Perhaps the most influential integrative theory of personality is that of psychoanalysis, which was largely promulgated during the first four decades of the 20th century by the Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud. Although its beginnings were based in studies of psychopathology, psychoanalysis became a more general perspective on normal personality development and functioning. The field of investigation began with case studies of so-called neurotic conditions, which included hysteria, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and phobic conditions. Patients with hysterical symptoms complained of acute shortness of breath, paralyses, and contractures of limbs for which no physical cause could be found.
In the course of interviews, Freud and his early coworker and mentor, the Austrian physician Josef Breuer, noted that many of their patients were unsure of how or when their symptoms developed and even seemed indifferent to the enormous inconvenience the symptoms caused them. It was as if the ideas associated with the symptoms were quarantined from the consciousness and lay neglected by normal curiosity. To explain this strange pattern Breuer and Freud made two assumptions. The first was based on the general scientific position of determinism, which was quite prevalent in 19th-century science: although no apparent physical causes could be implicated, these neurotic symptoms were nevertheless caused, or determined, perhaps not by one but by multiple factors, some of which were psychologically motivated.
The second assumption entailed unconscious psychological processes; that is, ideas continue to be active, to change, and to influence behaviour even when they are outside of awareness. One source for this assumption was the observation of posthypnotic suggestion, which seemed to imply that past experiences, surviving outside of consciousness as latent memories, could be activated by a signal from the environment and could then influence behaviour even though the hypnotized person was unaware of the reasons for his behaviour.
Breuer and Freud believed that the specific motivation for these neurotic symptoms lay in the patient’s desire to obliterate from memory profoundly distressing events that were incompatible with the patient’s moral standards and therefore in conflict with them. These events were considered to have been sexual in nature, and further exploration convinced Freud that his patients had had even earlier troublesome sexual experiences—usually seductions—the memories of which had lain dormant until awakened by a more recent sexual encounter. Freud reasoned that the earlier seduction experience imparted to the later one its pathogenic force. Freud at first accepted many of the experiences reported by his young, impressionable patients as actual seductions. He later came to believe that many, though not all, of the narrations were fantasies.
Based upon this conviction Freud formulated a theory indicating that personality is shaped by such experiences as well as by other traumatic or frustrating events. He postulated that the fantasies about sexual traumas were expressions of a sexual drive. Thereafter in Freud’s therapeutic method, the search for actual sexual trauma was replaced by an exploration of the ways in which patients’ sexual inclinations, already present in childhood, were expressed in behaviour. Neurosis and personality in general came to be viewed as outcomes of conflict between sexual motivations and defenses against them, the conflict being rooted in early child development.
Freud assumed that his patients were motivated to ward off those fantasies that had an exciting as well as a repelling quality about them. Freud described various psychological devices (defense mechanisms) by which people tried to make the fantasies bearable. For example, in the obsessive-compulsive condition, which refers to persistent unwelcome ideas or recurrent irresistible urges to perform certain acts, such as incessant hand washing, the defense maneuvers are called isolation and displacement. They consist in separating (isolating) a fantasy from its corresponding emotion, and then attaching (displacing) the emotion to another, previously trivial idea; for instance, to the hand washer it is the hands that are dirty rather than the desires. Freud also noted that people who rely on isolation and displacement are otherwise characterized by nonpathological personality qualities such as perfectionism, indecisiveness, and formality in interpersonal contacts.
To Freud the fantasies were the mental representations of basic drives, among which sex, aggression, and self-preservation were paramount. These drives, moreover, required taming as the child matured into an adult, and the taming process involved blocking out of consciousness some of the ideas associated with the expression of those drives. Other methods of defense include repression, a kind of withholding of conflicting ideas from recall; projection, the attribution to others of one’s own rejected tendencies; and reaction formation, turning into its opposite a tendency rejected in oneself—as in excessive generosity as a defense against avarice. The basic conflict between drives and control processes, which Freud believed to be the basis of several neuroses, was also invoked to explain both dream content and the “psychopathology of everyday life”—the ordinary slips of the tongue (sometimes called Freudian slips) and errors such as forgetting intentions or misplacing objects.