Wilson Key, Freud's Theory of Repression and Advertising
Wilson Key primarily based his explanatory theory of subliminal responsiveness - or rather lack of responsiveness - to subliminal stimuli on Freudian notions of the unconscious and defence mechanisms. In particular he focussed on the defence mechanism of repression. However, as Key notes, theories are not the Holy Grail, they are only explanatory mechanisms, neither true nor false, only useful or useless. In Key's case they were a useful means of accounting for why people did not recognise what he called subliminal advertising, elements of advertising that are more appropriately called semi-subliminal advertising ( Click here for access to a classification table providing more precise details of different types of manipulative ads, including semi-subliminal ads).
Theories of the unconscious generally suggest that unconscious processes dominate human behaviour. This may be overstating the issue. Research over the past twenty years demonstrates that unconscious, or rather non-conscious, emotional responses occur before thought processes related to the same sensory input. Emotions, even when not overpowering, thus have a key role to play when responding to adverts. They give an 'emotional' feel to visual input, indicating whether we should respond positively or negatively. Freud, and Key, thus overstep the mark when they postulate that the unconscious seemingly has 'a mind of its own'.
Freud's notion of a 'dynamic unconscious' is frightening to many individuals. It seems to indicate that what we do not know about ourselves is 'kept from consciousness' by some force that is beyond our control - and that we do not really know ourselves. This again oversteps the mark. Whilst we may not be able to recall or remember events or experiencies, and such experiences may still have motivating force (energy), they do not have a 'life of their own'. They are just as much part of us as those events and experiences that we can recall. The only difference, and it can be a crucial difference, is that they may influence us without our being aware of it. But we are aware of the ultimate decisions that we make, even if only in retrospect and with biases that we may not be consciously aware of.
Freud postulated that man had primitive fantasies. Jung called them archetypes. Both of these distinguished figures claimed that these processes derive from the functioning of the older portions (in evolutionary terms) of the brain. As such, despite the activities of higher processes such as thinking, they are claimed to exert a powerful force on modern man and are deemed to be the basis for universal symbols. Symbols, of course, have meaning but, according to Freud and Jung, the deeper meanings associated with symbols are beyond conscious appraisal. Nevertheless, Key makes the point that advertising often relies upon symbols to convey messages that would be too cumbersome or otherwise problematical by any other means. Again one need not rely on theories that are untestable or extremely difficult to test in support of such propositions. More carefully researched theories indicate that we do learn complex sets of ideas, that cultures make assiduous use of symbols, and that symbols do often draw out responses from their audience. However, one need not rely upon notions such as the 'collective unconscious' ( a sharing of common evolutionary experience) to explain such outcomes. Social learning and individual experiences within specific and universal cultures explain these quite adequately.
Freud quite cheerful attibuted meaning to specific actions and objects in his attempts to explain the behaviour of his patients (and develop acceptable theories). For example, Key notes that 'blindness is symbolic of castration'. Well it might be, but if so one would have to learn that fact. And, of course, society used to teach that masturbation led to blindness - or worse. In today's enlightened, perhaps even liberal, world masturbation is simply a practice widely indulged in during certain stages of sexual development (and according to the hero of a book by best-selling novelist, John Grisham, at any stage of life). Other objects can acquire their symbolic meaning by association with important events, emotional experiences, or classical and operant conditioning. The normal psychological processes of classification and categorisation and the development of sets of associated ideas again can quite adequately account for symbolic meanings. There is no need to make attributions to unconscious forces, although once acquired such meanings may have motivational force that cannot always be rationally accounted for.
The process of repression was deemed to be an automatic response by unconscious forces to prevent information intruding into conscious awareness. This contrasts with deliberate attempts to suppress thoughts with which we cannot cope. Recent reappraisals of the concept include that by Michael Billig. In his book Freudian Repression he points out that, as we learn language, we also learn to suppress certain types of responses. Effectively, we are learning to suppress responses that would not be acceptable to our parents and others, and this can lead to behaviour that seems remarkably like repression. Clinicians might refute such conclusions but, since Billig's theory relies upon learning as the mechanism, rather than some unconscious dynamic, then they fit in much more readily than Freud's ideas with what is now known about human cognitive functioning.
