The Differences Between Psychodynamic Theory and Behaviourism

In psychology, the psychodynamic theory has begun with Freud’s works which explain unconscious mind and need (Freud, 1984). Experiences during childhood have an affect our development as an adult. Three key terms in this theory are id, ego, superego reflects the personality of an individuals. Since unconscious id includes sex drives and death instinct, satisfaction or dissatisfaction is the result of an unrealistic world of id. The ego that is part of id which connects id to the external world and therefore it uses realistic strategies getting pleasure. However, the  superego is learnt from social environment such as family or others which controls forbids by affecting id and ego association.

Behaviourist approach analyses observable behaviours supported by experimental data. Behaviour caused by stimulus can be controlled by environment and different experiences affect learning processes (Watson, 1913). Therefore, Watson proposed classical conditioning theory which explains learning is the result of response to different associations.

Comparison of Freud’s and Watson’s works

According to Freud, unconscious mind affects our behaviours and these behaviours have connection with our childhood problems (Freud, 1920). The driven forces which are sexual and death instincts change individual’s behaviours by means of id. Additionally, human-being has defence mechanisms where unconscious mind plays role through realistic external world. Defence mechanisms can be explained as protection of a person from undesired affect of an excessive stress, or situation. The first type of defence mechanism, repression, is associated with suppression in thoughts of unconscious ego where a person feels guilty due its superego (Freud, 1992). Projection is the another type of defence mechanism where feelings may need to repressed to an alternative target. For example, a person who fall in love someone accuses him of due to protect herself from an undesired result. During defence mechanisms are developed, developmental hierarchy is applied from childhood to adult. For example type of defence mechanism used by an individual changes according to age. In Cramer’s work, denial happens in younger age whereas projection happens in mature age individuals(Cramer, 1987). Therefore, we can say that our mind and personality controls that our behaviours by various defence mechanisms. From this point of view, the psychodynamic approach can be separated from behaviourism where it does not consist of empirical data.

The scientific media has been separated into two groups due to Freud’s work. One group has seem him as a “scientist” who has suggested mechanistic explanations to the unconscious mind by uncovering the open points in human psychology. However, many debates have been done onto his works by finding him as “storyteller”. For example, although the case study methods cannot universally be applied to the general population, the psychodynamic approach is more reliable due to it gives proposes from childhood to adulthood. Major drawback on this theory is that it is hard to prove its wrongness. On the other hand, very small sample size by working with the cases make this theory hard to generalize. Since unconscious mind and the personality are connected to the id,ego and superego terms, those cannot be tested empirically and easily, researches depended on the case study proofs. Therefore, Karl Popper argued that the insufficient empirical data is not a science in human nature and lack of a truth (Grünbaum, 1979). In real world, everything is different, when case studies are taken into consideration. The special cases are seen rarely, thus generalizing these cases to the whole population may bring conflicts.

Behaviourism had started Watson’s and Pavlov’s work. Watson’s classical conditioning theory states that an unconditioned stimulus result in response. Later, when conditioning response is produced, it result in conditioned response (Watson & Rayner, 1920). The most famous experiment named as Little Albert shows us how we can get benefit from classical conditioning situation in terms of applying to human behaviours (Watson & Rayner, 1920). It has been shown to little Albert some objects such as rat, a rabbit, a monkey and various masks. These are the objects for little Albert that he saw for the first time in his life. In the end, no kind of fear was observed and he did not demonstrate any kind of emotional response to those subjects during his nine months infancy. Then, they showed a hammer stuck in a steel bar on his head. This was the situation where Albert started to show fear, can be referred as the conditioned stimulus. When he was reached 11 months, experiment repeated again. He still keep the same fear by tearing. This experiment clearly shows us how our behaviours are controlled by environmental stimulus.

Conclusions and Future Recommendations

The behaviourism approach is strength, because it includes empirical data. Many experiments can be repeated so as to support this theory. However, behaviourism does not consider the unconscious mind as Freud did in his works. It must be noted that albeit social environment shapes our behaviours, our unconscious mind has also affect our behaviours. In addition to those, utilising behaviourism approach for learning, language development, and for a treatment of undesired behaviours still keep its importance. For example, a person behaves shy in front of groups during a presentation can be forced to change its behaviour by taking an advantage from behavioural approach. Therefore, treatment of behaviours is the way that we can get benefit from behavioural perspective.

