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Freud and the Behaviourists

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) believed the human person to be a conscious agent who was influenced by personal feelings, ideals and intentions.  In his efforts to help the individual to fulfil his potential by understanding and dealing with the instinctual drives that motivate him, Freud relied much on intuition and believed that ends had to be specified before the human person could be properly understood.  The behaviourists (a movement popularised by John Watson in 1913), believed that the mental processes of the human person could only be guessed at, and therefore could not provide an accurate insight into the person.  The chief tenet of behaviourism is that apart from genetic factors, nearly all behaviour is learned through conditioning and therefore determined by the environment thus ‘consciousness’ was not considered a useful term.  The real person is indicated by his behaviour, which can be observed and tested empirically, and with precision.

The behaviourists derived much of their understanding of the human person from animal studies and believed that a continuity could be seen in the behaviour of animals and humans.  The study of animals has been helpful, therefore, in developing theories and principles about human beings.  The behaviourists study their subjects objectively, focussing on observable behaviour not experience, and believe behaviour to be shaped by the consequences of certain actions, so that specific behaviour can be predicted in specific situations.  It would seem that the behaviourists’ concept of the human person was less complex than Freud’s concept.  Some behaviourists saw the human infant starting life as a blank slate and learning all behaviour through conditioning.  Watson observed that three emotions: fear, rage and love, were inherent in the newborn infant, and that predictable behavioural responses could be produced by condition in the same way Pavlov elicited predictable modes of behaviour from experiments with dogs.  The behaviourists term this type of condition ‘classical’, or ‘respondent’.  It shows that specific behaviour patterns can be achieved and manipulated.

Freud believed that human behaviour was activated by fundamental, instinctual drives: the sexual drive, which Freud considered the most significant; the life-preserving drive (which was activated, for example, by hunger, pain, etc), and the aggressive drive.  It is the gratification of these instincts throughout life that dictates the behaviour of the human person.  Human beings develop three basic structures of personality that aid in the gratification of these instincts: the id, the ego and the super-ego.

The id (which is all the young infant’s personality is comprised of initially), is the storehouse of uninhibited, instinctual energy that discharges itself in the form of urgent needs and reflex actions.  For example, the baby, upon experiencing pangs of hunger, will immediately discharge its instinctual energy through the reflexive action of crying, thus aiming to gratify its needs in the quickest and most direct manner possible.  Although this view of the human child parallels Watson’s view, it clearly demonstrates the different focus Freud and Watson put on their subjects.

As the child develops, his energies are gradually transferred from the id to the ego, which is the ‘thinking’ or organisational part of the personality.  The ego reacts to the id; it perceives and remembers and, by applying logic, mediates between the id and the super-ego to the external world.  The urge to gratify the basic wants remains, but the developing ego enables the child to use strategy.  The super-ego is the conscience and the monitor of the rest of the personality and judge of what is right and wrong.  By interjecting the values of parents and society, it channels the basic energy into forms of gratification that are acceptable to the environment.  These component parts of the personality frequently come into conflict with each other, and the result of such conflict is anxiety.

The behaviourist, B.F. Skinner, dismissed this concept of Freud’s as being unnecessarily complicated for the understanding of the human person.  To Skinner, human thought was human behaviour, and this was dictated by factors in the environment, not by a complicated series of intangibles lurking within the human person.  However, Freud’s concept of the super-ego was not dissimilar to Skinner’s belief that conforming behaviour is the product of reinforcement of group standards, the difference being that Freud placed the controlling influence within the person, whereas Skinner believed it to be in the community; ‘good’ and ‘bad’ behaviour being determined by manners and customs in the social environment.

Freud further elaborated on the human person by stating that in the course of development, a child passes through a linear series of psychosexual changes.  As ego and super-ego are not present in infants, these must be developed and the goals of gratification change during a person’s life.  At each stage, the sexual energy is focussed on a single part of the human body.  From birth to approximately one year, the child passes through the oral stage, receiving pleasurable stimulation through the mouth.  Following this to approximately three years, is the anal stage, when pleasure is derived from bowel function and from three to five years, the phallic stage is encountered, when the child develops interest in the genitals.  During this stage, the Oedipal complex occurs in boys, with the child viewing his mother as a sex object and regarding his father as a sexual rival, wielding the power to castrate.  The conflict between desire and fear that the young child suffers results in an anxiety that is usually resolved by a shift in identification when the boy begins to match his behaviour to his image of his father.  This process occurs as the super-ego develops.  Freud described a parallel situation in girls, which Carl Jung termed the Electra complex.  (For a more detailed overview of this complex and its origins, you might like to visit 

The latency period is a resting stage that occurs during the ages of five and twelve, when the energies are redirected by school activities and play.  During this stage, the defence mechanisms of denial (rebellion against facts) and repression (when unacceptable thoughts and feelings are forced out of conscious awareness) begin to appear.  The last stage of human development that Freud described was that occurring from the age of twelve, when more mature feelings and attachments are formed.

The behaviourists found many weaknesses in Freud’s theories, the most significant being that such speculations about the unconscious could not lend themselves to empirical testing.  Freud’s deterministic views left the individual with little choice or control over his behaviour, which was activated by forces from within.  In direct contrast, the behaviourists took the view that behaviour is directed by its consequence in the environment.  If the consequences of a mode of behaviour are pleasing or rewarding, then a positive response will be elicited and behaviour follow one course; if the consequences are unpleasant or aversive, then the behavioural response will be weakened and can eventually be eliminated by this ‘negative reinforcement’.  Skinner termed this principle ‘operant conditioning’.  By rewarding or punishing specific actions, specific behaviour can be produced and manipulated.  The consequences of behaviour are visible and measurable for they take place in the environment and need not be confounded by the introspection or inner conflicts that concerned Freud.

The behaviourists looked for physiological evidence and unconscious mechanisms could not produce this.  Freud, however, believed that dreaming proved the activity of the unconscious, and that the content of dreams, which can be interpreted, provide major clues about how the unconscious operates.  Freud saw dreams as disguised fulfilments or suppressed or repressed wishes, and believed that interpretation through symbolic association could provide the key to these repressions and enhance the understanding of the human person.  Slips of the tongue or pen all similarly reveal the unconscious activities of the mind.

The behaviourists attached no great significance to the unconscious and Skinner in particular rejected the notion that the unconscious could be instrumental in shaping behaviour.  Awareness of the workings of the unconscious is therefore redundant, because knowing why or how something acts on a person does not prevent the effect from occurring.  Nor could Skinner agree with Freud’s concept of repressions, which he considered to be complicated and misleading.  To Skinner, repressions are merely evasions of punishment; a person will avoid a particular type of behaviour and eventually even stop thinking of it, if the consequences of it are likely to be unpleasant.

Both Freud and the behaviourists agreed that human beings are irrational creatures, but what makes us behave as we do, according to the behaviourists, is a combination of our genetic inheritance and our environment; according the Freud, we are influenced by unconscious, irrational motives.  He believed the solution to our problems lay in the development of a strong ego, while the behaviourists largely ignored our inner states in the belief that these could not be altered effectively.  Their approach was to study our behavioural responses and their effects on the environment.  Freud and the behaviourists, therefore, considered the human person from different perspectives, which makes clear-cut comparisons between the two accounts difficult.

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Sources used/Further reading

Bocock, R., Sigmund Freud, Routledge (2002)

Nye, R.D., What is B. F. Skinner Really Saying?, Prentice Hall (1979)

Skinner, B.F., About Behaviourism, Random House (1988)

Stevenson, L., The Study of Human Nature, Oxford University Press (1999)

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