freud's metapsychology. On the contrary, the core of Freud's (1915) metapsychology is a pure psychology, with no more physiologizing (and, frankly, a whole lot less) than one would find in a standard textbook for Psychology 1. Moreover, adherence to the natural-science framework ostensibly embraced by Freud might well have kept psychoanalytic theory closer to the empirical evidence, and prevented it from wandering off into a hermeneutic wonderland.

For the record, here is Freud's metapsychology, summarized by Rapaport (1959, 1960; see also Rapaport & Gill, 1959) in terms of ten points of view:

  • Empirical: "The Subject Matter of Psychoanalysis is Behavior" (Rapaport, 1960, p. 39, upper case in original).
  • Gestalt: "Behavior is Integrated and Indivisible: The Concepts Constructed for Its Explanation Pertain to Different Components of Behavior and Not to Different Behaviors (p. 40).
  • Organismic: "No Behavior Stands in Isolation: All Behavior Is That of the Integral and Indivisible Personality" (p. 42).
  • Genetic: "All Behavior Is Part of a Genetic Series, and through Its Antecedents, Part of the Temporal Sequences Which Brought About the Present Form of the Personality" (p. 43).
  • Topographic: "The Crucial Determinants of Behaviors Are Unconscious" (p. 46).
  • Dynamic: "The Ultimate Determiners of All Behavior are the Drives" (p. 47).
  • Economic: All Behavior Disposes of and Is Regulated by Psychological Energy (p. 50).
  • Structural: "All Behavior Has Structural Determinants" (p. 52).
  • Adaptive: "All Behavior Is Determined by Reality" (p. 57).
  • Psychosocial: "All Behavior Is Socially Determined" (p. 62).

Stated in these terms, the theory is obviously pure psychology.

In referring to behavior in his statement of the Empirical point of view, Rapaport meant to include thoughts, feelings, and motives as well as actions as the subject-matter for psychology. Who among us can disagree with that? The Gestalt point of view brings overdetermination into play, which makes for difficult theory-testing, but Rapaport sees this as an asset rather than a liability for psychoanalysis. His explication is worth quoting at length:

Academic psychologies did not develop such a concept [as overdetermination], probably because their methods of investigation tend to exclude rather than to reveal multiple determination. But they did not escape the problem itself: every behavior phenomenon has perceptual, learning (memorial), conceptual (cognitive), motor, etc., components; and the rival psychological theories (perceptual theory of cognition, learning theory of perception, motor theory of thought, etc.) show both the presence of the problem and the confusion resulting from a failure to face it squarely (p. 41).

Overdetermination or not, at a time when psychologists happily study both bottom-up and top-down influences on perception, and both the cognitive and biological underpinnings of emotion, nobody should have any problem with a proposition like this.

In his statement of the Organismic point of view, Rapaport simply argued that psychoanalysis is intended to be a complete psychological theory, not a special explanation of some arcane symptoms and phenomena. Because psychoanalytic explanations of symptom-formation must be consistent with other laws of mental life, and vice-versa, the implication is clearly that psychoanalytic theory and practice can never be divorced from scientific psychology as a whole.

Many of the other points of view should also be regarded as noncontroversial -- for example, the idea, stated in the Genetic point of view, that psychologists should be interested in developmental issues, both phylogenetic and ontogenetic, nature and nurture. The Dynamic point of view could just as easily have been stated by Clark Hull. The Adaptive point of view, which holds that behavior is not wholly determined by drives, lays the foundation for ego psychology and a connection to the scientific study of perception, memory, thought, and language -- just as the Psychosocial point of view creates a connection with social psychology. With respect to the Economic point of view, Freud clearly had a hydraulic metaphor in mind, but it only takes a little effort to begin thinking about automatic and effortful processes, limited-capacity theories of attention, and the like. Similarly, in the Structural point of view, Freud clearly had id, ego, and superego in mind, but the point of view itself is also consistent with any modular theory of mental life -- an assumption which is quite popular today. The Topographic point of view seems to refer to Freud's earlier system of Cs., Pcs, Ucs., but the idea that conscious experience, thought, and action is determined by processes of which we are unaware is common currency in contemporary cognitive psychology (Barsalou, 1992).

