In defense of defense mechanisms

Published on May 15, 2012 by Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. in Fulfillment at Any Age


According to a claim made several years ago in the New York Times, Freud’s theory is still taught in universities, but not in psychology classes.  When asked to explain why, the article puts forward the assertion (backed by two prominent psychologists) that psychoanalysis doesn’t have a solid evidence-based grounding.  

I recently heard a talk in which the speaker, a physicist, referred to the Times article as “proof” that there’s not a shred of validity to the Freudian perspective.  It seems like a good time to set the record straight. Using the criteria established for evidence-based treatment, traditional psychoanalysis alone does not in fact pass muster as a method of therapy for the large majority of psychological disorders.  However, to dismiss Freud’s contributions as irrelevant to psychology, as this article (and the speaker) implies, is an oversimplification


Psychoanalysis is more than a method of treatment—it’s a theoretical approach to understanding human behavior.  However, with few exceptions, psychologists today talk about the psychodynamic not the psychoanalytic perspective (Shedler, 2010). As such, this perspective refers to the dynamic forces within our personalities whose shifting movements underlie much of the basis for our observable behavior. Psychoanalysis is a much narrower term referring to the Freudian-based notion that to understand, and treat, abnormal behavior, our unconscious conflicts must be worked through. Part of the baggage that psychoanalysis carries with it includes a number of terms specific to this method of treatment—pardon the oversimplifications—such as “transference,” (transferring your feelings from your parents to your therapist), “resistance,” (refusing to comply with the therapist’s requests) and “working through” (bringing your unconscious conflicts into conscious awareness). Then there are other well-known terms such as “penis envy” (little girls wishing they had the anatomies of little boys) and “Oedipus complex” (little boys wanting to have sex with their mothersFreud’s theory is just one of many psychodynamic approaches being used—and taught—in today’s psychology departments. Some of the specific concepts from old-style psychoanalysis still make their way into the terminology of psychology, but when they do, it’s to describe the history of the field.  Rarely does a student take a general psychology course that focuses exclusively on psychoanalysis, or even psychodynamics, but many courses in the undergraduate curriculum include concepts that are central to its perspective. It’s almost impossible, in fact, to find an introductory, developmental, personality, abnormal, or even social psychology textbook that doesn’t refer to one or more basic psychodynamic terms.  If you took one of these courses, you most likely remember a chapter or more on Freudian theory.  

Popular culture loves Freudian theory. It’s difficult not to tune in to any TV drama, sitcom, or even documentary without running into a Freudian term spoken by a character.  Often the words are uttered by a TV therapist, but just as often, the terms or concepts are injected into an everyday conversation. The popular game show “Jeopardy!” features frequent questions, some quite obscure (e.g. “what is synchronicity?”), based on the psychodynamic perspective.

Freud is to the field of psychology, in many ways, as Newton is to physics. Courses in physics include Newton but don’t stop there.  Similarly, in psychology, Freud’s ideas about the unconscious became the basis for later theories that built on his basic principles.  For many years, though, it was almost impossible to put Freud’s theory to the test in the same way that researchers could test Newtonian physics. Another well-known psychology giant, Ivan Pavlov, was able to test his theory of classical conditioning in the lab, but even so, you won’t find a course called “Classical Conditioning” in any psychology department today.  Science moves on, expanding and revising even the most well-tested theory as researchers gain more evidence through increasingly sophisticated techniques.

For example, one of the most popular theories in psychology today, attachment theory, originated from Freud’s focus on the importance of early emotional bonds in infancy.  Attachment theory proposes that we develop our sense of self on the basis of our relationships with our earliest caregivers. Researchers have since discovered that the attachment framework accurately captures adult romantic relationships as well and it is now accepted throughout developmental, social, and personality psychology.

Defense mechanisms are another central concept is Freudian theory.  The study of these key ideas in psychodynamic theory was hampered for years by the fact that researchers had to rely on people’s direct answers to questions about themselves. Self-report is virtually useless for testing people’s tendencies to defend against the experience of anxiety.  People simply deny that they’re in denial.  Instead, psychologists came up with the so-called “projective measures” such as the Rorschach inkblots which asked people to “project” their unconscious fantasies and urges onto ambiguous drawings.  Although researchers eventually developed relatively sound ways to score projective test data, many psychologists today still feel that these scores are not sufficiently trustworthy to merit their use. As a result, research based on psychodynamic theory in general, and defense mechanisms in particular, languished.

With the advent of computerized testing, brain imaging, and determined ingenuity, researchers now are approaching the study of unconscious motives from an entirely new perspective. Through computerized testing, for example, people’s reaction times can be measured to the precise millisecond while they view stimuli that are potentially anxiety-provoking. The Implicit Association Test measures your tendency to hold unconscious views that you consciously would find unacceptable, such as biases toward people of various race or ethnicities, age, or gender. Brain imaging methods allow researchers to spy on parts of your nervous system that react “unconsciously” with fear, anxiety, rage, or lust while you view stimuli or complete a cognitive task. A blog with the humorous title “Blame the Amygdala” reviews the state of the art on this tiny, but powerful, structure in the limbic system which plays an important role in our emotional state.  Our more highly evolved prefrontal lobes of the brain try to keep the amygdala in check to prevent us from allowing our primitive emotions to leak out into our behavior. When you put the situation in those terms, how different is this scenario from Freud’s proposal that the superego (conscience) tries its best to inhibit the id (our lustful desires)? Brokering the whole deal is the ego, which neuropsychologists reframe as our “executive function” and locate partly in the prefrontal lobes as well.