Also known as “How can I teach this stuff?”

This is the question I have asked myself, and, as is probably obvious to you, I think much of what Freud said is ridiculous. When I was in graduate school, and out of the hearing range of the professors, my friends and I used to refer to Freud’s as “The theory of being dragged through life by your genitals.”

(as if it mattered, which, obviously, I think it does a little or I would not be writing this!)

Most of the people I know (admittedly, not a random sample), whether they are psychologists or not,  have difficulty taking Freud’s psychosexual stages seriously. “I smoke cigarettes because my mother didn’t breastfeed me long enough - you have got to be kidding”.

Face validity (whether something appears on the face of it to be valid) is a poor criterion by which to judge a theory. Psychological research is full of results which are contrary to what one would expect, and also full of results which are exactly what one would expect. For example, which of these would you expect to be true:

(In case you cannot wait until the chapters on love in adulthood, the answer supported by most studies of divorce, marital satisfaction, etc. is B)

A more convincing reason to discount the notion of psychosexual stages is that empirical research has not found evidence to support these stages. (The Grant Study is one famous example of research which did NOT support Freud’s hypotheses regarding psychosexual stages.)

In general, people who were breastfed as children are no more or less likely to have signs of oral fixation - as  evidenced, for example, by obesity, alcoholism and smoking - than do people who were not breastfed.

Your childhood relationship with your mother does NOT necessarily determine your ultimate happiness in life. For example, the Grant Study found that 30% of men who were well-adjusted had poor relations with their mothers as young children, as did 31% of the men who were poorly adjusted adults, a nonsignificant difference.

 Freud believed that most of a person’s personality is formed by early childhood, much of it so early that we don’t even have conscious memories. For example, people who were toilet-trained strictly and at an early age grow up to be intolerant of mess, disorder and anything that doesn’t go by the rules of ‘how things are supposed to be’.

This turned out to be an exaggeration, as Erikson, among others, pointed out.


    It's easy to criticize, knowing what we know now, but Freud really did make some major contributions to the field of psychology. He was the first one to suggest that psychological problems might have their roots in how children were treated, that maybe not all mental illness and emotional problems were caused by biological problems, or some sort of punishment from God for being a bad person. These ideas, that a child's personality could be negatively affected by too strict discipline, or overly permissive parents, are taken for granted today.

    Very importantly, Freud provided the basis to stimulate much of future research in psychology. Erikson is just on famous example of this. Just think how many of the theories you read about throughout this course assume that childhood experiences affect personality, or believe that development occurs in stages.

    Unfortunately, some textbooks never mentions these, but I personally think one of the most useful aspects of Freud's theory that remains in use today is his description of 'defense mechanisms'. According to Freud, people try to reduce anxiety which is caused by unpleasant reality. If there is nothing they can do to change a situation (or, it is too painful for them to consider necessary changes), certain psychological defense mechanisms are used. The one you may be most familiar with is DENIAL, when a person simply refuses to recognize the facts that are staring them in the face by denying reality. For example, I knew a man who drank excessively while in college. Even after he had received three tickets for Driving Under the Influence of alcohol he refused to admit he had a drinking problem, saying, "Hey, everybody I know has driven home drunk after a party at least theree or four times, most of them lots more. What's the big deal?" Of course, after he had quit drinking, he pointed out himself that not everyone has three or four DUIs on their record and if you do, either you are just the unluckiest person alive and get caught every time you are driving home, or you really do have a problem.
    Another example of a defense mechanism is REPRESSION, in which a person is simply not consciously aware of memories of events or desires that occurred, because it is simply too painful to remember.This repression may be temporary, lasting for a period of days to years. When my husband died, I first called my mother (which is actually something attachment theory, which you will learn about soon, would have predicted) who, along with my sister, caught the first plane up to North Dakota. A week later, after the funeral and my family had left, I called my best friend. She said, "Don't argue with me, I have a credit card and a travel agent, I am coming up there." She asked me why I hadn't called her sooner and I found that I could not remember most of the week following when my husband died. I remember a little of the prayer service and funeral and meeting with the funeral director - maybe a total of an hour or two out of that entire week.
    Repression is an area which has gotten a fair amount of attention lately, with adults alleging they were victims of child abuse and repressed the memory for years. Elizabeth Loftus has written quite a bit on this subject, arguing that it is, in fact, quite easy to 'implant' false memories, especially in children, with the appropriate types of suggestions. Loftus has written some very good books, if you are interested in learning more about the topic of false memories.

    If you take more psychology courses, you may hear a lot more about Freud's theory and defense mechanisms. His contribution is unquestioned in terms of stimulating others to do research on the effect of social experience on development.

Click here to learn about one of the best-known theorists who followed and expanded on Freud's theory.