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Lecture 15 : The Freudian Theory of Development

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This lecture, like the others in this series, was given to students of English at the Université of Versailles St. Quentin, for a course in the Didactics of English, which I taught from 1993 to 2002.

It offers a simplified introductory account. The embedded links, most of which point to material off this site, are for readers who are looking for greater depth and complexity.


(Note : some of the material referenced from this page is not academic in nature. Follow the references).

A : Recap

Last week we looked at Behaviourist theories of learning and of development. We saw that, for the behaviourist, learning is acquired through the operation of conditioning, and the linking of a stimulus with a response. We saw that conditioning could happen in two ways
  • Classical conditioning
  • Link a new stimulus to a given response
  • Operant conditioning
  • Reinforce the behaviour of the organism towards a particular pattern of behaviour

We saw that there was some discussion as to whether conditioning was better effected through positive sanctions - rewards - or through negative sanctions. Skinner and Thorndike believed that negative sanctions were not very efficient. However, 'aversion therapy' does appear to work - at least in some cases. We concluded that with punishment, it was always difficult to determine whether the right behaviour was being repressed - in any case, it is surprisingly easy for punishment to be experienced as a reward. We also saw that intermittent rewards took longer to set the behaviour, but had a longer lasting effect - this might be though of as the fruit machine syndrome. 

Bijou suggests that children progress to maturity through three stages. In the first, over the early years of life, the baby's biological processes come on line - the baby cannot be said to have personality, intelligence or intentions at this stage. In the second stage, the child progresses through a series of conditioning institutions, which take him or her further from the biological and into the social. The third stage appears when the individual has become fully socialised - that is to say, fully conditioned by the institutions of his society.

B : The Freudian Approach

Freud's theories of human personality and development are founded upon his invention of a therapeutic technique - psychoanalysis. We may approach his theories with some suspicion when we know that tests of the efficacy of the psychoanalytic cure show that a person suffering from a neurosis is just as likely to be cured through other forms of therapy, or even through 'spontaneous remission' as he is through psychoanalysis. The fact that people are willing to pay large sums of money to follow an analysis through several years does suggest that the theories have other attractions. 

In the classical Freudian theory, there is but one 'drive' or instinct - this is the sexual drive. Freud's definition of sexuality is extremely large, and indeed sometimes seems so all-embracing as to be useless. What he appears to be saying is that all organisms seek physical pleasure. 

The child's first provider of physical pleasure is his mother. For modern Freudians, the life of the child begins well before birth - the relationship between the mother and the child is well established. As the British psychoanalyst, D. W. Winnicott, put it in a book he wrote for young mothers, 

Even in the womb your baby is a human being, and by the time he is born he will have had quite a lot of experience, unpleasant as well as pleasant ... during this time, the baby has, I suppose, come to know quite a lot about you. He has shared your meals. His blood has flowed more quickly when you drank a nice cup of tea in the morning, or when you ran to catch a bus. To some extent he must have known whenever you were anxious or excited or angry. If you have been restless he has become used to movement, and he may expect to be jogged on your knee or rocked in his cradle. If, on the other hand, you are a restful sort of person he has known peace, and may expect a quiet lap, and a still pram.(1)

As we can see, this vision of development entails that the child's character is already being formed prior to her birth, and that the behaviour of the mother during pregnancy is of the utmost importance. The relationship between mother and child continues to be crucial in the first months after birth. The mother's attitude to the child can have extreme consequences, according to this theory - thus the American psychoanalyst, Bruno Bettleheim, held that the autism was the result of the mother's rejection of her offspring - this implied that the autistic child should be separated from the mother, to prevent her from reinforcing his pathology. 

In a similar vein, the British psychoanalyst, John Bowlby, advanced the hypothesis that what he referred to as 'maternal deprivation' - that is, any hiatus in the relationship between mother and child in the early months or years, whether through hospitalisation, or for other causes - could have drastic long-term effects. The absence of the mother would lead the child to withdraw into herself, and to become 'affectless' - incapable of showing love for others. Bowlby believed that a large number of delinquents had suffered maternal deprivation, and that their criminality was a consequence. 

