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Is Freud Still Alive? No, Not Really

John F. Kihlstrom


Note: This essay was originally prepared for Hilgard's Introduction to Psychology, 13th Ed., by R. Atkinson, R.C. Atkinson, E.E. Smith, D.J. Bem, & S. Nolen-Hoeksema. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 2000, and was published in revised form in the 14th edition (2003) and the 15th edition (2009).  The version posted here has been updated since the original publication.

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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 childrearing 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, whom 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.



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.


This webpage last updated 01/14/2015.