Evaluating Freud

Freud and his followers resisted attempts to test their theories with experiments or other scientific research. In fact, they seemed threatened by the idea. Freud claimed only a trained clinician who saw the forces in action could judge the truth of his ideas. Mackinnon and Dukes (1962) told of a research psychologist in the 1930s who wrote to Freud full of enthusiasm about a study supporting one of Freud's ideas. Freud responded by informing him that no such testing was needed!

What happened when a psychologist called Freud with good news about research?

Fisher and Greenberg (1985) carried out an ambitious attempt to survey all the scientific research that tested any of Freud's ideas, such as the idea that dreams are full of sex symbols, or the idea that all children go through the Oedipal or Electra Complexes. Their review ran to almost 500 pages, with a list of bibliographic references 75 pages long. Their conclusions were largely negative; for example:

—"Not a shred" of evidence for Freudian ideas about sexual symbolism in dreams.

—No support for Freud's idea that an "anal character" results from difficulties in toilet training or that an "oral character" results from events surrounding breastfeeding.

What did Fisher and Greenberg find out, in their review of research?

—No support for the Oedipal and Electra complexes. The eventual identification of a young boy with his father correlates not with earlier sexual jealousy but with a nurturant attitude on the part of the father. In general, there is little evidence for the family drama with its panorama of lusts and hostilities. There is also no evidence for penis envy in girls or women.

The idea of defense mechanisms fared better. There is some evidence that people do indeed use such self-deceptive techniques as denial, projection, and rationalization. Many therapists accept the idea of repressed memories that can be brought to consciousness, bringing a sense of relief to the patient. Freud originally suggested that idea, although later he decided such memories could be fabrications. Some modern psychologists agree with that position; others believe in Freud's original idea that such memories are genuine. We will discuss this controversial issue more in Chapter 13.


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