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Front row: Sigmund Freud, G. Stanley Hall, Carl Jung; Back row: Abraham A. Brill, Ernest Jones, Sándor Ferenczi, at: Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. Date: September 1909.

Psychodynamics, also known as psychodynamic psychology, in its broadest sense, is an approach to psychology that emphasizes systematic study of the psychological forces that underlie human behavior, feelings, and emotions and how they might relate to early experience. It is especially interested in the dynamic relations between conscious motivation and unconscious motivation.[1]

The term psychodynamics is also used by some to refer specifically to the psychoanalytical approach developed by Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) and his followers. Freud was inspired by the theory of thermodynamics and used the term psychodynamics to describe the processes of the mind as flows of psychological energy (libido or psi) in an organically complex brain.[2]

There are four major schools of thought regarding psychological treatment: psychodynamic, cognitive-behavioral, biological, and humanistic treatment. In the treatment of psychological distress, psychodynamic psychotherapy tends to be a less intensive (once- or twice-weekly) modality than the classical Freudian psychoanalysis treatment (of 3-5 sessions per week). Psychodynamic therapies depend upon a theory of inner conflict, wherein repressed behaviours and emotions surface into the patient's consciousness; generally, one's conflict is unconscious.[3]


In general, psychodynamics is the study of the interrelationship of various parts of the mind, personality, or psyche as they relate to mental, emotional, or motivational forces especially at the unconscious level.[4][5][6] The mental forces involved in psychodynamics are often divided into two parts:[7] (a) the interaction of the emotional and motivational forces that affect behavior and mental states, especially on a subconscious level; (b) inner forces affecting behavior: the study of the emotional and motivational forces that affect behavior and states of mind.

Freud proposed that psychological energy was constant (hence, emotional changes consisted only in displacements) and that it tended to rest (point attractor) through discharge (catharsis).[8]

In mate selection psychology, psychodynamics is defined as the study of the forces, motives, and energy generated by the deepest of human needs.[9]

In general, psychodynamics studies the transformations and exchanges of "psychic energy" within the personality.[5] A focus in psychodynamics is the connection between the energetics of emotional states in the Id, ego and super-ego as they relate to early childhood developments and processes. At the heart of psychological processes, according to Freud, is the ego, which he envisions as battling with three forces: the id, the super-ego, and the outside world.[4] The id is the unconscious reservoir of libido, the psychic energy that fuels instincts and psychic processes. The ego serves as the general manager of personality, making decisions regarding the pleasures that will be pursued at the id's demand, the person's safety requirements, and the moral dictates of the superego that will be followed. The superego refers to the repository of an individual's moral values, divided into the conscience - the internalization of a society's rules and regulations - and the ego-ideal - the internalization of one's goals.[10] Hence, the basic psychodynamic model focuses on the dynamic interactions between the id, ego, and superego.[11] Psychodynamics, subsequently, attempts to explain or interpret behaviour or mental states in terms of innate emotional forces or processes.


Ernst von Brücke, early developer of psychodynamics.

Freud used the term psychodynamics to describe the processes of the mind as flows of psychological energy (libido) in an organically complex brain.[2] The idea for this came from his first year adviser, Ernst von Brücke at the University of Vienna, who held the view that all living organisms, including humans, are basically energy-systems to which the principle of the conservation of energy applies.[12] This principle states that "the total amount of energy in any given physical system is always constant, that energy quanta can be changed but not annihilated, and that consequently when energy is moved from one part of the system, it must reappear in another part."[12] This principle is at the very root of Freud's ideas, whereby libido, which is primarily seen as sexual energy, is transformed into other behaviours. However, it is now clear that the term energy in physics means something quite different from the term energy in relation to mental functioning.

Psychodynamics was initially further developed by Carl Jung, Alfred Adler and Melanie Klein.[5][6] By the mid-1940s and into the 1950s, the general application of the "psychodynamic theory" had been well established.[citation needed]

In his 1988 book Introduction to Psychodynamics - a New Synthesis, psychiatrist Mardi J. Horowitz states that his own interest and fascination with psychodynamics began during the 1950s, when he heard Ralph Greenson, a popular local psychoanalyst who spoke to the public on topics such as "People who Hate", speak on the radio at UCLA. In his radio discussion, according to Horowitz, he "vividly described neurotic behavior and unconscious mental processes and linked psychodynamics theory directly to everyday life."[13]

In the 1950s, American psychiatrist Eric Berne built on Freud's psychodynamic model, particularly that of the "ego states", to develop a psychology of human interactions called transactional analysis[14] which, according to physician James R. Allen, is a "cognitive behavioral approach to treatment and that it is a very effective way of dealing with internal models of self and others as well as other psychodynamic issues."[14] The theory was popularized in the 1964 book Games People Play, a book that sold five million copies.[citation needed].