Key reported that the failure of viewers to recognise words such as 'sex', 'fuck', etc in adverts indicated that the viewers were repressing this information. On page 5 of Subliminal Seduction he claims that sex embedded on the cover of Time magazine was clearly visible to all readers. And that it was only repression that prevented them recognising the word. This now seems very unlikely except in a small proportion of cases.
As research into perceptual processes indicate, it is only too easy to overlook that which is not expected. Additionally, we are not 'tuned in' to looking for information that is incongruous, camouflaged. We effectively only see that with which we are familiar. And semi-subliminal material is not something the average person is familiar with. They might be concerned about being exposed to it. But only obsessional individuals or academics might pay sufficient attention to semi-subliminal material to be able to identify it.
The process of priming ie notifying individuals what to expect, also plays a role in helping people perceive that which they did not/could not previously perceive. There is no need to postulate the operation of repressive forces in such circumstances for the vast majority of individuals. In the extreme some individuals may find it difficult to recognise (or acknowledge) semi-subliminal compenents of ads but this would not apply to the average viewer. And one could readily appreciate that a consultant for a company using semi-subliminal elements in its advertising would be unwilling to acknowledge their use. However, one such consultant, Jack Haberstroh goes beyond such attempts at subterfuge. Viewers of this site can use the search facility to see comments re Jack Haberstroh's book Ice Cube Sex.
To sum up, Keys use of the concept of repression is flawed. It helped him explain why others could not readily perceive what he himself perceived. However, more straightforward mechanisms, supported by empirical research or capable of being examined in such research, indicate that focussing upon the limits of perception, learning and experience can do the same explanatory job. Freudian theory has seemingly had its day in this respect. They still provide a means of focussing upon early traumatic experiences, but other theories can also account for the same phenomenon. Only in a few areas can Freudian theories still fulfil a function that other theories cannot. However, this should not lead to throwing out the 'baby with the bathwater'. As the December, 2000 issue of The Psychologist - the magazine of the British Psychology Society - indicates, there is still considerable life left in Freud's theories.
Despite the misleading theoretical base and the problematical terminology used by Key, he nevertheless identified a type of advertising that has a long history, perhaps considerably longer than he acknowledged. Key's focus on Freud, dated as it now is outwith the clinical context, helped bring the subject of 'subliminal' advertising to the awareness of the general population. He should be thanked for that.
Semi-subliminal advertising is unethical, it seemingly influences sufficient individuals to justify continued commercial use by major US tobacco companies and other companies, and it is seemingly being used more widely (see for example the Coke and Budweiser packaging noted in Ads of the Month and elsewhere).
A number of the books listed in the relevant portion of the bibliography provide much more detailed accounts of Freudian theory (a summary of some key elements is provided below), the unconscious, defence mechanisms and repression in particular. Other textbooks in the Psychology section cover standard psychological and social psychological theories that might be of interest to viewers.
Thanatos: The Death Instinct and Silk Cut advertising
Alastair McIntosh, formerly at the Centre for Human Ecology of the University of Edinburgh, is an analyst who has taken an in-depth look at a large number of Silk Cut ads. He drew conclusions that are remarkably similar to those of the present author. McIntosh used the Freudian notion of Thanatos, the death instinct, as the basis for his explanatory framework. His work thus led to his questioning the use of imagery closely related to death and sexual violation as means of motivating cigarette smokers.
The pioneers of advertising made extensive use of Freudian notions associated with motivational factors such as sexuality, love, fear and guilt. |McIntosh contended that Gallahers and M & C Saatchi, intuitively or intentionally, capitalise upon the same human frailties, fears and desires to sell Silk Cut cigarettes. Yet, his emphasis on Freudian theory is not necessarily appropriate. Freud attempted to explain human destructiveness by inferring a death instinct, Thanatos. In the light of recent psychological research such a death instinct seems implausible. However, this does not rule out other urges to self destruction, sadism and masochism as motivational influences upon smokers. These provide a much sounder basis for inferring self-destructive behaviour in some smokers.
Many studies of the early stages of human development demonstrate that inappropriate and traumatic learning experiences can lead to distortion of the life affirming and enhancing propensities of all sensate forms of life. We can become morbid, depressed, even suicidal, on the basis of negative learning experiences. But, however strong these forces might be they ought not to be construed as indicative of a death instinct. To emphasise a death instinct is to emphase that there is an aspect of human functioning that is not subject to sensible courses of intervention and diminishes any feeling of autonomy and agency that we possess.