The point of this exposition is not to engage in glib hand-waving, implying that Freud intuited everything that modern scientific psychology has labored hard to understand. The point is that at its most general level of explanation, psychoanalytic theory doesn't look much different from other psychological theories of mind and behavior. Of course, at this level the theory is also untestable. But it is not untestable in principle: nestled under the metapsychological propositions is a hierarchy of general, specific, and empirical propositions which increasingly amenable to testing by means of conventional scientific procedures (Hilgard, 1952, 1962). So, for example, we can unpack the Dynamic point of view into the general proposition that the important motives for behavior are sexual and aggressive in nature; at the specific level, that children harbor erotic feelings toward the parent of the opposite sex, and hostile feelings toward the parent of the same sex; and at the empirical level, into the proposition that young boys regard their fathers as rivals for their mothers' affections. It is at these levels that psychoanalytic theory has been tested in clinical, observational, and experimental studies; and it is at these levels that, as we have known at least since the review by Sears (1947), psychoanalytic theory has fared badly. It should be understood, though, that the failure of the theory at the general, specific, and empirical levels doesn't mean that the metapsychology has to be rejected as well.

Psychoanalysts shouldn't have given up on metapsychology, because, as Rapaport (1959, 1960) understood clearly, it provides both the scientific undergirding for clinical practice, and the only means for connecting psychoanalytic theory to the mainstream of scientific psychology. On the other hand, it can be argued that if scientific psychologists had taken more of an interest in psychoanalytic metapsychology, perhaps ignoring the details of the more specific propositions, we would have been spared some of the excesses of the dark days of behaviorism, and stimulated to ask some really interesting questions about mind. The New Look in perception is a clear example of this benefits of contact with psychoanalysis (Bruner, 1992; Bruner & Klein, 1960).

But what are we to make of psychoanalysis now? In discussing the rocky relationship between psychoanalysis and psychology, I used the analogy of medieval monks preserving classical knowledge during the Dark Ages; that is a role that psychoanalysis, particularly psychoanalytic ego-psychology, tried to play, and it should be honored for the effort. However, the historical fact is that psychology regained its mind (if you will) largely independent of the preservational efforts of psychoanalysis (Baars, 1986; Gardner, 1985). When the cognitive revolution occurred, it was largely stimulated by virtue of advances outside the field, in linguistic theory and computer science; inside the field, a primary role was played by the Gestalt psychologists (who so influenced Rapaport); and, somewhat paradoxically, a primary instigation came from discoveries about the peculiarities of conditioned responses in animals.

The result is that, although contemporary psychology has regained a broad theoretical perspective that somewhat resembles psychoanalytic metapsychology, our metapsychology is functionally autonomous from Freud's, and the specific commitments we make are very different from what he had in mind. To take only one example: while contemporary cognitive psychology has rediscovered the psychological unconscious, the nature of unconscious mental life is much different from what Freud envisioned (Kihlstrom, 1987, 1993). Interestingly, the papers in this special issue also make this same point. When we study pathological grief, we approach it in the here and now, without mentioning archaic involvements. When we study transference, we talk about generalization across significant others, or from significant others to new acquaintances, without saying anything about infantile erotic attachments. When we study defense, we discuss the regulation, both conscious and unconscious, of unpleasant affect in general, not merely the conflicts and anxieties stemming from primitive sexual and aggressive motives.

In the final analysis, the road to contemporary psychology largely bypassed psychoanalysis, and was little influenced by either the metapsychology or the clinical theory. Still, new generations of psychologists can still sometimes find inspiration, observations, and hypotheses in the psychoanalytic literature. And perhaps that is as it should be.

But Is It True?

This question can't be answered without considering the various levels at which psychoanalytic theory is presented. At its most general level of explanation, in terms of the metapsychological propositions, psychoanalytic theory doesn't look much different from other psychological theories of mind and behavior. So, at this level, psychoanalytic theory appears to be true -- at least as true as any other psychological theory.

Of course, at this level psychoanalytic theory isn't really distinguishable from other psychological theories. That's why it's important to unpack the general metapsychological propositions to identify those general, specific, and empirical propositions which are both increasingly amenable to testing by means of conventional scientific procedures and increasingly specific to Freudian psychoanalytic theory. So, to take the example above:

  • We can unpack the Dynamic point of view into the general proposition that the important motives for behavior are sexual and aggressive in nature.