According to Freud himself, the child is from the very beginning of her life a sexual being. The first pleasure felt by the infant is when she sucks upon the nipple, and this leads Freud to say that the child begins its development by passing through the oral stage. Pleasure is derived from sucking behaviour, and the child will put different kinds of objects in its mouth, even when it is not hungry, in order to reproduce the satisfaction it finds at the breast - this is the origin of the habit of thumb-sucking. This pleasure never fully disappears, of course - love of good food, cigarette smoking and the use of the mouth in adult love-making are all echoes of the original pleasures that the baby felt in the first months of life. People who love to talk are seeking oral satisfaction, whereas the shy person who says very little may have repressed this aspect of their sexual life for some reason or another. 

As with each of the phases of development, orality is a source of both pleasure and frustration: the baby has to learn that she cannot have the breast whenever she wants it, and ultimately she will be weaned - that is, she will have to forego the breast definitively. Obviously, the process may go more or less well - many experts who have been marked by psychoanalysis insist that, for example, the mother should always breast-feed the child if possible - others have developed the idea that the mother should feed the baby 'on demand' so as to spare her the pangs of frustration. Freud himself seems to have believed that frustration and the accompanying anger are an inevitable part of the process of development. It is, indeed, probably necessary for the infant to have both negative and positive feelings for the mother, for if not, she will never achieve independence. 

The second important phase of development occurs when the child discovers the pleasures centred on the anal region. The child enjoys defecation: and also enjoys the feeling of power she gets from either offering the gift to her mother, by defecating when she is on the potty, or refusing to do so. Depending on how this phase is experienced, the child may later become a 'constipated personality', holding things back, behaving in a miserly fashion, and being a stickler for cleanliness and neatness, or, on the other hand, she may be overly generous and messy. 

Finally, the child will come to the adult mode of sexuality - the genital mode. This does not occur all at once. When the child begins to locate pleasure in the genital area, boys begin to have a different history from girls. Boys, says Freud, are convinced that everyone must have exactly the same equipment that they do themselves. When they perceive that little girls are different, they hypothesise that they have been castrated. This leads them to fear for their own appendages, which they believe may be cut off if they do not behave as they should. As for girls, Freud says: 

We are justified in speaking of a castration complex in women as well. Both male and female children form a theory that women no less than men originally had a penis, but that they have lost it by castration. The conviction that is finally reached by males that women have no penis often leads them to an enduringly low opinion of the other sex(2)

Why should the male child fear castration? It is because his love for his mother, during the genital phase, becomes a desire to murder his father, and to possess the mother sexually - this is what Freud referred to as the 'Oedipus Complex'. However, the child must come to terms with the fact that his wishes can never be realised - his father is so much bigger and more powerful than he is, and if his father guesses his guilty secret, he will cut off his penis as a punishment. 

As for the little girl, Freud was never altogether sure what happened to her - one of his essays is entitled 'What do Women Really Want?" and his answer is, more or less, that women are too mysterious and obtuse for us to fully understand. However, the little girl, once she realises that boys have something that she does not, has her own version of the Castration complex - she figures that she has already been castrated, and so suffers from what Freudians call 'penis envy'. Women are forever inhabited by the feeling that they are less complete than men, and all girls at some time wish that they could be boys. The girl, however, must somehow pass through the baby's love for mother to an identification with the mother, and to taking the father as her sexual object. She then goes through an Electra complex, in which she wishes for the death of the mother, and to take her place in her father's bed. 

The feelings aroused by the Oedipus and the Electra Complexes are so powerful that the child has to turn away from them. All children, then, enter what Freud refers to as the 'latency period', which lasts from four or five years old to puberty, when sexuality becomes repressed, and when children tend to deny interest in the opposite sex - boys, indeed, become hostile to little girls and to all things girlish. 

With adolescence, and the awakening of adult sexuality, the child goes through a resolution of the Oedipus complex, renounces the mother or father as a sexual partner, and looks for someone of their own age. However, he or she will almost always choose a person who reminds them, unconsciously, of the parent. Boys marry girls that are like their sisters - that is, they marry girls that are like a younger version of their mothers. Girls marry their brothers, or marry older men. 

