Subject Spotlight: Psychology
Updated: Mar 9, 2022
The Allure of Freud and the Truth of Psychology
“Psychology is a multitude of theories…”
That was how my personal statement began when I applied to study psychology: vague, and naïve to the many things that my subject could offer. In an attempt to appeal to the different psychology courses offered by the universities on my application, I oversimplified just what it is about psychology that made me choose it. Psychology is a subject fuelled by diverse approaches to research questions, methods, and interpretation. It encompasses fields ranging from sport to clinical psychology, the evolutionary to the social sciences. It considers phenomena as large as cultures to those as small as cells in the brain associated with navigation.
Research into these navigational grid cells in the entorhinal cortex actually won a Nobel prize. I chose psychology because it felt extensive and constantly different. I also chose it because I wanted to better understand myself and others.
My own research interests have been greatly influenced by the broad scope of topics that psychology allows you to explore. When thinking about what I might be interested in specialising in, I was first interested in educational and developmental psychology. I wanted to look at the failures of the education system, particularly for those with autism. As I delved further, I grew more interested in social psychology: the study of how human behaviour is influenced and mediated by others. I’m now currently interested in specialising in clinical psychology and trauma research, particularly in how we define trauma. Under the scope of psychology, there are many avenues available. It sounds daunting, and I have definitely felt indecisive, but it’s also exciting. It means I regularly get to fall back in love with my subject.
Whilst I greatly enjoy learning all that psychology has to offer, and choosing what I would like to specialise in, I find what I enjoy most about psychology is the fact that it is not static, but reflexive. This reflexive and dynamic nature can be noted in the career and works of Austrian neurologist, Sigmund Freud, arguably the best known ‘psychologist’ in Western society. Freud (1856-1939) was the founder of psychoanalysis – the belief that events in our childhood and during development have an influence on our behaviour and personality. This psychoanalytical approach is still used by some psychologists today. Freud also contributed concepts such as the unconscious – the part of our consciousness that influences our behaviour yet we cannot access – and dream analysis. Much of Freud’s terminology is still used generally throughout society, including terms such as ‘libido’, ‘denial’, ‘repression’, and phrases like ‘defence mechanism’ and ‘Freudian slip’.
One of Freud’s most famous but controversial theories is the Oedipus complex. It describes how young boys repress their incestuous desires towards their mothers, and eventually internalise their father’s values. This internalisation is fuelled by the hope of later finding a partner like their mother and avoiding their father’s anger. Freud believed that failure to resolve this complex could lead to issues later on in development. The theory obviously has many issues and is representative of the main flaws in Freud’s work: a disproportionate focus on sexual desire and repression, and stigmatised mental health. For Freud, mental health issues necessarily indicated either an unusual sexual fixation, or was a reflection on unhealthy parent-child relationships. Freud’s theories were also heavily gendered. For example, the Oedipus complex initially only considered boys, and it was only in later conceptions that girls were considered. Carl Jung’s Electra complex theorises that a similar process occurs in girls due to envying their father’s penis’ and disliking the disadvantage of not having one. Some argue that these theories reflected the ideas of society at the time, but it also reflects the poor quality and lack of scientific principles in Freud’s research.
Many of Freud’s theories, like the Oedipus complex, have been discredited, as they were not substantiated by reliable evidence, with poor sampling focusing on self-study or the study of his own patients. So whilst Freud’s ideas were influential, developing into whole fields of study such as clinical and abnormal psychology, his theories themselves should be taken with a pinch of salt. Freud therefore represents the dynamic nature of psychology: theories are constantly developed, rejected and reformed in psychological study, as research continues to find new ways to consider human behaviour and the mind.
I believe one of Freud’s greatest contributions to psychology is interest. For instance, his theories inspired the work of numerous other psychologists such as Erik Erikson, Carl Jung and even his daughter Anna Freud. More relevant to me, his controversial ideas inspire people to read into psychology and think critically about its lessons. My initial interest in psychology happened in a Year 10 English class, using the psychoanalytical perspective to analyse Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. We considered how the different characters could be representations of the three layers of the psyche: the ‘id’ (our instincts), the ‘ego’ (our reality principle) and the ‘superego’ (our morality principles). I enjoyed trying to understand the complexity of the human mind and its association with the way we act. Learning about the unconscious is fascinating, as it shows how much there is still to learn. Sigmund Freud, to me, represents my initial and continuing love for psychology. That there isn’t one simple explanation of behaviour that applied equally to everyone, but a compilation of ideological shifts met with debate and a new wealth of research. There is always more to learn and appreciate about the subject.
Freud is probably one of the most generally known ‘psychologists’ – although he was a physician turned neurologist when he published his theories. Many assumptions about psychology preside in his theories. One assumption, perhaps founded in public misunderstanding of psychoanalytical methods like talking therapy, is the idea that studying psychology means you can ‘read minds’. This assumption is another of my favourite aspects about the subject. I have definitely been accused of bringing the knowledge I gain in class to conversations with friends – I recently sent a chain of angry texts about the narcissistic behaviour of Peter Kavinsky in the third instalment of Netflix’s To All the Boys film series. But reading minds isn’t what psychologists or psychiatrists do. What we think of as ‘mind reading’ is actually a theory of mind – the attribution of mental states such as motivation and belief to explain and predict other people’s behaviour. Every human being does it, although psychology students may be more outspoken about their processes and attributions. What these assumptions about psychology demonstrate, therefore, is that whether you study it or not, psychology permeates our everyday thoughts and actions.
Psychology is both a science and a humanity – although it has taken a long time to establish itself in the scientific community. It uses both interpretation and statistics to discuss the big questions of the human experience, and there is a constant learning and unlearning of ideas. This is particularly relevant to social psychology – which is interconnected to societal shifts in perspective. For instance, the famous and ‘classic’ studies in psychology, such as the conformity studies of Milgram and Zimbardo, have since been reanalysed. Many of them are now seen as unethical and have been replicated with contradictory findings. Zimbardo’s 1971 Stanford prison experiment is an illustrative example. At a conference I attended a few years ago, Zimbardo himself addressed how unethical his research had been. Stephen Reicher, a researcher and lecturer in St Andrews, was one of those involved in the study and BBC documentary that contradicted Zimbardo’s initial results. Such contradictions highlight how change is inherent to the nature of psychology. As a science and subject, psychology is dependent on the development of societal beliefs and scientific principles. To study it therefore feels relevant and important.
Many subjects argue for how relevant their subject is and how many interesting topics it covers. I don’t disagree. In fact, psychology has a continuous relationship with the philosophies of many other subjects. For instance, its methodologies are mediated by the principles of science and statistics. Likewise, its reflexivity mirrors a journey similar to anthropology’s, recognising the way such subjects have been used to justify discrimination and power. Psychology therefore is a multitude of theories and ideas. It attempts to understand the complexity of being human, alongside the depth and development of research, technology and ideology. Maybe my personal statement wasn’t too far off the mark.