Around the 1970s, a growing number of researchers began departing from the psychodynamics model and Freudian subconscious. Many felt that the evidence was over-reliant on imaginative discourse in therapy, and on patient reports of their state-of-mind. These subjective experiences are inaccessible to others.[15] Philosopher of science Karl Popper argued that much of Freudianism was untestable and therefore not scientific.[16] In 1975 literary critic Frederick Crews began a decades long campaign against the scientific credibility of Freudianism.[17] This culminated in Freud: The Making of an Illusion which aggregated years of criticism from many quarters.[18] Medical schools and psychology departments no longer offer much training in psychodynamics, according to a 2007 survey. An Emory University psychology professor explained, “I don’t think psychoanalysis is going to survive unless there is more of an appreciation for empirical rigor and testing.”[19]

Early French researchers[edit]

Early researchers in France set the scene for the psychodynamic approach. Jean-Martin Charcot, for example, lectured on Mesmerism or Hypnosis, ideas that Sigmund Freud, who attended his lectures, would later take up.[citation needed]

William James and Boris Sidis: the subconscious mind[edit]

William James was an early user of the term 'subconscious mind'. His student Boris Sidis published books on topics that formed the foundation for much of Freud's work[citation needed]; he, however, employed the terms 'unconscious' and sometimes 'preconscious'.[citation needed]

Sigmund Freud and psychoanalytic theory[edit]

According to American psychologist Calvin S. Hall, from his 1954 Primer in Freudian Psychology:

Freud greatly admired Brücke and quickly became indoctrinated by this new dynamic physiology. Thanks to Freud's singular genius, he was to discover some twenty years later that the laws of dynamics could be applied to man's personality as well as to his body. When he made his discovery Freud proceeded to create a dynamic psychology. A dynamic psychology is one that studies the transformations and exchanges of energy within the personality. This was Freud’s greatest achievement, and one of the greatest achievements in modern science, It is certainly a crucial event in the history of psychology.

At the heart of psychological processes, according to Freud, is the ego, which he sees battling with three forces: the id, the super-ego, and the outside world.[4] Hence, the basic psychodynamic model focuses on the dynamic interactions between the id, ego, and superego.[11] Psychodynamics, subsequently, attempts to explain or interpret behavior or mental states in terms of innate emotional forces or processes. In his writings about the "engines of human behavior", Freud used the German word Trieb, a word that can be translated into English as either instinct or drive.[20]

In the 1930s, Freud's daughter Anna Freud began to apply Freud's psychodynamic theories of the "ego" to the study of parent-child attachment and especially deprivation and in doing so developed ego psychology.

Carl Jung and analytical psychology[edit]

At the turn of the 20th century, during these decisive years, a young Swiss psychiatrist named Carl Jung had been following Freud's writings and had sent him copies of his articles and his first book, the 1907 Psychology of Dementia Praecox, in which he upheld the Freudian psychodynamic viewpoint, although with some reservations. That year, Freud invited Jung to visit him in Vienna. The two men, it is said, were greatly attracted to each other, and they talked continuously for thirteen hours. This led to a professional relationship in which they corresponded on a weekly basis, for a period of six years.[21]

Carl Jung's contributions in psychodynamic psychology include:

  1. The psyche tends toward wholeness.
  2. The self is composed of the ego, the personal unconscious, the collective unconscious.[22] The collective unconscious contains the archetypes which manifest in ways particular to each individual.
  3. Archetypes are composed of dynamic tensions and arise spontaneously in the individual and collective psyche. Archetypes are autonomous energies common to the human species. They give the psyche its dynamic properties and help organize it. Their effects can be seen in many forms and across cultures.
  4. The Transcendent Function: The emergence of the third resolves the split between dynamic polar tensions within the archetypal structure.
  5. The recognition of the spiritual dimension of the human psyche.
  6. The role of images which spontaneously arise in the human psyche (images include the interconnection between affect, images, and instinct) to communicate the dynamic processes taking place in the personal and collective unconscious, images which can be used to help the ego move in the direction of psychic wholeness.
  7. Recognition of the multiplicity of psyche and psychic life, that there are several organizing principles within the psyche, and that they are at times in conflict.