  • At the specific level, the proposition is that children harbor erotic feelings toward the parent of the opposite sex, and hostile feelings toward the parent of the same sex.

  • And at the empirical level, the proposition is that young boys regard their fathers as rivals for their mothers' affections.

  • And at the level of raw behavior, we can determine whether, as an empirical matter, it's true that young boys are afraid of their father -- a fact which is explained by the general, specific, and empirical propositions nested under the Dynamic point of view.

So, with this in mind, let's consider just three examples.

The Oedipus Complex

Perhaps the most famous test of Freudian theory concerned the Oedipus complex. Here, the empirical observation is that little boys hate and fear their fathers, and the theoretical explanation is (not to put too fine a point on it) that they want to have sex with their mothers, and are afraid that their fathers will punish them with castration. So, the questions are:

  1. Do little boys express negative affect toward their fathers?

  2. If so, do they do this because of their sexual interest in their mothers?

The problem is that there's an obvious confound: the little boy's father is his mother's lover, but he's also the disciplinarian in the house. So, assuming that little boys do harbor feelings of fear toward their fathers, is this because they fear castration by a romantic rival or because they're afraid of ordinary punishment?

Here the critical study is by an anthropologist, Bronislaw Malinowski, who in Sex and Repression in Savage Society (1927) showed that, contrary to Freud's claim, the Oedipus Complex was not universal. During and after World War I, Malinowski did a great deal of fieldwork in in the Trobriand Islands, an area of the South Pacific that we now know as Papua New Guinea. In the course of his work he discovered that Trobriand society was organized quite differently from Western society: in Trobriand culture, children are disciplined by their paternal uncles -- that is, their father's brother. So here was a perfect natural experiment, in which the roles of sexual rival (the father) and disciplinarian (the uncle) were separated.

So who does the little boy fear?The uncle, of course,not the father. To the extent that little boys are afraid of anyone, they're afraid of the family disciplinarian. In Western culture, that's the father. In Trobriand culture, that's the paternal uncle. Sex has nothing to do with it..

The Theory of Infantile Sexuality

OK, so the Oedipus complex isn't universal. But that doesn't necessarily mean that Freud was wrong about his own culture -- that seriously repressed society of Victorian Europe (never mind that, by all accounts, Victoria herself had a vigorous and enjoyable sex life). So how does Freud do when he's dealing with matters closer to home?

In the Three Essays on Infantile Sexuality (1902), where Freud first announces that what children repress is their fantasies of sexual involvement with their parents, rather than memories of actual sexual abuse and other traumas, Freud argued that much infant behavior was actually sexual in nature, and not just motivated by hunger, thirst, and elimination of waste. Freud argued that infants nursing at their mother's breast displayed "orgasmic" behavior, such as rubbing the genitals or breast, pelvic thrusting and falling asleep afterwards (surprisingly, Freud didn't claim that they also lit up a cigarette and turned on the sports news). And in support of these assertions, Freud referred to documentation in a recently published study of "pleasure-sucking" by infants, conducted by Lindner (1879-1880). Lindner's article was published in Hungarian, which hardly any in his audience could read (and, frankly, neither could Freud). But a century later, Malcolm Macmillan arranged for an authoritative translation of Lindner's paper -- and found that Lindner actually reported very little "pleasure-sucking".

  • Of the 500 infants he observed, Lindner reported pleasure-sucking (defined as sucking in the absence of feeding) in only 69, and he never described the behavior in sexual terms.

  • Only five of these 69 infants rubbed the genitals or breast in conjunction with pleasure-sucking, and only one or two of these five did so consistently.

  • While Lindner described four infants as "exultant" suckers, these infants did not fall asleep, or even relax, when they had finished sucking -- and, in fact, he noted that the pleasure-sucking infants also engaged in the behavior after awakening, or after a bath.

So, fewer than 1% of the infants observed by Lindner engaged in anything like "orgasmic" motions during pleasure-sucking, and even this figure is open to criticism. Freud just made this up.

The Case of Dora

OK, so he got the data wrong. But his clinical cases are convincing, aren't they? Not necessarily.

