The Psychodynamic Approach

If you know very little about psychology, and you have heard of just one psychologist, the chances are that this is Sigmund Freud, the founder of the psychodynamic approach and psychoanalysis.

If Freud represents your layperson's idea of psychology then you probably have an image of a patient lying on a couch talking about their deepest and darkest secrets.

Freud's Couch

In deliberate contrast to behavioral psychology, psychodynamic psychology ignores the trappings of science and instead focuses on trying to get inside the head of individuals in order to make sense of their relationships, experiences and how they see the world.

The psychodynamic approach includes all the theories in psychology that see human functioning based upon the interaction of drives and forces within the person, particularly unconscious, and between the different structures of the personality.

Freud’s psychoanalysis was the original psychodynamic theory, but the psychodynamic approach as a whole includes all theories that were based on his ideas, e.g. Jung (1964), Adler (1927) and Erikson (1950).

The words psychodynamic and psychoanalytic are often confused. Remember that Freud’s theories were psychoanalytic, whereas the term ‘psychodynamic’ refers to both his theories and those of his followers. Freud’s psychoanalysis is both a theory and a therapy.

Sigmund Freud (writing between the 1890s and the 1930s) developed a collection of theories which have formed the basis of the psychodynamic approach to psychology.

His theories are clinically derived - i.e. based on what his patients told him during therapy. The psychodynamic therapist would usually be treating the patient for depression or anxiety related disorders.

Basic Assumptions

Historical Developments

Areas of Application

Psychoanalysis Attachment Moral Development - Super-Ego Personality Dream analysis Aggression (Displacement / Thanatos) Psychosocial Development

Critical Evaluation

The greatest criticism of the psychodynamic approach is that it is unscientific in its analysis of human behavior.

Many of the concepts central to Freud's theories are subjective and as much impossible to scientifically test.

For example, how is it possible to scientifically study concepts like the unconscious mind or the tripartite personality?  In this respect the psychodynamic perspective is unfalsifiable as the theories cannot be empirically investigated.

However, cognitive psychology has identified unconscious processes, such as procedural memory (Tulving, 1972), automatic processing (Bargh & Chartrand, 1999; Stroop, 1935), and social psychology have shown the importance of implicit processing (Greenwald & Banaji, 1995). Such empirical findings have demonstrated the role of unconscious processes in human behaviour.

However, Kline (1989) argues that the psychodynamic approach comprises a series of hypotheses, some of which are more easily tested than others, and some with more supporting evidence than others.

Also, whilst the theories of the psychodynamic approach may not be easily tested, this does not mean that it does not have strong explanatory power.

Nevertheless, most of the evidence for psychodynamic theories is taken from Freud's case studies (e.g. Little Hans, Anna O).

The main problem here is that the case studies are based on studying one person in detail, and with reference to Freud the individuals in question are most often middle aged women from Vienna (i.e. his patients).  This makes generalizations to the wider population (e.g. the whole world) difficult.

Another problem with the case study method is that it is susceptible to researcher bias. Reexamination of Freud's own clinical work suggests that he sometimes distorted his patients' case histories to 'fit' with his theory (Sulloway, 1991).

The humanistic approach makes the criticism that the psychodynamic perspective is too deterministic - leaving little room for the idea of personal agency (i.e. free will).

Finally, the psychodynamic approach can be criticized for being sexist against women. For example, Freud believed that females' penis envy made them inferior to males. He also thought that females tended to develop weaker superegos and to be more probe to anxiety than males.


Adler, A. (1927). Understanding human nature. New York: Greenburg.

Erikson, E. H. (1950). Childhood and Society. New York: Norton.

Freud, A. (1936). Ego & the Mechanisms of Defense.

Freud, S., & Breuer. J. (1895). Studies on hysteria. In Standard edition (Vol. 2, pp. 1–335).

Freud, S. (1896). Heredity and the etiology of the neuroses. In Standard edition (Vol. 3, pp. 142–156).

Freud, S. (1900). The interpretation of dreams. In Standard edition (Vols. 4 & 5, pp. 1–627).

Freud, S. (1909). Notes upon a case of obsessional neurosis. In Standard edition (Vol. 10, pp. 153–249).

Freud, S. (1909). Analysis of a phobia of a five year old boy. In The Pelican Freud Library (1977), Vol 8, Case Histories 1, pages 169-306

Jung, C. G., et al. (1964). Man and his Symbols, New York, N.Y.: Anchor Books, Doubleday.

Kline, P. (1989). Objective tests of Freud's theories. Psychology Survey, 7, 127-45.

Sulloway, F. J. (1991). Reassessing Freud's case histories: The social construction of psychoanalysis. Isis, 82(2), 245-275.

How to cite this article:

McLeod, S. A. (2007). Psychodynamic Approach. Retrieved from

Related Articles