On a day in early May in 1856 (traditionally thought to be May 6), Sigismund Freud was born, better known as famed psychiatrist Sigmund Freud. Freud’s theories served as the foundation for psychoanalysis as we know it today. While many of his theories have caused considerable controversy, his work shaped views of sexuality, childhood, memory, therapy, and personality. So significant was his contribution to society that many of his ideas have become common terms and catch phrases in our culture, such as repression, denial, Freudian slip, defense mechanism, and anal retentive.
Though Freud is highly quoted, one of the most famous quotes attributed to him was likely never uttered by him: “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” The story goes that this was his response after a student asked him about the hidden meaning behind his frequent cigar smoking. His supposed response was ironic as it demonstrated that even a famous psychoanalyst can admit that not everything has a profound meaning. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and things are exactly as they appear.
As controversial as some of Freud’s ideas have been, here are some things he got right:
- The Unconscious plays a huge role in our lives: Random feelings, thoughts, and actions often have important, unconscious meanings.
- Talking lightens the load: The common image of someone lying on a psychologist’s couch discussing their problems directly stems from Freud’s view that many mental problems can be resolved simply by talking about them.
- The body defends itself: Defense mechanisms are the body’s way of manipulating reality to protect feelings.
- Change is unwelcome: It is in our nature to resist change, even when that change is good.
- The problems of the present stem from the past: Difficulties that occur in childhood can carry forward and influence present actions.
Though it has now been many years since Freud’s death in 1939, he is still a household name in the field of psychology. In fact, Time Magazine once featured him as one of their 100 most important people of the 20th century, and his ideas live on as part of the fabric of popular culture.
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While the forefathers of psychology established many theories that became building blocks of what we study today, sometimes some of our highest-regarded researchers came up with some ideas that don’t necessarily fit with today’s view of the world of psychology. The following are some bits of “wisdom” from some familiar names.
“I wish that one would be persuaded that psychological experiments, especially those on the complex functions, are not improved [by large studies]; the statistical method gives only mediocre results; some recent examples demonstrate that. The American authors, who love to do things big, often publish experiments that have been conducted on hundreds and thousands of people; they instinctively obey the prejudice that the persuasiveness of a work is proportional to the number of observations. This is only an illusion.”
— Alfred Binet (1903). L’ Études expérimentale de l’intelligence (p. 299). Paris, France: Schleicher.
“Being in love with the one parent and hating the other are among the essential constituents of the stock of psychical impulses which is formed at that time and which is of such importance in determining the symptoms of the later neurosis… This discovery is confirmed by a legend that has come down to us from classical antiquity: a legend whose profound and universal power to move can only be understood if the hypothesis I have put forward in regard to the psychology of children has an equally universal validity. What I have in mind is the legend of King Oedipus and Sophocles’ drama which bears his name.”
— Sigmund Freud (1953). The Interpretation of Dreams. In J. Strachey (Ed.), The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 4, pp. 260-261). Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books (Original work published 1900)
“Since my mother is the type that’s called schizophrenogenic in the literature—she’s the one who makes crazy people, crazy children—I was awfully curious to find out why I didn’t go insane.”
— Abraham Harold Maslow (2001). In Colin Wilson, New Pathways in Psychology: Maslow and the Post-Freudian Revolution (pp. 155-156). Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books (Original work published in 1972)
What do you think is psychology’s funniest or most interesting misstep?