John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth: attachment theory[edit]

John Bowlby was originally a follower of the Freudian tradition at the Tavistock Clinic in London, but broke away from Freud's key ideas and revolutionised the field. Bowlby's inspiration came from reading the work of Konrad Lorenz, the famous Nobel Prize–winning founder of the field of ethology or animal behaviour. In particular Bowlby was struck by the phenomenon of imprinting, which Lorenz had studied in birds, and he saw the possibility that infants might imprint on their mother in a similar way. Along with his student Mary Ainsworth he studied infant behaviour, and developed what he called attachment theory. He rejected Freud's ideas of damage caused by frustrated impulses, in favour of the idea that maternal deprivation is a major cause of disturbed development and later psychological problems. Later he realised that infants need a stable, safe person or persons to provide a feeling of security from which they can venture out and explore. Many other workers in the field have since carried out experiments on infants and on animals which seem to confirm and refine this idea.[23]

Bowlby's attachment theory is widely considered to be the basis of most current research, and to have put the field formerly known as psychoanalysis on a more scientifically based, experimentally testable, footing.[23] Bowlby's work led to a major change in hospital practice in the UK, where children admitted to hospital had not been allowed visits from parents during their stay. Contact with parents was said to unsettle the children and interfere with ward routine. Today, parents are encouraged to stay with their children in UK hospitals, or visit whenever they want.[citation needed]

Current developments[edit]

At present, psychodynamics is an evolving multi-disciplinary field which analyses and studies human thought process, response patterns, and influences. Research in this field provides insights into a number of areas, including:

  1. Understanding and anticipating the range of specific conscious and unconscious responses to specific sensory inputs, as images, colors, textures, sounds, etc.[citation needed]
  2. Utilizing the communicative nature of movement and primal physiological gestures to affect and study specific mind-body states.[citation needed]
  3. Examining the capacity for the mind and senses to directly affect physiological response and biological change.[citation needed]
  • In psychodynamic psychotherapy, patients become increasingly aware of dynamic conflicts and tensions that are manifesting as a symptom or challenge in their lives. Together with the clinician, patients are assisted to bring conflicting aspects of their self into awareness, and through time, begin to integrate the conflicting parts and resolve aspects of the tension. This is talked about in different ways in each of the psychodynamic psychological theories, but all share the common goal of attempting to describe the dynamic nature of the tension between conflicting parts, assist the client in coming to terms with the tension, and begin the process of integration and healing. This is as opposed to simply evaluating previously unexamined beliefs, as is advocated for in, for example, reflective practice.
  • Cognitive psychodynamics is a blend of traditional psychodynamic concepts with cognitive psychology and neuroscience.[24]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ What is psychodynamics? - WebMD, Stedman’s Medical Dictionary 28th Edition, Copyright© 2006_Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
  2. ^ a b Bowlby, John (1999). Attachment and Loss: Vol I, 2nd Ed. Basic Books. pp. 13–23. ISBN 0-465-00543-8.
  3. ^ Adapted from Corsini and Wedding 2008; Corsini, R. J., & Wedding, D. (2008) Current Psychotherapies, 8th Edition. Belmont, CA.: Thomson Brooks/Cole. (pp. 15-17).
  4. ^ a b c Freud, Sigmund (1923). The Ego and the Id. W.W. Norton & Company. pp. (4–5). ISBN 0-393-00142-3.
  5. ^ a b c Hall, Calvin, S. (1954). A Primer in Freudian Psychology. Meridian Book. ISBN 0-452-01183-3.
  6. ^ a b Psychodynamics (1874) - (1) the psychology of mental or emotional forces or processes developing especially in early childhood and their effects on behavior and mental states; (2) explanation ! or interpretation, as of behavior or mental states, in terms of mental or emotional forces or processes; (3) motivational forces acting especially at the unconscious level. Source: Merriam-Webster, 2000, CD-ROM, version 2.5
  7. ^ Psychodynamics Archived 2007-11-16 at the Wayback Machine – Microsoft Encarta
  8. ^ Robertson, Robin; Combs, Allan (1995). Chaos theory in Psychology and Life Sciences. LEA, Inc. p. (83). ISBN 0-8058-1737-9.
  9. ^ Klimek, David (1979). Beneath Mate Selection and Marriage - the Unconscious Motives in Human Pairing. Van Nostrand Reinhold. p. 3. ISBN 0-442-23074-5.
  10. ^ Carlson, Neil, R.; et al. (2010). Psychology: The Science of Behaviour. United States of America: Person Education. pp. 453–454. ISBN 978-0-205-64524-4.
  11. ^ a b Ahles, Scott, R. (2004). Our Inner World: A Guide to Psychodynamics and Psychotherapy. Johns Hopkins University Press. pp. (1–2). ISBN 0-8018-7836-5.
  12. ^ a b Stephen P. Thornton. "Sigmund Freud (1856—1939)". Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved 2013-05-26.
  13. ^ Horowitz, Mardi, J. (1988). Introduction to Psychodynamics - a New Synthesis. Basic Books. p. 3. ISBN 0-465-03561-2.
  14. ^ a b Berne, Eric (1964). Games People Play – The Basic Hand Book of Transactional Analysis. New York: Ballantine Books. ISBN 0-345-41003-3.
  15. ^ Grünbaum, Adolf (1984). The Foundations of Psychoanalysis: A Philosophical Critique. University of California. ISBN 978-0520050174.
  16. ^ Popper, Karl R. (1962). CONJECTURES AND REFUTATIONS The Growth of Scientific Knowledge. New York: Basic Books. p. 38.
  17. ^ Crews, Frederick C. (1975). Out of My System: Psychoanalysis, Ideology, and Critical Method. Oxford. ISBN 0-19-501947-4.
  18. ^ Crews, Frederick C. (2017). Freud: The Making of an Illusion. Metropolitan. ISBN 9781627797177.
  19. ^ Cohen, Patricia (November 25, 2007). "Freud Is Widely Taught at Universities, Except in the Psychology Department". New York Times. Retrieved 6 February 2020.
  20. ^ Walsh, Anthony (1991). The Science of Love - Understanding Love and its Effects on Mind and Body. Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books. p. 58. ISBN 0-87975-648-9.
  21. ^ Hall, Calvin S.; Nordby, Vernon J. (1999). A Primer of Jungian Psychology. New York: Meridian. ISBN 0-452-01186-8.
  22. ^ Archived 2007-06-26 at the Wayback Machine Outline of the Major Points in Carl Jung's Contributions to Psychology
  23. ^ a b Inge Bretherton: The origins of attachment theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth
  24. ^ Horowitz, Mardi, J. (2001). Cognitive Psychodynamics – from Conflict to Character. Wiley. ISBN 0-471-11772-2.

