Individual Differences


Introduction to
Psychoanalytic & Neoanalytic
Perspectives on Personality

Last updated:
22 Sep 2003

One of the main criticisms of most theories of personality is that they have difficulty accounting for the irrational, less predictable patterns of human thinking and behavior.  Psychoanalytic theory, on the other hand, heads straight for the jugular, the deep, mysterious core of the human psyche, in search of understanding the psychology of the human.


In fact, psychoanalytic theory, developed initially by Sigmund Freud during the latter part of the 1900s and during the early decades of the 21st century, formed the foundation of modern psychology.  Much of the theory and research that came later, even if it disagreed with psychoanalytic thinking, was nevertheless shaped and influenced by its perspectives.


In considering personality, the broad, unique contribution of psychoanalytic theory is the suggestion that much of the explanation for human behavior, which is often bizarre and seemingly contradictory, lies largely hidden in the unconscious, and is the result of how a person negotiates conflicting, deep-rooted desires and instincts.  There is overlap with learning theory in that psychoanalytic theory see the early years of development as making a critical contribution to the adult psyche, depending on various psycho-sexual stages are resolved.


Here's an example.  Why do humans have addictive behaviors, even though it seems to have ill long-term effects.  Sigmund Freud explained in "Civilization & Its Discontents":

Life as we find it, is too hard for us: it brings us too many pains, disappointments and impossible tasks. In order to bear it, we cannot dispense with palliative measures…There are three such measures: powerful deflections, which cause us to make light of our misery; substitute satisfactions, which diminish it; and intoxicating substances which make us insensitive to it.

Psychoanalytic theory is also closely connected with evolutionary perspectives on personality.  Freud accepted the basic insights of Darwin's evolutionary theory, particularly with regard to the idea that humans have evolved with particular instincts which were advantageous to survival.  Freud was a medical practitioner and researcher who transformed himself into the world's first psychologist.  His evidence was mostly based on case studies of his work with people who were suffering neuroses of one variety or another.

Freud's theories have come under criticism from many quarters, including Carl Jung, who was a student and colleague of Freud's, from feminists, and from researchers who claim that there is a lack of scientific evidence for Freud's claims.  However, there is much in psychoanalytic theory which continues to be of much use in psychology and society.  Thus, many theorists, researchers, and practitioners have evolved psychoanalytic theory -- generally refereed to as neoanalytic theories.

Recommended Links

The Freud Web


Burger, J. M. (1997). Personality (4th ed.). Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.

Carver, C. S., & Scheier, M. F. (2000). Perspectives on personality (4th ed.). Needham Heights, MA: Simon & Schuster.

Engler, B. (1995). Personality theories: An introduction (3rd ed.). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Funder, D. C. (1997). The personality puzzle. New York: W. W. Norton.