Let's look at one of Freud's most famous cases, that of Dora, which Freud published as a fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria in 1905. Freud described it as a not-very-interesting case, just a regular old psychoanalysis of a pretty common type off patient, and also a failure, because the patient didn't complete treatment. But he thought that it was useful as an illustration of the concepts and methods of his emerging technique of dream analysis.

Dora, whose real name we now know was Ida Bauer, was 18 years old when she was referred to Freud by her father (who had been treated by Freud some years before). She presented a variety of hysterical symptoms, including aphonia (difficulty speaking), dyspnia (difficulty breathing), coughing, and headaches, depression, and generally difficult behavior.

In their early meetings, Dora related to Freud that her father was being treated for tuberculosis, and while undergoing a "rest cure" in a sanitarium resort had developed a friendship with Herr K., and especially his wife, Frau K., who became a sort of nurse to Dora's father. Dora kept herself busy by babysitting the K's children, taking long walks, sometimes in the company of Herr K. At one point, Herr K. grabbed her and kissed her, and at another point apparently propositioned her. Dora reported all this to her father, but Herr K. denied everything and her father concluded that she had imagined the whole thing.

It turns out, of course, that Dora's father was having an affair with Frau K., and it seems plausible that her father was trading her to Herr K. in return (this way, her father could sleep with the younger Frau K., and Herr K. could sleep with the even younger Dora, so everyone wins except Dora and her mother).

Freud's analysis, however, focused on her dreams, including one in which her house was on fire. Her mother wanted to salvage her jewelry, but her father insisted that they evacuate immediately: "I refuse to let myself and my two children be burnt for the sake of your jewel-case". The jewel-case is, of course, a fairly obvious symbol for Dora's virginity. Dora is burning with desire, but she is concerned for her virtue (not to mention her virginity), which her father was all to willing to sacrifice.

Unlike her father, Freud acknowledged the facts as Dora related them, but believes that she should have been excited, in a positive way, by Herr K.'s kiss and his sexual interest in her, and that her family difficulties were not sufficient to explain her hysteria. Instead, her difficulties in breathing were a symbolic expression -- via the defense of displacement -- of the pressure she felt on her chest when Herr K. embraced her.

  • Instead, Freud concluded that Dora wasn't simply repressing her sexual desire for Herr K.

  • In fact, he said, it was obvious that Dora had a repressed sexual desire for her own father.

  • And not only that, she had a repressed homosexual desire for Frau K as well.

When Freud announced his conclusions to Dora, on New Year's Eve 1900, she promptly left treatment. Later on, however, Dora recontacted Freud. She told him that, following her termination of treatment, she had confronted her father and Herr and Frau K.; they acknowledged the affair, and all the machinations surrounding Dora and Herr K. At this point, her hysterical symptoms remitted.

So here's a great instance where Freud's theories got in the way. Instead of acknowledging the trauma of Herr K's sexual assault, and also of her difficult living situation, being put in the middle of not one but two affairs (one attempted, one consummated), Freud imposed his theory of infantile sexuality, the Oedipus complex, and all the rest on Dora. It wasn't enough that Dora's father had attempted to pimp her out to Herr K. -- no, she had to have an unresolved Oedipus complex as well.

It's a thoroughly botched case, but one which reveals Freud's actual method. The theory comes first, and all the facts are fixed around the theory. The problems of the real world don't matter. All that's important is what happens in fantasy.

Freud's fantasy, that is.

Resuscitating Freud

Advocates for psychoanalytic theory have not failed to respond to critiques such as this one. In particular, some analysts have seized on evidence for unconscious mental processes as a reason to revalue Freudian theory in a more positive light.

The Dynamic and the Cognitive Unconscious

A wide variety of clinical and experimental studies, conducted in a wide variety of domains and with many different types of subjects, provide evidence for several different aspects of the psychological unconscious. For a sample, see the Lecture Supplement on "Consciousness", and my article on "The Rediscovery of the Unconscious", as well as other articles available on my website in a section devoted to "Consciousness and the Unconscious Mind".

  • In the first place, there is ample evidence that certain mental processes, if not strictly automatic, operate unconsciously in the sense that we have no direct introspective awareness of them: they can be known only indirectly, by inference.