Negative emotions and related memories can thus provide the foundation on which the covert aggressive and sexual fantasies embedded in Silk Cut ads operate. Such ads do not inform or persuade They might entertain, they might serve as reminders. But they also attempt to manipulate individuals who suffered psychological 'damage' in some stage of their development.
In one sense, all of us have the capacity to 'punish ourselves' as each of us has had some negative experiences in life. For example, each of us has been 'ticked off' or told that we were 'naughty', or masturbated (see previous section) and suffered guilt, we possibly were also taught that it is appropriate to be physically punished for such transgressions. We also generally learn that what is 'bad' deserves to be punished. We have thus internalised, as part of ourselves, a set of knowledge that 'conflicts' with other aspects of our self understanding, those aspects of our 'self' we see as desirable. And a wider set of rules of behaviour have also been learned.
On the basis of the negative and punitive aspects of such learning it is not too big a step to envisage the impact of the covert messages implied by the visual elements in many Silk Cut ads. One finds sets of bagpipes running through a field of bear traps, tombs, instruments of various kinds penetrating silk cloth, sharp instruments on the verge of penetration. There are also 'toothpaste tubes' doubled up in pain outside a room bearing a sign with a knife, scissors dancing the cancan, knives, pins and needles, a bed of nails, the 'shower scene' from Hitchcock's movie Psycho and a Venus fly trap ripping out a zip. These Silk Cut ads all share the same characteristics, namely the potential to inflict pain and as tools for expressing aggression. Note that these aggressive meanings seem to run contrary to the primary meaning of silk as sensual and feminine. Yet, the common meanings associated with aggressive and sensual elements are not as disparate as they seem.
The combination of aggressive and sensual elements in the same ad has major implications for an appreciation of Silk Cut and other ads carrying such covert messages. Social psychological experiments and analyses of responses to different types of movies demonstrate that combining sensuality and aggressive elements in the same situation leads to an increase in arousal level. Additionally, movies that are both erotic and aggressive result in notably higher levels of expressed aggression than either films that are only erotic or aggressive.
The combination of sensual and aggressive elements in Silk Cut ad, whatever other merits they might possess from the point of view of tobacco companies, seem to have been calculated to induce aggression. This aggression can be either against the self or against others. Some aspects of smoking, for some smokers, is itself a form of self punitive aggression. And the polluting of the atmosphere when others are present is also likely to be, in some instances, a form of passive aggression.
If aggressive behaviour is a major aspects of an individual's character then the 'message' from Silk Cut ads will simply reinforce such behaviour. The message is likely to be perceived as: 'If aggression gets 'a good press' then it's o.k. for me'. It is thus conceivable that the Silk Cut ads led to overt aggressive behaviour on the part of some viewers, given appropriate circumstances.
As noted, McIntosh's basic thesis is based to a large extent upon a dated and in many respects redundant theory of human behaviour. The notion of Thanatos can seemingly be discounted. However, theories are only used to help organise and explain existing sets of information. Even if this aspect of Freud's theory is no longer the most appropriate for explaining the impact of advertising material it still offers food for thought.
Certain aspects of human behaviour cannot readily be explained in ways that are intuitively obvious. For example, tobacco companies now acknowledge that smoking carries high risks to health. To smoke is clearly not in ones rational interests. Yet many individuals indulge in this habit. Their behaviour cannot simply be explained in terms of rational risk appraisal but may possibly be explained on the basis of other aspects of Freudian theory.
Wilson Keys analysis of subliminal advertising led him to focus on the defence mechanism of repression as the mechanism that led people to overlook 'subliminal' elements in ads. A contemporary approach would seek explanatory mechanisms related to perceptual limitations (see previous section). As the majority of the examples and discussion on this site indicates, perceptual processes and their limitations can indeed account for the recognition and lack of recognition of semi-subliminal elements of ads. However, to explain a desire to indulge in a high risk activity such as smoking, whilst at the same time discounting or rationalising that risk, is most readily explained by recourse to psychological defence mechanisms identified by Freud and his daughter Anna. The alternative is simply to consider such decision making as illogical.