A major psychic mechanism in Freudian theory is repression. Memories of events that were too powerful and traumatic are repressed - they are pushed down into the unconscious. This is not the same thing as forgetting - for the Freudian, we forget nothing. The memories are still there, and they are still active, but they influence our psychic state and our behaviours without our being aware of them. Thus, in later life, the events that occurred before we were five years old continue to influence us. Because all of us have suffered from the traumatisms inevitably attached to the Oedipus complex, we are all more or less neurotic - we behave in infantile and inefficient ways without knowing why. Obviously the person who deals with other human beings as part of their life's work, and more particularly with children, should have a great degree of insight into her own motivations, otherwise she might find herself reacting to others in ways that are inappropriate and relate more to her own childhood experiences rather than to the facts of the case as they stand now. This, according to another powerful Freudian concept, is because we project our own wishes and needs on to others - we are never able to break completely free of our own 'Family Romance' and see others as they are - indeed, we are most of the time incapable of seeing our own parents as ordinary men and women, but dress them up in the costumes of the Oedipal drama. Our fathers and mothers retain ever some elements of the god-like and all-powerful personalities that we projected onto them when we were children. 

The family drama has left us with a three-storey mind. The ego, or the 'me' rides upon the unconscious, says Freud, as a rider strives to dominate an unruly horse. The horse itself is made up of all the unconscious and anarchic desires that the child has repressed - the 'that' or the 'id'. This dark beast can only be kept in check with great difficulty - and indeed, at night, when we are dreaming, it is unleashed to realise our most dangerous desires. The third part of the psyche is the 'superego', which is the fossilized moral injunctions of the parents - particularly the father - which subsist and which we often experience as our conscience. Mental illness occurs when the ego can no longer control either the id or the superego - in the one case, the mind is taken over by desire, and begins to act out its fantasies; in the other, the ego is paralysed by the superego, and becomes incapable of seeking out the joys in life. 

A recent derivation of Freudian ideas, which has had a great deal of success in educational circles is Transactional Analysis. Transactional Analysis adapts the tripartite division of the psyche ; according to this theory, we are made up of a Child, an Adult, and an Ego. The goal of freedom is achieved when the Ego takes the decisions, rather than either of the other two, and when we are capable of relating to other people as ourselves rather than childishly or in the Adult, authoritarian, way. 

According to this perspective, much social life consists of playing games that avoid our having to think things through for ourselves. These games can become so rooted a part of our personalities, that we are incapable of ever doing things for ourselves, incapable of ever living authentically. In any Transaction, we always seek to be either the child, or the adult, and avoid being ourselves. 

An interesting development of the psychoanalytic theory of development has been worked out by Erik Erikson, particularly in his book, 'Childhood and Society'.

Erikson - Stages of Psychosocial Development

Trust vs. mistrust
Birth to 1 year 

Trust is fostered by consistency, continuity and sameness of experience - satisfaction of basic needs by parents. If genuine affection and needs met - child will think the world safe and dependable - otherwise, will approach the world with fear and suspicion. Parallels the oral stage - key aspects of trust and mistrust are derived from the way that the child is fed. 

Autonomy vs. doubt

2 - 3 years 

Muscular maturation sets the stage for experimentation. Now must be permitted and encouraged to do what they are capable of doing - but with supervision - will develop sense of autonomy. But if parents are impatient, and do too many things for their children, they will be filled with doubt - self-doubt. Linked to anal stage - muscle control - but Erikson stresses that they need to learn to control all their muscles. 

Initiative vs. guilt

4 - 5 years 

Activities and language - danger of sense of guilt over activities planned, as child experiences exuberant joy at new physical control and mental power. If child is restricted and made to feel that his activities and questions are pointless or a nuisance, they will feel guilty about doing things on their own. 

Industry vs. inferiority

6 - 11 

Behaviour dominated by intellectual curiosity. School may make him feel inadequate and inferior. but if praised and encouraged, industry results 

Identity vs role confusion

12 - 18 

Who am I becoming? Concerned with what they appear to be in the eyes of others compared with what they feel they are. Goal is development of ego identity, and the danger is role confusion - particularly doubt about sexual and occupational identity 

Intimacy vs. isolation

Young adulthood 

Intimate, competitive and combative relationships may be experienced with and against the same people, leading to isolation. 

Generativity vs. self-absorption

middle age 

Generativity is concern of establishing and guiding the next generation. Those unable to do this become victims of self-absorption 

Integrity vs. despair

old age 

Integrity - acceptance of one's one and only life cycle. Despair stems from the idea that time is now too short to do what you should have done.