  • With respect to the cognitive contents on which these processes operate, there is also ample evidence for implicit memories and implicit percepts, which influence experience, thought, and action independently of, and even in the absence of, conscious perception or recollection.

  • There is also more tentative evidence for the involvement of implicit thoughts in problem-solving, and for implicit learning resulting in unconscious declarative and procedural knowledge.

  • There is also reason to think that motivational and emotional states, like cognitive states, can themselves affect experience, thought and action in the outside of conscious awareness.

Sigmund Freud did not discover the psychological unconscious (Ellenberger, 1970; D. B. Klein, 1977; Whyte, 1960), but he did popularize the idea of unconscious mental life. Accordingly, there has been some tendency to claim that findings such as those summarized here prove that Freud was right after all (Bornstein & Masling, 1998; Erdelyi, 1985, 1996, 2006; Shevrin, Bond, Brakel, Hertel, & Williams, 1996; J. Weinberger & Westen, 2001; Westen, 1994, 1998a, 1998b, 1999). Thus, the "cognitive unconscious" supported by modern scientific psychology was taken as evidence favoring the "dynamic unconscious" postulated by Freud and others working in the psychoanalytic tradition. For example, Westen (1998b) after reviewing the literature, concluded that "[t]he notion of unconscious processes is not psychoanalytic voodoo, and it is not the fantasy of muddle-headed clinicians. It is not only clinically indispensable, but it is good science" (p. 35).

True enough, so far as it goes, but Westen ignores the fact that none of the literature he has reviewed bears on the particular view of unconscious mental life offered by Freud. The fact that amnesic patients show priming effects on word-stem completion tasks, and can acquire positive and negative emotional responses to other people, without having any conscious recollection of the experiences responsible for these effects, cannot be offered in support of a theory that attributes conscious behavior to repressed sexual and aggressive urges. None of the experiments reviewed involve sexual or aggressive contents, none of their results imply defensive acts of repression, and none of their results support hermeneutic methods of interpreting manifest contents in terms of latent contents. To say that this body of research supports psychoanalytic theory is to make what the philosopher Gilbert Ryle called a category mistake.

Rapaport (1960) importantly distinguished among four levels of psychoanalytic theorizing. At the highest, 'metapsychological' level are broad, and frankly untestable, assumptions such as 'The crucial determinants of behaviors are unconscious' (p. 46); nestled under that is a hierarchy of general, specific, and empirical propositions that are increasingly testable. And it is at these levels where psychoanalytic theory crashes on the shoals of reality. For example, nothing in the evidence reviewed here even remotely suggests that the unconscious is a repository of primitive sexual and aggressive instincts. Nor is there any evidence for the idea that mental contents are rendered unconscious by means of a defensive process of repression. Nor is there any evidence that psychological trauma instigates amnesia via repression (McNally, 2003; Pope, Oliva, & Hudson, 2000), or that the recovery of repressed memories is critical to the success of psychotherapy, or that neurotic symptoms are really implicit, if symbolic, memories of trauma (Kihlstrom, 1996b, 1997b, 1998, 2004c, 2006b; Shobe & Kihlstrom, 1997). All that really survives is Freud's distinction between conscious, preconscious, and unconscious mental life ' to which may be added, inspired by Janet (1907),subconscious (Prince, 1908) or co-conscious (James, 1890/1980) mental states. In the modern usage, 'unconscious' refers to those that are inaccessible to conscious awareness in principle, under any circumstances, while 'preconscious' refers to mental contents that could be accessible to conscious awareness, if conditions were right. While 'preconscious' percepts and memories are typically degraded, as in subliminal perception, 'subconscious' mental contents are more fully analyzed. But even here, the modern definition of unconscious processes and preconscious contents owes nothing to Freud (Kihlstrom, 1984, 1987).

One response to this state of affairs is to argue that psychoanalytic theory itself has evolved since Freud, and that it is therefore unfair to bind psychoanalysis so tightly to the Freudian vision of repressed infantile sexual and aggressive urges, symbolically represented in dreams, errors, and symptoms, and revealed on the couch through free association. Westen (1998b) himself attempted this gambit, arguing that critics of psychoanalysis attack an archaic, obsolete version of psychodynamic theory, and ignore more recent developments such as ego psychology and object relations theory. But, to borrow the language of the Vietnam War, this destroys the village in order to save it. Culturally, the 20th century was the century of Sigmund Freud, not the century of Heinz Kohut or Melanie Klein. Freud's legacy is not to be assessed in terms of ideas which emerged since Freud died, but rather in terms of the ideas propounded by Freud himself through the 24 volumes of his collected works. Chief among these is a particular view of unconscious mental life -- a view which, to date, has found little or no support in empirical science. And, it must be said, the modern psychological laboratory offers little or nothing to support the theories of Kohut or Klein, either.