Wilson Key relied strongly upon Freud's notion of repression to explain why individuals rarely acknowledged what he called the subliminal aspects of adverts. In some cases he was probably correct but it now seems that the brain does not process embedded and camouflaged aspects of ads or other images in sufficient depth to lead to conscious awareness.
The cases where the concept of repression still has an explanatory role would seem to be limited. For example, where individuals apparently react adversely to embarrassing aspects of ads without any apparent awareness.
Even although one can reasonably state that an individual was repressing knowledge of an embarrassing incident, it would be difficult to prove that repression was taking place. Repression is, by definition, deemed to be an automatic process - but alternative explanations are possible. Lack of acknowledgement of the source of embarrassment could simply be due to the fact that the individuals concerned were just too embarrassed to mention what they had perceived.
The author has, on more than one occasion, been challenged by members of his audience who seemed unduly defensive. Their confrontation was ostensibly on rational grounds, yet it could be inferred that they simply were not acknowledging what was clearly worrying them. Jack Haberstroh, author of Ice Cube Sex, seems to belong to this group of individuals. The members of the audience vociferously deny the existence of subliminal (actually semi-subliminal) phenomenon and yet their behaviour and manner of presenting arguments would seem to indicate the opposite. See his book Ice Cube Sex and the discussion on the Classic Key page for information pertinent to Jack Haberstroh's outlook on 'subliminal advertising'. Such behaviour is, of course, commonly summed up in the common saying 'Methinks the lady doth protest too much'. In other words, failure to acknowledge the truth or even to vociferously challenge information does not, in itself, mean that the case is invalid.
In addition to the concept of repression, Freud postulated a variety of unconscious processes. He also acknowledged that some information may be processed superficially and some in greater depth. This has its parallels in current theories of cognition that emphasise depth of information processing. Superficial processing may make a slight impression on memory but the information involved would not come to conscious awareness. This is seemingly the type of processing that semi-subliminal embedded material might be subjected to. More deeply processed information would have the potential for conscious awareness and be remembered more effectively. Yet, with the exception of theories related to suicide and extrapolation from developmental theories, no current psychological theory offers the slightest insight into why certain individuals 'self-destruct' the essence of Thanatos.
Personal and Social Responsibility
McIntosh considered that at some level, people just wish to give up on life when psychological or spiritual needs cannot be met. Nicotine, as with other drugs, is deemed to offer an alternative and a relatively pleasurable fix. From this perspective Silk Cut ads can be interpreted as saying 'If you want to give up, if you want to die, if you wish to enter a state of oblivion, then Silk Cut can help you do so'. Such an interpretation of the Silk cut message of 'slow motion suicide' omits consideration of the punitive and aggressive components of the message.
The 'suicidal' message can be extended if one focuses on the learned components underlying self punitive behaviour, instead of some hypothetical death instinct. Silk Cut ads capitalise on various negative learning experiences and promote a variety of messages. 'If you want to give up. If you want to be aggressive against yourself or others. If you want to die. If you feel sexually insecure. If you are worried about your sexual prowess. If you wish to enter a state of oblivion. In all these circumstances then Silk Cut cigarettes can '' help'. The Silk Cut messages thus help trigger responses to a number of needs for any number of individuals who are internally troubled. What the ads do not do is offer a specific message for any individual. They simply offer a number of elements that are open to interpretation and have the potential trigger various thoughts and emotions. They only have real meaning for those whose thoughts and moods match those present in the ads.
For the average or superficial viewer, Silk Cut ads will be just that, ads for Silk Cut cigarettes. Where the ad has covert elements, with meaning for the viewer, then the ads will be much more. Amongst other outcomes, they will be reminders of Heaven or Hell, cues to smoking behaviour, and the consequences and reminders of health risks best left unacknowledged. The health warnings on cigarette packets are willing accomplices in achieving these goals.
Whether such ads are the products of conscious reflection upon human frailties, analyses of psychographic survey data (see the textbooks on Consumer Psychology), the outcome of the psychological characteristics of those responsible for the campaign, or some wider social processes due to society, is worthy of additional research. Whether such ads are a reflection of psychopathology in society, rather than the conscious or unconscious inventions of the individuals who produced the ads, is immaterial with regard to those on the 'receiving end'. However, if the ads are the outcome of cultural factors that produce particular trains of thought, and combinations of images, then the implications of such insights would be considerable. Society, and not just the tobacco companies and their ad agencies, would bear a considerable weight of responsibility. Individual culpability is onlyappropriate if the ads were carefully and callously devised on the basis of in depth psychological appraisal of smokers and potential smokers by Gallahers advertising agency. If some deep rooted social malaise has led to a cynical and destructive 'mind set' then all of us are, in some sense, responsible for maintaining the vicious cycle of aggressive, self destructive, messages and behaviour and there would be a corresponding need to 'break out of this pattern of behaviourt'.