Another important point, both behaviourism and psychodynamic approaches may give us benefits to change abnormal behaviours of an individual effectively. Psychopathological symptoms due to birth trauma, childhood and other environmental factors resulting in abnormal behaviour creates problem for a person. The importance of psychodynamic thinking give advantages to identify defence mechanism of an individual as mentioned in previous paragraphs.  One research published in 2014 compare psychodynamic therapy and behavioural therapy. In this research, the authors prove that cognitive-behaviour therapy and psychodynamic therapy equally treat symptoms for depression. This research also supports effectiveness of both therapies (Leichsenring & Leibing, 2014). It should be also noted that while psychodynamic therapy focuses on unconscious, behavioural therapy involves stimuli and occurred behaviours.

Despite the fact that we do not gather an empirical suggestions from Freud’s work, we do have scientific cases about the conflict between our reasonable selves and our drives such as sex and death instinct. Therefore, the ego and id still protects its power from Freud’s side. For example, Freud’s work seem the sexual and aggressive behaviours are the basics of human nature. Furthermore, the philosophical performance of Freud displays us to understand the mind of human-being. If we manage to apply his studies to the patients in the way of Freud did, it will lead a good outcome since we would like to change only mind that leads to change in behaviour.

All in all, both approaches are beneficial and emphasize different ways of behaviour. For example, in psychodynamic therapy, ego sits in the center and deals with the situations such as unconscious through conscious by using id, ego and superego terms. However, behavioural therapy handles the behaviours  triggered by some external stimuli. This stimulus in the end result in classical conditioning and the individual may develop psychopathological symptoms. Current psychological therapies utilise both perspectives and therefore, these effective therapies give us opportunities to change individual’s mind.


Cramer, P. (1987). The development of defence mechanisms. Journal of personality, 55, 597-614.

Freud, A. (1992). The ego and the mechanisms of defence. Karnac Books.

Freud, S. (1920). Beyond the pleasure principle. The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud, 18, 1920-1922.

Freud, S. (1984). Psycho-analysis. To Theories of, 11.

Grünbaum, A. (1979). Is Freudian psychoanalytic theory pseudo-scientific by Karl Popper’s criterion of demarcation?. American Philosophical Quarterly, 131-141.

Leichsenring, F., & Leibing, E. (2014). The effectiveness of psychodynamic therapy and cognitive behavior therapy in the treatment of personality disorders: a meta-analysis.

Watson, J. B. (1913). Psychology as the behaviorist views it. Psychological review, 20, 158.

Watson, J. B., & Rayner, R. (1920). Conditioned emotional reactions. Journal of experimental Psychology, 3, 1.

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Türkiye'nin kendimce en güzel şehirlerinden birinde, Denizli'de, dünyaya geldim. Liseyi Denizli Anadolu Lisesi'nde okudum. İzmir Yüksek Teknoloji Enstitüsü (İYTE) Moleküler Biyoloji ve Genetik mezunuyum. Glasgow Üniversitesi'nde İmmunoloji ve Enflamatuvar Hastalıklar üzerine yüksek lisansımı burslu olarak yaptım. Lisans hayatım boyunca Lodz Üniversitesi, Göteborg Üniversitesi ve Toronto Üniversitesi'nde araştırmalara katıldım. Bu çalışmalar sonucunda Cardiovascular Research ve Journal of Dental Research'te yayınlanan çalışmalarımız var. Öykü yazmayı seviyorum. Öykü Fanzin'de yayınlanan öyküm ve İYTE'de almış olduğum bir "birincilik" bir de "ikincilik" ödülüm var. Almanca öğreniyorum, İngilizce konuşabiliyorum, keman çalmayı öğreniyorum. Amacım Türkiye okuyucusuna bilimi sevdirmek, zaman buldukça eğlencesine bilimsel haberleri paylaşmak.

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