Further reading[edit]

  • Brown, Junius Flagg & Menninger, Karl Augustus (1940). The Psychodynamics of Abnormal Behavior, 484 pages, McGraw-Hill Book Company, inc.
  • Weiss, Edoardo (1950). Principles of Psychodynamics, 268 pages, Grune & Stratton
  • Pearson Education (1970). The Psychodynamics of Patient Care Prentice Hall, 422 pgs. Stanford University: Higher Education Division.
  • Jean Laplanche et J.B. Pontalis (1974). The Language of Psycho-Analysis, Editeur: W. W. Norton & Company, ISBN 0-393-01105-4
  • Raphael-Leff, Joan (2005). Parent Infant Psychodynamics – Wild Things, Mirrors, and Ghosts. Wiley. ISBN 1-86156-346-9.
  • Shedler, Jonathan. "That was Then, This is Now: An Introduction to Contemporary Psychodynamic Therapy", PDF
  • PDM Task Force. (2006). Psychodynamic Diagnostic Manual. Silver Spring, MD. Alliance of Psychoanalytic Organizations.
  • Aziz, Robert (1990). C.G. Jung's Psychology of Religion and Synchronicity (10 ed.). The State University of New York Press. ISBN 0791401669.
  • Aziz, Robert (1999). "Synchronicity and the Transformation of the Ethical in Jungian Psychology". In Becker, Carl (ed.). Asian and Jungian Views of Ethics. Greenwood. ISBN 0313304521.
  • Aziz, Robert (2007). The Syndetic Paradigm: The Untrodden Path Beyond Freud and Jung. The State University of New York Press. ISBN 9780791469828.
  • Aziz, Robert (2008). "Foreword". In Storm, Lance (ed.). Synchronicity: Multiple Perspectives on Meaningful Coincidence. Pari Publishing. ISBN 9788895604022.
  • Bateman, Anthony; Brown, Dennis and Pedder, Jonathan (2000). Introduction to Psychotherapy: An Outline of Psychodynamic Principles and Practice. Routledge. ISBN 0415205697.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  • Bateman, Anthony; Holmes, Jeremy (1995). Introduction to Psychoanalysis: Contemporary Theory and Practice. Routledge. ISBN 0415107393.
  • Oberst, Ursula E.; Stewart, Alan E. (2003). Adlerian Psychotherapy: An Advanced Approach to Individual Psychology. New York: Brunner-Routledge. ISBN 1583911227.
  • Ellenberger, Henri F. (1970). The Discovery of the Unconscious: The History and Evolution of Dynamic Psychiatry. Basic Books. ISBN 0465016723.

Hutchinson, E.(ED.) (2017).Essentials of human behavior: Integrating person, environment, and the life course. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.