For more information regarding Silk Cut ads click here
For and Against Freud: The Background
The extensive set of books illustrated in the margins - only some of the many on the subject - indicate how important Freud's theories are to psychologists, philosophers, and others. More details can be found in the relevant section of the bibliography.
Freud produced a theory that arose from his struggle to understand the conflict within the individual - between Reason and Passion. Or, if you wish, between environmental factors and learning versus nature.
Freud's thinking underwent many changes as his ideas developed and matured under the influence of clinical and psychoanalytic experiences. However, the central concept of all his thinking relates to the unconscious. It is related to the intriguing question 'Why is it that a person's wishes are not always what that person would consciously like them to be?' This is a question that smokers and anyone else subject to obsessive habits or addictive behaviour must ask of themselves regularly.
The question can be answered from a Freudian perspective in a variety of ways. 'Because some basic wish for pleasure violates conscious rules of behaviour.' Or 'Some wishes remain very infantile, 'frozen' in time, and reflecting early stages of development in their intensity and perversity.' Or 'Some wishes can reflect divided motivation. They can be partially satisfied and partially disavowed at the same time.'
Whatever type of answer one would accept, it is clear Freud's classic theory continues to exert a powerful influence. Unfortunately much of what Freud wrote cannot be tested in the laboratory and relies upon evidence obtained in clinical situations. Many psychologists prefer other theoretical formulations to explain behaviour e.g. cognitive theories concerning the organisation of thinking*, behaviourist theories focussing on how behaviour (including thinking) is reinforced by rewards and discouraged by punishment*. These, and other, theories provide alternatives to Freudian explanations but their existence does not mean that Freud's work can be dispensed with.
Freud suspected that much of the material revealed to him under hypnosis might be subject to self-deception. In other words, be designed to screen deeply rooted anxieties from consciousness. In other words, one aspect of the unconscious mind was capable of obscuring connections known to another aspect of the mind. A simpler, cognitive, explanation is that anxieties could be displaced along lines of meaningful associations. In either case, an expression of displaced anxiety only makes sense if one can unravel the lines of association.
Freud's theory states that the displacement of emotional responses is actively motivated by unconscious forces. It might equally be true that displacement takes place simply because there is a set of related ideas with a strong emotional core that distorts meaningful expression, just as a planet distorts the orbits of its moons. This formulation fits very well with what is now known about the organisation of memory and cognitive processes. But it also fits Freud's notion that many behaviours are over-determined i. e. they are determined not by one single cause, in a straightforward cause and effect relationship. Instead they have multiple determinants, bonded together in the patient's thought processes.
In other words, one symptom can represent many different emotional roots. Any of these roots could activate symptoms or behaviour. In behaviourist terms one could say memories were triggered by a range of cues - and cues can of course be internal thoughts or reminiscences as well as external causes.
The various theoretical interpretations do not lead to 'junking' Freud's theories nor his evidence, although many individuals put forward a case for doing so. They can equally be interpreted to indicate that the roots of Freud's theory is still valid. Formulations as to how we approach problematical behaviour may differ but underlying many of these problems is what Freud and others term the unconscious. Since we are not always consciously aware of what we are doing it is patently obvious that some unconscious processes exist. How it (or rather the multiple components that comprise the unconscious brain processes) functions is a question that is still to be answered. However personal and clinical experience indicate that amongst such processes are those that can be labelled defence mechanism. Whilst one can object that Freud's terminology may simply be the application of labels to extremely complex patterns of thinking his description of defence mechanisms is a useful starting point for an understanding of many patterns of behaviour.
