Pariya Sripakdeevong

IB Psych. SLY1
Essay #2

To what extend does empirical research provide support for the assertions made by
psychodynamic theorists?

Psychodynamic theorists study human behavior from the point of view of

motivations and drives, where assumptions are made according to an individual’s

developmental of experiences in unconsciously shaping personality. Accordingly, many

psychodynamic theorists such as Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung laid their foundation of

their studies on the roles of the unconscious mind; however it could be challenging to

prove the existence of the unconscious mind itself. Consequently, theorists such as

Sigmund Freud and Anna Freud used case studies as evidence to support their assertions;

yet there remain many disadvantages of the case study method. Experiment, one of the

most accepted methods of empirical research, was never conducted by Freud himself, but

by later psychologists.

Sigmund Freud’s tripartite system deals with the relationship and roles of the

conscious and the subconscious mind. He focused his studies on the unconscious mind,

as he believed that the unconscious mind is a major influence in setting our behavior.

Accordingly, proving the validity of Freud’s theory of the mind tends to be a challenging

process, since it is impossible for us to gain direct access to the unconscious. Moreover,

since most of Freud’s theories are based on the fundamental roles of the unconscious
mind, the acceptance of the existence of the unconscious mind must be first assumed

before examining the validity of any other theories. Hence, if the validity of Freud’s

tripartite system is not proven to be valid by empirical research, then it is less likely that

other theories would be proven scientifically. For example, the validity of Freud’s

defense mechanism and oedipal complex theory would be based on accepting the

existence of the unconscious mind first.

One of the most important Neo-Freudians, Carl Jung also formulated the theory of the

unconscious, where he claimed the validity of the collective unconscious. Similarly, the

validity of the collective unconscious cannot be proven entirely, since the collective

unconscious, like the unconscious mind, is impossible to gain access to. Thus, proving

the validity of the archetypes (the shadow, the persona, the anima/animus, the mana-

personality, the self, and etc.) and the applicability of individuation (self realization) by

empirical research would be difficult, since these theories are based on Jung’s theory of

the unconscious.

Most of the empirical data came from the case studies used by psychodynamic

theorists such as Sigmund Freud and Anna Freud. The case study method enables

descriptive and in-depth data to be collected. It is often qualitative as it provides profound

information on an individual or a group, in order to be analyzed.

One of the most popular case studies is the case of the Little Hans, a five-year old boy.

Sigmund Freud interpreted Little Han’s phobia of horses as the symptom of Oedipus

complex. Freud highlighted the unique behavior of Little Hans, giving new insight into
the phenomenon. During the investigation, Little Hans was observed in detailed, where

every action was recorded and analyzed. Hence, the data collected from the case studies

would tend to be contextual, thorough, and have real validity.

Nevertheless, there remain many disadvantages of the case studies method that critics

have underlined. For Freud, the case studies were more likely used as evidence to support

the validity after a theory was claimed, not as information collected to formulate his

theory. Moreover since the case study method involves in-depth analysis of a particular

subject, generalization of a unique individual to the whole population can be problematic.

The findings from a subject might not be a representative of the other subjects.

Additionally, case studies are un-falsifiable and cannot be replicated, since the

uniqueness of data collected from a specific case study would be valid only for that exact

case, thus can be unscientific. Data from case studies can be distorted both from

subjectivity of the inspector and from cultural influences, which may have an effect on

how the information is interpreted. Furthermore, there can also be memory distortions

from the subject. Therefore, the data from case studies, which is derived merely from a

single subject’s memories and dependent on the inspector’s perspective, can be inaccurate

and might not be accepted as the scientific proof of the theories.

The experiment method, unlike the case study method, is a universally accepted

scientific method of empirical research. An experiment is a research design using control

conditions on a random sample of the population. Consequently, most experiments are

quantitative, replicable, falsifiable, and can be generalized. Unlike any other types of
empirical research, experiment also determines causation. Experiments are therefore

preferred in proving the validity of the theory. However, Freud never performed an

experiment, and thus his works are heavily criticized to be unscientific. Freud claimed

that not only quantitative data can be considered scientific; experiment is not science, but

only a part of science.

Although Freud never conducted experiments to prove the validity of his theories, many

later psychologists researched on proving Freud’s work to be valid or false. Since 1950s,

there have been many researches conducted such as the work of Dollar and Miller (1950),

many books written on the controversy of the unconscious such as those by Dixon

(1958), Lewicki (1986), and Greenwald (1992), and so on. More specifically, in

Koehler’s study an experiment to test the validity of Freud’s repression theory was

conducted. In the experiment, Koehler showed several words to a group of subject and

tested their galvanic skin responses in order to measure the stress triggered. A week later,

the words that were associated with the production of anxiety to the subjects were found

to be more likely forgotten. Hence, words that suggested unpleasant memories to the

subject were repressed, thus validating Freud’s term of repression. Alternatively, some

experiments that were performed invalidate Freud’s theories. For example, in “The

Production of Verbal Slips and Double Entendres as Clues to the Efficiency of Normal

Speech Production” (1985), Michael T. Motley performed experiment which suggest the

limitations of Freud’s parapex theory (Freudian slips).

Theories from other psychodynamic theorists, such as Erik Erikson’s psychosocial

development theory were also studied by later psychologists. Ochse and Plug performed

an experiment, which pointed out a problem in Erikson’s theory. They found out that
white young adult women seem to develop a sense of identity before the men. This

suggests that the development of the sense of intimacy (psychological crisis of Erikson’s

young adulthood stage) of this group of women must prelude the sense of identity (which

was supposed to be developed during adolescence, before the young adulthood,

according to Erikson). Hence, the limitation of the psychosocial development theory was


Although there were many experiments conducted, the results only provide partial prove

of the validity or limitations of the theories. These results are less likely to validate or

falsify the whole theory. Not only that, those affirmations from experiments were made

after the theories were claimed to be valid and also not by the Freud or Eriksson

themselves. Hence, results from experiments performed by later psychologists remain


Theories such as Sigmund Freud’s tripartite system and Carl Jung’s collective

unconscious deal with the roles of the unconscious mind. However, since it is impossible

to gain access to the unconscious mind, the theories are less likely to be proven by

accepted empirical research. Moreover, Freud used in-depth analysis from the case study

methods as the source of data. Yet, there remain many problems of the case study

method, which causes it to be claimed unscientific. Despite the fact that experiments are

universally accepted as a scientific way to validate a theory, Freud never conducted an

experiment as he believed it is not the only scientific method. Many following

psychologists attempted to validate or falsify theories such as those Freud and Erikson.
Nevertheless, these experiments were not conducted by the theorists themselves, and are

more likely to prove only partial validity or limitations of the theories, and thus the

results remain inconclusive. Hence, empirical research provides support for the assertions

made by psychodynamic theorists to a very small extent.