This Is Not Your Psychoanalyst's Unconscious!

The Trauma-Memory Argument

Another claim that Freud "had it right all along" came as a result of renewed interest in childhood sexual abuse in the 1970s and 1980s. Reflecting concern over the very real problem of childhood sexual abuse, but also, frankly, partly reflecting the rise of "survivor" movements in a number of domains, and the rise of a certain brand of feminist ideology, the view developed among certain clinicians that a whole host of problems, including anxiety, depression, and eating disorders, affecting girls and women, were the result of trauma associated with childhood sexual abuse. Clinicians started interviewing their patients, looking for memories of abuse, and when they largely failed to find them, fell back on the Freudian concept of repression to explain why.

What I have called the trauma-memory argument goes something like this:

  • Some, maybe an appreciable number, of girls were victims of sexual abuse as children.

  • These experiences were traumatic.

  • These traumatic experiences were repressed.

    • Sometimes, the term dissociation was used instead of repression, but the concept was the same: an active, defensive, pushing of an experience out of conscious memory.

  • The repressed memories of trauma then manifested themselves implicitly in a variety of symptoms, such as eating disorders, self-cutting, anxiety, depression, and the like. These are, essentially, symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

  • In order to get better, these victims needed help in recovering their repressed memories.

The result was a practice generally known as recovered-memory therapy, which was designed to foster the recovery of the repressed memories.

Here's a caricature -- only slightly exaggerated, for effect -- how it went down:

  • Patient: Doctor, thank you for seeing me.

  • Therapist: You're welcome. What seems to be the problem?

  • Patient: Well, I've been very anxious and depressed lately, and I have an eating disorder.

  • Therapist: Anxiety and depression are symptoms of something we call post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. And, in fact, something like 80% of all cases of eating disorder were victims of childhood sexual abuse. Have you been subjected to trauma at any point in your life?

  • Patient: No, I don't think so. I think I'd remember if something happened like that.

  • Therapist: Let me tell you about something called repression. Things like child sexual abuse happen to a lot of people, and they're so traumatic, they repress them, so that they don't remember that they happened.

  • Patient: Do you think I was abused, and I've repressed it?

  • Therapist: Perhaps. You do have a lot of the signs.

  • Patient: Well, what do I do now?

  • Therapist: First, let's think of who might have abused you.

  • Patient: Well, my Uncle Harry stayed with us for a while when I was young, and he used to help out around the house, like giving me my bath and making sure I was ready for school in the morning.

  • Therapist: Did he ever do anything to you?

  • Patient: Not that I can remember.

  • Therapist: Well, it's important that you remember, because it's the first step toward healing.

  • Patient: But I don't remember that he did it.

  • Therapist: Here's where science can help. Psychologists have discovered a principle of memory called cue-dependency, which means that if we stimulate memory with the right retrieval cues, we can remember things that we couldn't remember before. So what I want you to do is to go home now, and before our next session, think of all the times that Uncle Harry might have abused you. Try to imagine it happening -- imagining can help us to remember things. And then we'll see what you remember next week, and you can take the next steps toward healing.

  • Patient: Do you really think this might have happened to me?

  • Therapist: Well, you've got lots of signs of PTSD, so it's likely that you were traumatized. And you can't remember it, so that makes it even more likely.

  • Patient: Thank you for explaining why I'm having trouble. I'll go home now and try to remember.

  • Therapist: I'll see you next week.

Any resemblance between this caricature and the Dora case is entirely intentional.

This "recovered memory movement" actually represented a return to the earliest version of Freudian theory.

  • In the classic version, as represented by the Three Essays on Infantile Sexuality (1902) and the summary of Freud given in the earlier chapter, children repress their infantile sexual fantasies as part of their resolution of the Oedipus complex.