Freud reasoned that symptoms were a technique of defence by which conflicting emotions found their expression through associations which could be seen to be meaningful. In his theory, resistance to significant emotional events is another form of defensive manoeuvre that the conscious mind can bring to bear to protect individuals from anxiety that might arise from expressing or remembering painful emotions. These emotions might be recognised below the level of conscious awareness but would be suppressed rather than expressed because they had never been adequately resolved. (Note, suppressed rather than repressed - repression is the unconscious equivalent of suppression).
Freud postulated that when there is conflict then there can also be guilt and punishment. If an emotional conflict raises issues that transgress cultural, familial or personal taboos (internalised as ones conscience) then the patient can feel guilty with a corresponding need to punish themselves. Punishment can be in the form of painful bodily symptoms and psychosomatic illnesses. Punishment can also be in the form of ingestion of noxious substances. Where these provide a feeling of calm or relaxation after ingestion - as is the case a few seconds after inhaling hot gases into ones lungs when smoking - a positive benefit is experienced after the punishment.
According to Freud, although conflicts are removed from consciousness, the conflict continues in the nether regions of the unconscious. In the process, symptoms are produced that either symbolically or through association replace the pain of the original conflict. Moreover, in Freud's view, the unconscious is dynamic, it is not just a static repository of memories, ideas and emotions. Whether the unconscious is dynamic in the sense that it has 'a life of its own' is open to dispute although cognitive psychologists would not dispute the notion of spreading activation between associated sets of ideas and equally the inhibition of neural networks. Similarly, cognitive psychologists have no doubts that associations or sets of related ideas exist. However, none of the evidence from cognitive psychologists clearly presents an alternative to Freud's notion that psychological processes can function to repress unacceptable and anxiety laden thoughts.
Sexual motives as the basis of conflicts
People are often fascinated by Freud's theory because it gave revealing insights into apparently paradoxical or contradictory forms of behaviour e.g. for hysterical and neurotic behaviour, slips of the tongue and so on. However, the interest might also be because Freud's theory of psychosexual development implicates one of the most potent human 'drives'. The sex drive does more than any guarantee of editorial excellence to sell papers such as the The National Enquirer, News of the World, The People, Sunday Sport, etc. If one approached this issue tongue-in-cheek, the conclusion would have to be that a large proportion of the population have conflicts (hang-ups) which require penance and provide pleasure at the same time. What could be more 'conflict ridden' than reading a titillating story (satisfying the pleasure principle) and at the same time being assailed by the worst of tabloid journalism? Is it guilt by association or just simply guilt driven punishment?
More seriously, Freud noted quite early in his researches that there was a common denominator among many of his patients. Many expressed guilt-laden erotic impulses arising from early childhood experiences. Many others expressed sexual themes in their free associations.
Freud suspected that understanding of these issues would arise from examining the individual's primary defence mechanism i.e. the defence mechanism of repression. He reasoned that only emotions sufficient to overcome the ego were repressed. This formulation posed some problems for Freud's seduction theory as it did not fit the known facts of biological arousal associated with puberty. Puberty tended to come later than the periods when seduction was presumed to have taken place. But, by proposing that repression only occurred after the memory of the initial seduction was triggered by later events, after biological maturation had produced sexual maturity, Freud overcame this hurdle. The early seduction events, little understood by the patient, were thus deemed to become problematical only after the patient was sufficiently old enough to understand the experience. It was thus adult (or adolescent) anxiety and guilt that produced repression, not the trauma of the initial seduction. Freud ultimately gave four reasons for abandoning this theory.
The high improbability of universal sexual abuse.
The inability of recognition of the abuse to bring about improvements in his patient's status. Here he assumed that by bringing repressed ideas into consciousness he would help the patient overcome their psychological problems.
In psychotic patients, where the unconscious tends to uncritically flood imagination with memories, no infantile seduction was apparent i.e. there was no flooding of the imagination with sexual incidents. In other words, 'Why should psychotic patients not be subject to the same degree of abuse as other patients.
The unconscious cannot distinguish between fantasy and reality.
The latter conclusion, in particular, led to the view that the reported seductions were not real events. Instead Freud postulated that the seduction was the product of the imagination, and patients were active participants in the mental construction of the memories. Freud then concluded that the memories originated in attempts to 'cover up' auto-erotic activities in childhood and 'raise them to a higher plane'.
