4 Ways Freud Is Still Relevant

February 3, 2014 BY danariely
Illustration courtesy M.R. Trower.
Illustration by M.R. Trower, inspired by those classic 80s and 90s TV commercials

For better or worse, the man Sigmund Freud remains the image of psychology. Though over one hundred years have passed since Sigmund Freud started to unveil his ideas, YouTube’s insanely popular Crash Course YouTube series made Freud the near entire focus and image of their first psychology video to promote their new online psychology “crash course.”

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Should modern psychologists be angry about this?

Well maybe. Many modern psychologists have complained, and rightly so, that some of Freud’s ideas (even some of the obviously bad ideas he took back or eased up on) have remained popular amongst many people, academic departments (e.g. many humanities departments), and even therapists. However, we want to take a moment and comment that a lot of the best modern psychology is still rooted in a lot of Freudian ideas. And so maybe Freud as a mascot isn’t the best, but not completely terrible either. Because regardless of the flaws and floweriness of much Freudian psychology, there are many basic ideas that he “invented” and/or popularized that positively shape the current exploration of the human mind.

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Here are 4 positive ways Freud’s ideas live on in modern research.

Goals and Goal Conflict

Much of modern psychological research is about goals. In fact, in the eyes of many current psychological theorists a person can be best understood as a creature that pursues and manages goals.

Freud’s id-ego-superego theory was all about different goals and managing such goals. In Freudian theory, the id is our basic desires (food, sex, and video games), the super-ego is “anti-id” and focused on high desires (propriety, education, honor), and the ego is the man in the middle that is both separate from and part of the other parts. Current research on goal hierarchies, multiple goal pursuits, and the information signal model (the latter of which shows people more or less people lying to different parts of themselves) are very Freudian at their core.

Psychic Energies

Though it seems archaic to call the forces in the mind energies, it may not be far from the truth. Roy Baumeister and many other psychologists have discovered that one’s self-control is more or less a type of energy.

That is, one’s self-control can be depleted with too much use over too short of a period. It can be replenished (e.g. through relaxation, food, or positive moods). Furthermore, one’s self-control can expand. If one works at it, one’s self-control machine can gain, in a manner of speaking, a larger energy capacity. Roy Baumesiter even chose to call his theory of self-control depletion “ego-depletion” as a nod to Freud and the “energy” nature of it. One’s ego can get tired when it gets pulled in so many different ways (see title image).

Dual Attitudes

Research finds people have multiple attitudes toward the same thing and this often happens at the same time. Additionally, people can often hold conscious attitudes that differ from their automatic non-conscious attitudes. For instance people can have explicitly positive feelings toward an out-group (e.g. African Americans) but can hold unconscious biases against them. It all is very id versus superego like. And it is very important to recognize how unconscious tendencies influence behavior, especially when a majority of psychology and economics examine the human as always engaged in rational and conscious processing.

Unconscious desires

Let’s be honest, Freud went in some exaggerated and frankly wrong directions with the unconscious—especially when it comes to repression and repressed memories. However, Freud presented us with an important concept: our behavior may be guided by factors outside of conscious thought. Time and time again research has found that we are motivated by unconscious “thoughts” and we even pursue goals and experience emotions without awareness. And simply on a temporal level, neuroscience research shows that actions and decisions often occur before our awareness. The unconscious might not do everything Freud said it did. It might not be as full of repressions and daddy-mother issues, but it is just as powerful and important. And if it weren’t for Freud it would have been much longer before we realized that.

~Troy Campbell~