The Psychology of Communication


8.3 The Theory And Its Critics

The most famous therapist of all, Sigmund Freud, developed a theory of the person in his attempt to understand the functional disorders of his clients. One reason why his influence is so pervasive is that his theory is not simply a theory of development, of pathology, of motivation, or of dreaming, as are many of the theories with which it is contrasted. It aspires to explain not only each of those limited aspects of human behavior and experience but all human behavior and experience. Theorists of development, of pathology, of motivation, of dreaming are like the blind men holding the tusk, trunk, and tail of the elephant and generalizing to the whole elephant. Freud aspires to show the whole elephant. That is, it is not a theory of development, of pathology, of motivation, or of dreaming - it is a theory of personality. Indeed, it was the first theory of personality.

He couched his theory in dramatic terms. The three major characters of his cerebral cast are the lusty, mischievous Id, the wise, realistic Ego, and the nagging, moralistic Superego. Every intelligent layman is by now familiar with many of the magnificent scripts he wrote around those characters - morality plays in which Ego triumphs over the wild Id or the fastidious Superego, tragedies in which Ego is routed by Id or imprisoned by Superego, comedies in which impish Id sneaks its wishes in disguise past the censor of strait-laced Superego or plays practical jokes on the too-literal Ego.

Freud sees personality development as a set of stairs rather than a ramp. Your life energy, or libido, is satisfied in turn through various bodily orifices. The horizontal parts of the steps are characterized by the erogenous zone through which the libido is currently satisfied, and the vertical parts are characterized by the various little domestic dramas in which the energy is passed on from one orifice to the next. The oral stage, in which satisfaction is gained through the mouth, is superseded, through weaning, by the anal stage, in which satisfaction is gained through the anus. This stage is in turn superseded, through toilet training, by the phallic stage, in which satisfaction is gained through the genitals.

Sexual energy has now arrived where it belongs, but not in the form it must take. The next transition, from the phallic stage to the genital stage, represents a change not in locale of the energy but in its focus. It involves a breathless domestic drama, much more complicated than the two preceding ones, followed by a breathing spell called the latency period.

The drama here differs for boys and girls, whereas before the dramas were the same. Since I have never been a little girl, let me consider only the case for the little boy. The stage is set for Oedipus. Enter the heroine - the source of all goodness - the mother. Little Oedipus' sexual energy is thus directed at her. Enter the villain - the mother's lover and hence Oedipus's rival - the father. The Oedipus Complex is this love of mother and consequent hate of father. The castration complex is a corollary fear that the father will castrate him. To avoid the resultant anxiety, the desire for the mother is repressed. After the subsequent latency period, during which Oedipus identifies with father and decides to settle for a girl just like the girl who married dear old Dad, sex again rears its lovely head in the genital stage. The libido is, however, now directed toward a less frowned-upon partner, and Oedipus is concerned with Electra's satisfaction as well as his own.

If you are reluctant to accept the Freudian theory of development, your feelings may stem mainly from the fact that you don't remember having passed through those stages and that you are hesitant to ascribe sexual yearnings to the innocent 4-year-old cherubs you know. You don't remember your previous intellectual stages, although Piaget has demonstrated conclusively that they exist. Your resistance to infantile sexuality is caused by a superficial, sentimental view of infancy (who says infants are good?) and a narrow, distorted view of sex (who says sex is bad?). Convinced? I hope not! I'm certainly not convinced by my own argument. We cannot, however, dismiss the Freudian theory of development from our heads merely because it does not sit well in our stomachs.

Freud documents how this long, complex process of development in our species can go wrong. He explains many aspects of adult personality in terms of failure to pass successfully through the various stages (fixation) or in terms of the return to a previous stage (regression). Compulsive smokers and loquacious talkers are fixated at the oral stage. The oral character is very dependent, is inclined to peptic ulcers, and is an eternal optimist. The world is one great big nipple. The anal character is obstinate, stingy, and orderly. Male homosexuals are men who have repressed the desire for mother too much and whose repression is thus generalized to all women. Impotents are men who have repressed the desire for mother too little and whose anxiety associated with desire toward her is thus generalized to all women.