  • In an earlier version, as represented by Breuer and Freud's Studies on Hysteria (1893-1895), children repress actual experiences of sexual trauma.

Writing in The Assault on Truth: Freud's Suppression of the Seduction Theory (1984), the psychoanalyst Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson argued that Freud had gotten it right the first time. In an act of intellectual cowardice, Freud denied the truth of what his early patients had told him about their actual lives, and instead relegated their truths to the realm of fantasy.

As with the "dynamic unconscious", discussed earlier, both the trauma-memory argument and recovered-memory therapy gained credence from scientific research showing that implicit (unconscious) memory could be dissociated from explicit (conscious) memory.

The only problem with the argument, and the movement, was that there was no evidence for most of its premises.

  • While childhood sexual abuse is definitely a major social problem, it is not at all clear that it is as widespread as the proponents believed.

  • Childhood sexual abuse is morally wrong, and patently illegal, but it does not seem to have the lasting negative consequences attributed to it. Remarkably, follow-up studies show that most victims of childhood sexual abuse make a good adjustment as adults.

  • Nor is here any good evidence, that childhood sexual abuse plays any special role in causing such symptoms as eating disorder.

  • The vast majority of childhood sexual-abuse victims remember their abuse perfectly well. Where victims do not remember their abuse, the forgetting appears to be a product of normal memory processes, including normal infantile and childhood amnesia, rather than any defensive process like repression or dissociation.

  • The assumption that patients had repressed their trauma was made in the absence of independent evidence of the trauma. That is, therapists simply invoked the concept of repression to explain why their patients did not report that they had been victimized. In other words, the therapists simply assumed that their patients had been traumatized, and that they had repressed their trauma -- instead of concluding that their assumption was wrong, and that their patients had not been victimized after all.

  • At the same time, the criteria for "abuse" were broadened, so that just about anything -- real or imagined, could count. Call this (after the phrase made popular by Daniel Patrick Moynihan)defining trauma down.

  • Given the assumption that their patients had repressed their trauma, therapists employed a variety of highly suggestive techniques, including hypnosis, to stimulate the recovery of the ostensibly repressed memories. These procedures were so suggestive that they likely resulted in the "recovery" of a number of "memories" that were, objectively false -- that is, illusory memories of events that never actually happened.

  • There has never been any evidence that recovered-memory therapy actually helped patients get better.

For a summary of the evidence, see my article on "Trauma and Memory Revisited" and other papers available at a section of my website listing papers on "The Trauma-Memory Argument and Recovered-Memory Therapy".

So, in the final analysis, there's no evidence that people repress memories of childhood sexual abuse and other trauma. And because there's no evidence that people repress such memories, there's no reason to think that repressed memories of trauma account for people's "neurotic" symptoms. And because there's no reason to think that repression lies behind (or beneath) the patient's symptoms, there's no reason to think that recovering repressed memories of trauma would be of any use in the treatment of "neuroses".

And, more to the point, because there's no reason to believe any of these things, there's no reason to think that "Freud got it right the first time", either.

Freud is a Dead Weight on Psychology

-- And We'd Be Better Off Without Him

If the 20th century was "The American Century", it was also the century of Sigmund Freud (Roth, 1998). With books like The Interpretation of Dreams(1900),The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901), and the Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (1915-1916), works which achieved high levels of popular success, Freud changed our image of ourselves. Whereas Copernicus showed that the Earth did not lie at the center of the universe, and Darwin showed that humans were descended from "lower" animals, Freud claimed to show that human experience, thought, and action was determined not by our conscious rationality, but by irrational forces outside our conscious awareness and control -- forces when could only be understood, and controlled, by an extensive therapeutic process he called psychoanalysis.

Freud also changed the vocabulary with which we understand ourselves and others. Before you ever opened this textbook, you already knew something about the id and the superego, penis envy and phallic symbols, castration anxiety and the Oedipus complex. In popular culture, psychotherapy is virtually identified with psychoanalysis. Freudian theory, with its focus on the interpretation of ambiguous events, lies at the foundation of "postmodern" approaches to literary criticism such as deconstruction. More than Einstein or Watson and Crick, more than Hitler or Lenin, Roosevelt or Kennedy, more than Picasso, Eliot, or Stravinsky, more than the Beatles or Bob Dylan, Freud's influence on modern culture has been profound and long-lasting.

