What if Freud was right?

My students know my fondness for Freud. After all, I do have a plastic Sigmund Freud action figure that comes to class with me. I also have a plush Sigmund Freud doll and a coffee mug with Freud on it…important to note that all of these items were gifts.

He is a bit of a polarizing figure in the world of psychology and in the world of popular culture though. I am careful to couch my fondness for Freud in a historical perspective since it seems like a lot of what we study today in psychology is either a reaction to, or modification of, his psychoanalytic approach.

But an interesting thing has been happening. More and more of my students are finding aspects of their own experience that can easily be understood through the lens of psychoanalysis. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t at least a little happy about that, but in fairness any time my students find an aspect of psychology that speaks to their experience, I get a little giddy.

So I was not at all dismayed to read this article published in the Guardian a couple years ago. It came to my attention just recently along with another article talking about the ubiquity of the 12 step process to cure addiction in this country despite a lack of empirical research to support its efficacy.

The article compares cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and psychoanalysis. Maybe compares is the wrong word…it sort of pits them against one another. When I teach different therapeutic approaches we spend rather more time talking about cognitive therapies than we do about psychoanalysis, maybe because there is more empirical support for them now or maybe just because psychoanalysis seems dated and a bit quackish. To be sure, I think CBT gets some things right. But in reading through this article it does stand to reason that using CBT as a sort of brief approach to changing well ingrained thought processes does seem a bit absurd. If you’ve been honing one way of thinking about the world, it seems a bit foolish to think that you can change that thought process in a few short weeks. Even Skinner might suggest that changing ingrained behavior is going to take more steadfast and routine practice to shift.

But Skinner would also suggest that we don’t need to understand why you think the things that you do to make you do the things we want you to do. And CBT seems to think along the same lines that understanding the why of your thought processes isn’t as important as showing them to you and telling you to change them. If you don’t take the time to figure out where they come from, how effective are efforts to change those thought processes going to be in the long term?

And here comes psychoanalysis again…offering an approach to answer those why questions. Maybe this approach on its own isn’t the best, but maybe CBT on its own, or operant conditioning, aren’t the best either. As we are all inherently complex critters maybe an approach that tries to tackle the issue across coordinated fronts is bound to be more successful?