This continuous conflict within you creates anxiety. Since anxiety is the worst of all possible states, you develop various strategies, called defense mechanisms, to avoid it. You may conveniently forget the thought that arouses anxiety by pushing it down into the unconscious mind. This is repression. Since thoughts associated with the original anxiety-arousing thought may also cause anxiety, they, too, may be repressed. Since every thought is somehow associated with every other thought, huge complexes of thoughts may be repressed, resulting possibly in multiple personalities. You may remember the thought but disguise it in various ways. You can justify it as having a more noble motive (rationalization); you can attribute it to others (projection); you can pretend to the opposite thought (reaction formation). Let's illustrate each mechanism with the thought "I hate X." (You may substitute for X anyone you like):

Repression "X? Who's he?"
Rationalization "Sure, I hate X - but it's nothing personal."
Projection "X hates me."
Reaction formation "I love X"
All of us use such defense mechanisms. Some of us, however, use them to excess, which leads to neuroses. The various mechanisms could be classified into two broad strategies for dealing with anxiety: blocking and dodging. Excessive use of blocking strategies leads to hysteria. Anesthesia is blocking at the stimulus level, amnesia is blocking at the central level, and paralysis is blocking at the response level. Excessive use of dodging strategies leads to obsessive-compulsive neuroses. Obsession is dodging by thinking of something else, and compulsion is dodging by doing something else. If the anxiety is neither blocked nor dodged, the subject is hit with it. Failure of these two strategies leads to phobic neuroses. The internal anxiety is translated into an external fear. This rich language of Freudian terms is summarized in Figure 8-1.

Freud's early critics tended either to refuse to attend the play or to stomp out during a scene that offended them (although, by couching their criticisms in Freudian terms and anti-Freudian arguments, they revealed that they had at least read the reviews). The major critics were sober scientists who shuddered with horror at his unscientific language. They failed to appreciate, however, that Freud was a trained neurologist who knew as much as anyone of his time about the structure of the nervous system. His dramatic terminology was merely a heuristic device. Who would attend - or attend to - a play about Axon meeting Dendrite at Synapse?

Now that the initial storm has abated, Freud has suffered the fate of many great innovators. He was greeted initially with a sneer and eventually with a yawn. "What!" yielded smoothly to "So what?". That devious coquette "common sense" rejected his advances indignantly but then, when she eventually succumbed, claimed coyly that she had desired him all along. The preposterous ideas that become obvious are stated without acknowledgement; the preposterous ideas that remain are acknowledged as Freud's and rejected.

One critic said "There is much that is new and there is much that is true, but what is new is not true and what is true is not new". Another critic has gone as far as to suggest that Freud's discoveries are analogous to discovering the moon. Actually, he has taken us to the moon and pointed out to us the major characteristics of its landscape. Freud has done for inner space what the space program has done for outer space. And at his own expense.

By translating Freud's theory into a language that is more prosaic though more palatable, we can see more clearly his contribution to our understanding of the function of the nervous system. As argued above in Section 3.1, your nervous system is a subsystem of you as an person, and you as a person are, in turn, a subsystem of a social group. The nervous system has a very special role within this hierarchy of systems within systems. It has three important functions: it "knows" your environment, it mediates between the environment and the other subsystems of you as organism, and it assimilates the principles of your social group. These three functions are performed by the ego, id, and superego, respectively. Thus id, ego, and superego are the biological, psychological, and sociological aspects of you, and the stage on which they meet is your nervous system. In describing how the ego evolves out of the id and how the superego evolves, in turn, out of the ego, Freud provides a valuable down-to-earthing service by anchoring psychology firmly in biology and by anchoring sociology, in turn, firmly in psychology.

