The Freudian Problem
Excluding pop psychologists, (such as Dr. Phil, Dr. Drew or Wayne Dyer) Sigmund Freud is probably the most well known name associated with psychology (at least to the lay public). In Frank Sulloway’s book, Freud: Biologist of the Mind, the author notes, “Few individuals, if any, have exerted more influence upon the twentieth century than Sigmund Freud.” (Shermer, 2001, p.203).
A 1981 survey of chairpersons of graduate psychology found that the respondents considered Freud the most influential figure in the history of psychology (Davis, Thomas, & Weaver, 1982). But times have changed.
“[I]f all the members of the American Psychological Association [APA] who were concerned with Freudian psychoanalysis were collected, they would make up less than 10 percent of the membership. In another major psychological association, the Association for Psychological Science, they would make up considerably less than 5 percent.” (Stanovich, 2007, p.1)
Freud’s association with psychology has negatively influenced the public’s understanding of the field. Contrary to what many think, psychology encompasses more than just Freudian psychoanalysis. “Freud’s work is an extremely small part of the varied set of issues, data, and theories that are the concern of modern psychologists.” (Hale, 2010)
Freud’s methods of investigation are not representative of the methods used by modern day psychologists. Referring to Freud’s methods leads to a serious misperception of psychological research.
Freud did not conduct controlled experimentation, which is the most powerful tool in the modern psychologist’s arsenal of methods. Freud assumed that case studies could establish whether theories are true or false. However, this idea is incorrect. (Hale, 2010)
Popper Criticizes Freud
Karl Popper, an Austrian/British philosopher who is believed by many to be one of the greatest philosophers of science, pointed out that Freudian psychoanalysis makes use of a complicated conceptual structure to explain human behavior after it occurs, but does not make predictions in advance (Hacohen, 2000; Stanovich, 2007). The tendency to give after-the-fact explanations and no specific predictions makes it unscientific.
Scientific progress occurs when a theory makes specific predictions concerning future events, not when it tries to explain everything, as was the case with Freudian psychoanalysis.
Modern psychology pays little attention to the ideas of Freud. Freud’s methods of data collection were different than those used by modern psychologists. Freud based his theories on case studies, not controlled experimentation. His theories lack scientific support and rely on a database of unreliable, unreplicable behavioral relationships (Stanovich, 2007).
Today, psychology is no longer synonymous with Freud.
Davis, S.F., Thomas, R.L., & Weaver, M.S. (1982). Psychology’s contemporary and all-time notables: Student, faculty, and chairperson viewpoints. Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society, 20, 3-6.
Hacohen, M.C. (2000). Karl Popper: The formative years, 1902-1945. Cambridge England: Cambridge University Press.
Hale, J. (2010). Thinking Straight About Modern Psychology: Interview with Keith Stanovich. KnowledgeSummit.net. Retrieved on April 28th, 2011 from http://jamiehalesblog.blogspot.com/2010/01/thinking-straight-about-modern.html
Shermer, M. (2001). The Borderlands of Science: When Sense Meets Nonsense. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Stanovich, K. (2007). How To Think Straight About Psychology 8th Edition. Boston, MA: Pearson.
Photo by Broderick, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.
Hale, J. (2018). The Freudian Problem. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 28, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/the-freudian-problem/