Freud's cultural influence is based, at least implicitly, on the premise that his theory is scientifically valid. But from a scientific point of view, classical Freudian psychoanalysis is dead as both a theory of the mind and a mode of therapy (Crews, 1998; Macmillan, 1996). No empirical evidence supports any specific proposition of psychoanalytic theory, such as the idea that development proceeds through oral, anal, phallic, and genital stages, or that little boys lust after their mothers and hate and fear their fathers. No empirical evidence indicates that psychoanalysis is more effective, or more efficient, than other forms of psychotherapy, such as systematic desensitization or assertiveness training. No empirical evidence indicates the mechanisms by which psychoanalysis achieves its effects, such as they are, are those specifically predicated on the theory, such as transference and catharsis.

Of course, Freud lived at a particular period of time, and it might be argued that his theories were valid when applied to European culture at the turn of the last century, even if they are no longer apropos today. However, recent historical analyses show that Freud's construal of his case material was systematically distorted and biased by his theories of unconscious conflict and infantile sexuality, and that he misinterpreted and misrepresented the scientific evidence available to him. Freud's theories were not just a product of his time: they were misleading and incorrect even when he published them.

Drew Westen (1998), a psychologist at Harvard Medical School, agrees that Freud's theories are archaic and obsolete, but argues that Freud's legacy lives on in a number of theoretical propositions that are widely accepted by scientists: the existence of unconscious mental processes; the importance of conflict and ambivalence in behavior; the childhood origins of adult personality; mental representations as a mediator of social behavior; and stages of psychological development. However, some of these propositions are debatable. For example, there is no evidence that child-rearing practices have any lasting impact on personality. More important, Westen's argument skirts the question of whether Freud's view of these matters was correct. It is one thing to say that unconscious motives play a role in behavior. It is something quite different to say that our every thought and deed is driven by repressed sexual and aggressive urges; that children harbor erotic feelings toward the parent of the opposite sex; and that young boys are hostile toward their fathers, who they regard as rivals for their mothers' affections. This is what Freud believed, and so far as we can tell Freud was wrong in every respect. For example, the unconscious mind revealed in laboratory studies of automaticity and implicit memory bears no resemblance to the unconscious mind of psychoanalytic theory (Kihlstrom, 1999).

Westen also argues that psychoanalytic theory itself has evolved since Freud's time, and that it is therefore unfair to bind psychoanalysis so tightly to the Freudian vision of repressed, infantile, sexual and aggressive urges. This is true, and it is a historical fact that so-called "ego psychology" helped preserve much of what was interesting in psychology during its "Dark Ages" of radical behaviorism (Kihlstrom, 1994). But again, this avoids the issue of whether Freud's theories are correct. Furthermore, it remains an open question whether these "neo-Freudian" theories are any more valid than are the classically Freudian views which preceded them. For example, it is not at all clear that Erik Erikson's stage theory of psychological development is any more valid than Freud's is.

While Freud had an enormous impact on 20th century culture, he has been a dead weight on 20th century psychology. The broad themes that Westen writes about were present in psychology before Freud, or arose in more recently independent of his influence. At best, Freud is a figure of only historical interest for psychologists. He is better studied as a writer, in departments of language and literature, than as a scientist, in departments of psychology. Psychologists can get along without him.

For Further Reading

Crews, F.C. (Ed.). (1998).Unauthorized Freud: Doubters confront a legend. New York: Viking.

Kihlstrom, J.F. (1994). Psychodynamics and social cognition: Notes on the fusion of psychoanalysis and psychology. Journal of Personality, 62, 681-696.

Kihlstrom, J.F. (1999). The psychological unconscious. In L.R. Pervin & O. John (Eds.), Handbook of personality, 2nd ed. (pp. 424-442). New York: Guilford.

Macmillan, M.B. (1996).Freud evaluated: The completed arc. Cambridge, Ma.: MIT Press.

Roth, M. (1998).Freud: Conflict and culture. New York: Knopf.

Westen, D. (1998). The scientific legacy of Sigmund Freud: Toward a psychodynamically informed psychological science.Psychological Bulletin,124, 333-371.