The various topics of cognitive psychology are aspects of the struggle of the ego to obtain and maintain an accurate subjective map of the objective world despite the incessant demands of the id, which chants "I want," and the nagging sermons of the superego, which preaches "Thou shalt not." The id tries to maximize pleasure, and the ego tries to maximize truth. They come into conflict when pleasure and truth are incompatible ends. We have already met Bernard Berelson and Gary Steiner who described us as a species which can't stand too much reality [BERELSON & STEINER]. It seems that, in the conflict between pleasure and truth, pleasure usually wins.

The superego is concerned with rules (propositions to prescribe our conduct), and the ego is concerned with laws (propositions to describe our environment). Superego and ego come into conflict when rules and laws are incompatible. Studies of conformity demonstrate that, in the conflict between rules and laws, rules usually win. Solomon Asch has demonstrated the incredible power of conformity [ASCH] and Stanley Milgram has demonstrated our remarkable obedience to authority [MILGRAM].

This empirical evidence, then, supports Freud's view that ego usually loses in its conflicts with id and with superego. Thus functional disorders of the nervous system stem from environments in which its various functions are incompatible. The potentiality for functional disorders will always remain - unless we can build a world in which truth is invariably pleasant and rules are invariably rational. Any accuracy of your subjective map of the objective world is a very limited, hard-earned, and precarious accomplishment. Your rationality is a mere tip of a mainly irrational iceberg.

This Freudian framework suggests that the accuracy of your subjective map of the objective world is the criterion of mental health. The neurotic who distorts his subjective map to satisfy his wishes or to placate his conscience fails partially to meet this criterion, and the psychotic whose subjective map has only a tenuous link to the objective world fails totally. The person whose ego has lost the battle with his id is mentally ill, and so also, it is becoming increasingly evident, is the "good, law-abiding citizen" whose ego has lost the battle with his superego.

Freud's theory fits congenially within Darwin's theory. It focuses the Darwinian principles directly on the nervous system of our species. Darwin provides our theatre, and Freud provides our stage. Nature loaded Jack and Jill with hunger and thirst so that they can survive as individuals, but she also loaded them with a sex drive so that we can survive as a species. Since nature is concerned more with the survival of the species than with that of the individual, sex is probably an even more powerful drive than hunger or thirst. It is Dame Nature, not Sigmund Freud, who is obsessed with sex. Some would still argue against childhood sexuality on the ground that sex need not rear its lovely head until puberty, when it can perform its procreative function. However, nature requires not only that Jack and Jill merely get together to procreate but that they stay together to care for the resultant child. Nature very ingeniously uses the long period of infant dependency of the parents to build in the caring mechanism so that they will, in turn, care for their children during their period of infant dependency. Freud is more concerned with the development of love than with that of sex.

Freud's death instinct (the aim of life is death) would appear to contradict Darwin's theory, in which the aim of life is more life. The death instinct can, however, be interpreted as a poetic way of stating that the nervous system, like all systems, tends toward disorganization. The perpetual battle between the life instincts (both self-preserving and species-preserving) and the death instinct within your nervous system translates simply into the opposing tendencies of anti-entropy and entropy within a system. Our life instincts gain a brief victory by gradually increasing organization throughout a long developmental phase, enable us to spawn other defiant little packages of anti-entropy, and then gradually succumb to the death instinct to increase the probability of their survival.

Konrad Lorenz discovered that, if he arranged to be the first large, moving object a gosling saw during a certain critical period, the gosling would follow him rather than its mother [LORENZ]. The gosling now has a functional disorder, and it would be futile to look for some organic damage to its nervous system. its nervous system is functioning as it was designed to function - but with inappropriate content. Because Lorenz interfered with the bird's normal environment, the biologically sound behavior of following Mother Goose, the source of all goodness, was replaced by the behavior of following Lorenz, which served no function beyond the trivial one of providing amusing pictures for introductory psychology texts. Since nature leaves only a small gap in the genetic program of the goose to be filled in by the environment, there is little danger of its plan going wrong. In the case of our species, however, nature leaves huge gaps to be filled in by the environment and thus increases the probability that they may be filled in inappropriately. Freud's theory is a dramatic documentation of the many ways in which this long, complex filling-in process can go wrong.