Jeffrey Masson has seriously challenged Freud's published reasons for dropping the seduction theory, claiming that it was personal and political reasons, rather than clinical or theoretical reasons, that led to abandonment of the initial theory. However, whatever the merits or demerits of Freud's case it seems unlikely that psychotherapeutic theorists will deviate from a focus on the personal meanings, wishes and fantasies of patient's when they attempt to understand behaviour.
Much of Freud's theory was based on his own self analysis and the insights this gave him into the universal functioning of the unconscious. Freud had such a burning desire to understand himself and control his own destiny that 'he faced up' to the task of analysing himself. The central tenets of psychoanalytic theory arose from his discovery of his own quasi-erotic love for his mother and hostility towards his father (the Oedipus Complex). Freud was apparently hostile towards his father because of his father's previous marriages and his own early childhood experiences. These experiences and their outcomes included the condensation of memories concerning his natural mother's pregnancy, the disappearance of his nanny (a second 'mother' to him) and the role of his elder brother (20 years older than Freud and thus, in some respects, a second 'father') in the nanny's disappearance.
Although these facts indicate that Freud had not been exposed to a straightforward family upbringing, recalling them provided Freud with several important insights that helped him develop his theories. Freud noted that key emotions were associated with his memories concerning a fear of losing both his natural mother and his second 'mother' (his nanny) to a rival, to vague notions of men 'putting' babies inside women, and a need to find his own personal understanding of what had been happening. Freud also stoically faced up to his own 'death wishes' as a child regarding rivalry with his younger brother Julius for his natural mother's affections and his subsequent guilt when Julius did die at the early age of 19 months.
Freud's theory is clearly not value free nor free from his own social experiences and cultural background but they might nevertheless be universally applicable. Theories in some respects reflect the real world but they are also models or simplifications of reality. In Freud's own words, they are 'myths'. Such theoretical myths are, of course, systematically developed, rather than just intuitive appreciated. They therefore help provide insight and understanding or behaviour that is overlooked or inexplicable to the layperson. As such, even when there are alternatives theoretical explanations, they should never be ignored.
According to Freud the Psyche or mind has three different 'levels': the conscious, the unconscious and the preconscious. Individuals who develop normally are aware of what is in the conscious mind and can become aware of what is in the preconscious mind. However, it requires a great deal of effort to uncover what is in the unconscious mind. And, even when this is possible, we can never be aware of everything that is in the unconscious mind. There will always be some aspects that are truly unconscious.
Freud also stated that the unconscious mind is dynamic and contains memories, perceptions, impulses, wishes, desires and conflicts. The conflicts MUST be repressed in order to make life in the real world relatively free from conflicts, stress and pain.
Quite distinct from the levels of mind, Freud also postulated three psychological processes or structures: the Id, the Ego and the Superego.
The Id contains everything inherited. It is the instinctual force of behaviour, seeking immediate gratification. The Ego is always directed towards reality. It learns to function as an intermediary between the desires of the id and the restrictions of the superego. It compromises and adjusts to reality.
The Superego represents the internalisation of the demands of society and important individuals in the life of the individual. The ego ideal, for example, is the concept of behaviour of which parents and important others will approve of. The conscience is the conception of behaviour that ones parents would disapprove of.
Both the Ego and Superego are both outgrowths of the Id, developing as the child grows and the influence of the Id interacts with reality.
Psychic Energy, Conflict and Anxiety.
Freud believed that the dynamics of personality are rooted in conflict between the Id, the Ego and the Superego as they interact with reality. These conflicts involve psychic energy and have to be resolved by the Ego. Libido is Freud's term for this psychic energy. It is instinct driven but it can be harnessed, withdrawn, moved (displaced) and reinvested in behaviours other than those dominated by the Id. Ideas are thus 'charged with psychic energy' before behaviour is initiated.
Increases in libido from internal sources (memories) or external sources (environmental or situational factors) produce tension and discomfort for the Id. It is the job of the Ego to reduce this anxiety by some means or another. As internal anxiety cannot be responded to realistically it must be repressed or be subject to some other defence mechanism. The principal defence mechanisms (see any textbook of psychiatry or clinical psychology for a complete list) include the following:
Repression, Sublimation, Reaction Formation, Rationalization, Displacement, Projection, Denial, Suppression, Introjection, Compromise, Regression, Identification, Restriction of the ego (withdrawal) and Isolation Reversal (Reaction formation).
Last Revised: 3rd January, 2003