Psychodynamic Approach In Psychology

March 10, 2021 - Paper 2 Psychology in Context | Approaches to Human Behaviour

The Psychodynamic Approach is only listed as essential knowledge for the AQA A Level Qualification. You do not need to know this approach if you are only studying for the AQA AS level qualification.


Psychodynamic Approach Main Assumptions (AO1, Description):

  • Developed by Sigmund Freud
  • The unconscious mind is the driving force for all behaviour
  • Early childhood experiences are responsible for who we are as adults
  • We have a sexual instinct from birth
  • Accessing the unconscious mind is the only way to resolve issues

The role of the unconscious mind:

Freud suggested that the part of our mind that we’re consciously aware of and know about is the conscious mind, and that the conscious mind is merely the tip of the iceberg. Most of our mind id made up of the unconscious mind, an enormous store that houses our biological drives and instincts that have a significant influence on our behaviour and personality. The unconscious can also house threatening memories that have been repressed. In between the conscious and the unconscious mind sits the preconscious mind; this area of our psyche contains thoughts and ideas which we may become aware of during dreams or ‘slips of the tongue’.


Structure Of Personality According To The Psychodynamic Approach:

Freud described personality as ‘tripartite’ (made up of 3 parts) including; the ID, Ego and Super Ego.

(1) The ID:

  • Primitive part of personality
  • Pleasure principle
  • Entirely unconscious
  • Present at birth
  • Entirely selfish and demanding
  • Requires instant gratification

(2) The Ego:

  • Mediator between ID and Superego
  • Reality principle
  • Conscious & unconscious
  • Develops around 2 years
  • Employs defence mechanisms
  • Reduces intra-psychic conflict

(3) The Super Ego:

  • Sense of right and wrong
  • Morality principle
  • Entirely unconscious
  • Develops around 5 years
  • Entirely selfless
  • Represents moral standards of same sex parent
  • Punishes Ego for wrongs

Psychodynamic Approach And Defense Mechanisms (AO1, Description):

The ego has a difficult job balancing the conflict between the demanding ID and the moral superego, but it does have help in the form of defence mechanisms. These are unconscious and ensure that the ego is able to prevent us from being overwhelmed by temporary threats or traumas. However, they often involve some kind of distortion or reality and are considered unhealthy as a long-term solution.

Defence mechanismDescriptionExample of behaviour
RepressionForcing a distressing memory out of the conscious mindSomeone forgetting the trauma of their favourite pet dying
DenialRefusing to acknowledge some aspect of realitySomeone continuing to turn up for work even though they’ve been sacked
DisplacementTransferring feelings from the true source of the distressing emotion onto a substitute targetSlamming the door after a row with a partner

Psychosexual Stages Of Development (AO1, Description):

Psychosexual Stages: Freud claimed that child development occurs in 5 stages. Each stage is marked by a different conflict that a child must resolve in order to progress successfully onto the next stage. If a conflict is unresolved at any point during psychosexual development it results in fixation.

Fixation  where a child becomes ‘stuck’ at a stage due to under or over gratification at a specific psychosexual stage, and it impacts on their behaviour as an adult.


(1) The Oral Stage (age 0-1 year):

Images illustrates thumb sucking fixation at the Oral Stage of Psychosexual Development.

The focus of pleasure for the child is the mouth (Mother’s breast is the object of desire). If fixation occurs at this stage, Freud believed that this could manifest as drinking/alcohol, smoking, eating addictions, or nail biting etc

(2) The Anal Stage (age 1-3 years):

Image illustrates the importance of potty training at the Oral Stage of Psychosexual Development.

The focus of the libido is on the anus (bottom), as the child learns to respond to some of the demands of society (e.g. bladder and bowel control), the child gains pleasure from defecating. The major conflict at this stage is potty training, developing control over bodily functions associated with potty training leads to a huge sense of accomplishment. Fixation at this stage can lead to an individual developing either an anal retentive or expulsive personality type- this ultimately may lead to the development of mild Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).


(3) The Phallic Stage (age 3-5 years):

Image illustrates family connections during the Phallic Stage of Psychosexual Development.

During this part of development, a child starts to notice their gender and the key differences between males and females. The erogenous zones become the genitals and, according to Freud, unconscious sexual desires for the opposite sex parent start to development. Freud stated the presence of the (a) Oedipus Complex, boys feeling a guilt over their unconscious sexual desires for their Mothers and feeling of threat/punishment from Fathers for holding such a desire. According to Freud, boys also experience feelings of hostility towards Fathers. (b) Electra Complex, girls feeling a guilt over their unconscious sexual desires for their Fathers and feeling of threat/punishment from Mother for holding such desires. According to Freud, girls also experience feelings of hostility towards their Mothers. Fixation at this stage is said to be linked to narcissism, recklessness and homosexuality.

This is a really useful video for helping to remember the key concepts of the Phallic Stage of Psychosexual Development.

(4) The Latency Stage (age 6 years to Puberty):


At this stage, earlier conflicts are temporarily repressed.

(5) The Genital Stage (12 years):

Image illustrates maturity at the Genital Stage of Psychsexual Development.

Sexual desire emerge alongside puberty. An individual becomes interested in dating and marriage. If an individual has progressed through the other stages successfully this individual should be well balanced (psychologically). Signs of fixation at this stage include; guilt about sexuality, feelings of inadequacy, poor sexual relations and anxious feelings regarding the opposite sex. 

Psychodynamic Approach Evaluation (AO3):



(1) Point: The Psychodynamic Approach can be criticised as being deterministic. Evidence: For example, the approach believes that if an individual gets too much or too little pleasure at a stage of psychosexual development that it will impact on adult behaviour, pre-programming them to behaviour in a specific way. Elaboration: This is a weakness because, the psychodynamic approach can be criticised for not taking free will into consideration.

(2) Point: The psychodynamic approach does not advocate the use of scientific methods. Evidence: For example, psychodynamic concepts such as the Oedipus and Electra complex cannot be scientifically tested with scans or carefully constructed experiments. Elaboration: This is a weakness because it means that the Psychodynamic theory cannot be objectively and scientifically measured and therefore objective evidence cannot be obtained to support the key concepts of the theory.


(1) Point: The psychodynamic approach can be praised for not being reductionistEvidence: For example, psychodynamic approach believes that all behaviours displayed are a direct result of the individuals’ own experience. Elaboration: This is a strength because it means that the approach may have much more validity that its alternatives by considering meaningful human behaviour within its real-life context.


(2) Point: The psychodynamic approach can be praised for having practical applicationsEvidence: For example, the psychodynamic approach brought with it a new dynamic type of therapy, psychoanalysis. Freudian therapists have claimed that success with many patients. Elaboration: This is a strength because it provides individuals and therapists alternative options to consider when attempting to treat a patient, which might mean a greater chance of recovery.

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