How useful is Freudian theory? First we should note that there are a number of criticisms that can and have been made of it. 
  • b) Human memory does not work in the way that Freud believed it to do. The reason why we do not remember events in our childhood is not because they were so traumatic that we had to repress them but because the child's consciousness is not structured in such a way as to make narrative sense of what occurs.Some suggest that the child's brain is not fully 'wired up' until it has reached the age of four or five - which coincides with the earliest ages for which people have real memories of their childhood. For others, the child who possesses neither language, nor the story-telling schemas that go with it, cannot construct a retrievable memory.
  • c) Freud, in reducing all human drives to the sexual drive, overlooks the power of other motivating forces. In laboratory experiments, it would seem that for mammals such as rats, other drives, and in particular, hunger, take priority over sexuality. It is true that sexuality plays a very large part in human social life - probably more than for other mammals, given the round-the-year receptivity of the human female. But it is by no means clear that it plays the all-powerful role attributed to it by Freud.
  • d) Freud's insistence on the family as the locus within which character is formed overlooked on the one hand, the importance of genetic factors, and on the other, the importance of the wider environment.

For example, Bettleheim's belief that autism was caused by bad mothering is no longer widely held today. Autism - at least in some of its forms - is probably due to a genetic deviation that affects the structure of the brain, and makes it difficult for the affected child to comprehend totalities - the child therefore finds it difficult to react towards others in the normal way. The fact that some mothers of autistic children do appear to reject them is just as likely to derive from the strange and unrewarding behaviour of the child itself as from any character flaw in the mother - autistic children are very, very difficult to deal with, and parents need a lot of help, rather than a lot of moralistic criticism. 

Again, Bowlby's work on maternal deprivation has been shown to be flawed. He found that children who had been hospitalised for long periods showed signs of deprivation - but this probably had more to do with the regimes in hospitals in the 50s, where children received little attention, than with maternal absence per se. It has been found that children do, indeed, need to have a close caretaker to relate to - but this need not necessarily be the mother, and, indeed, need not necessarily always be the same person.

  • e) Freudians claim that psychoanalysis is an effective cure for neurosis. There is no evidence that this is so. Indeed, Hans Eysenck claimed that people who do not follow a therapy are more likely to recover than are people who follow psychoanalysis. (Eysenck did believe in the efficacy of behavioural therapy). Freud himself does not appear to have had a great deal of faith in the healing capacity of psychoanalysis - at least towards the end of his life. Why people should spend large amounts of money on analysis is something of a mystery.
Nevertheless, the Freudian vision does have the advantage over Behaviourism of putting meaning and the symbolic life at the centre of its concerns. It is also suggestive in its picture of the psyche as a locus within which there is struggle, opposition, and hidden forces - as Gellner points out(3), this is an advance on the rather bloodless model of man put forward by Enlightenment thinkers. Gellner believes that while the Freudian model is certainly unscientific, and the pretensions of psychoanalysis to being a therapy are totally unfounded, the idea of the unconscious as a cunning and dangerous adversary is probably correct - although it is not likely that it works the way that Freud believed that it did. 

As teachers, we need to be aware of the power of the family and of its formative influences. But we also need to be suspicious of unfounded psychobabble. Transactional Analysis, for example, is a schematic, and simplistic variant of Freudianism, which has had its attractions for busy teachers looking for explanations of why people might behave badly in class, and for recipes to help them bring about peace and harmony. Like all such movements, it appears plausible at first glance, and may even seem to furnish hard-pressed teachers with answers to their problems. However, in the long run, it helps neither them nor the children in their classes, and turns attention away from the more real sources of stress and conflict - which we shall be looking at in a later lecture.

You will have understood that I am extremely skeptical of Freudism. Nevertheless, I think that you should take the time to make your own mind up about this, and that you might start by reading one or two of his works - "The Interpretation of Dreams" and "Three Essays on Sexuzality" are good places to start. Winnicott's "Playing and Reality" is excellent. You should then have a look at Gellner, at Richard Webster's "Why Freud was Wrong ; Sin, Science & Psychoanalysis", Harper & Collins, 1995, and, if you enjoy slapstick, Frederick Crews et al., "The Memory Wars ; Freud's Legacy inDispute", Granta, 1997

1. D. W. Winnicott, 'The Child, the Family, and the Outside World', Pelican, 1964, pp. 20-21. 

2. Sigmund Freud, 'Three Essays on Sexuality: II. Infantile Sexuality, in 'The Pelican Freud Library: Vol. 7 : On Sexuality, 1977, p. 113 

3. Ernest Gellner, The Psychoanalytic Movement, The Cunning of Unreason, 2nd Edition, Fontana Press, London, 1993 

(If you wish to comment or ask a question, please write to tmason@timothyjpmason.com)



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