Psychoanalytic Theories


Psychoanalytic Psychology


Actions and interpretations that are not consciously mediated

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … mainly non-conscious hairball of interpreted experience
  • Knowing is … enacting one’s accumulated history
  • Learner is … a cluster of drives
  • Learning is … incorporating current experiences into one’s history of experiences
  • Teaching is … N/A




Psychoanalytic Theories comprise several schools of thought that are concerned with the study of those actions and beliefs that are not mediated (and often not moderated) by the conscious mind. Theoretical constructs that are fundamental to Psychoanalytic Theories include:
  • Ego (Sigmund Freud, 1910s) – the agent, generally experienced as one’s self, that mediates between the Id and the Super-Ego
  • Id (Sigmund Freud, 1910s) – instinctual desires that are present from birth. The Id is often associated with:
    • Subconscious (Thomas De Quincey, 1820s) – a contested notion. Subconscious was originally an adjective meaning “not wholly conscious.” By the 1880s, the word came to be used as both an adjective and a noun to refer to non-conscious mental processes. Among Psychoanalytic TheoriesSubconscious usually refers that part of consciousness that is not the focus of one's immediate awareness.
    • Unconscious Mind (Friedrich Schelling, 1810s) – those automatic mental processes that are not available to introspection – including the Id, as well as most memories, emotions, and motivations.
  • Super-Ego (Sigmund Freud, 1910s) – the moral/ethical component of personality that is gleaned from one’s socio-cultural context and which is principally experienced as cautions, criticisms, prohibitions, and inhibitions
In regard to the above constructs, multiple models of the psyche have been proposed, including:
  • Dynamical Model – the view, embraced across most Psychoanalytic Theories, that one’s personality, motivations, emotions, behaviors, and identifications can be explained in terms of instincts and unconscious drives
  • Economic Model – the view, embraced by some Psychoanalytic Theories, that one’s personality, motivations, emotions, behaviors, and identifications can be explained in terms of Psychic Energy:
    • Psychic Energy (Mental Energy) (Sigmund Freud, 1890s) – among Psychoanalytic Theories, the energy the enables all mental activity. Psychic Energy is seen quite differently across schools of thought. For example, in Classical Psychoanalysis, it is seen to be Id-based, instinct-oriented, and pleasure-seeking, whereas Jungian Psychology associates Psychic Energy with more refined aspects of personality and collective being.
  • Structural Model (Structural Approach; Structural Hypothesis; Structural Theory) (Sigmund Freud, 1920s) – the theory that personality is composed of three elements: Id, Ego, Superego
  • Topographic Model (Descriptive Approach; Systematic Approach; Topographic Hypothesis) (Sigmund Freud, 1890s) – Freud’s original model, namely the theory that personality is composed of three regions or systems: the Unconscious, the Conscious, the Preconscious:
    • Unconscious – the assemblage of unconscious drives and instincts, which includes both biological needs (e.g., thirst, hunger) and repressed memories associated with them
    • Conscious – a self-awareness that, effectively, enables one to engage in such complex activities as assess perceptions, delay gratification, participate socially, and plan for the future
    • Preconscious – a system situated between the Conscious and Unconscious that comprises both logical, realistic, coherence ideas and irrational, fantastical, incoherent ideas
The above constructs and perspectives are often considered specific to Psychoanalytic Theories, but they are similar to more broadly accepted notions that are in use across many Well-Being Discourses, Identity Discourses, and Personal Agency Discourses:
  • Focal Consciousness – the aspects of immediate experience that are the focus of one’s attention
  • Fringe Consciousness – aspects of experience that were never the focus of consciousness, but that nonetheless are typically reported with high levels of precision and confidence
  • Implicit Behavioreither behavior that cannot be observed, measured, or monitored or behavior of which one is not consciously aware
  • Implicit Cognition – any nonconscious neural activity related to one’s actions in or interpretations of reality
  • Marginal Consciousness – aspects of immediate experience that are not the focus of consciousness, but of which one is nonetheless aware
  • Nonconscious – a variously defined term, the meanings of which can coincide with any of Subconscious, Unconscious, and/or Preconscious
Psychoanalytic Theories are most often focused on mental-health disorders with a core emphasis on identifying and interpreting sources of motivation. Key constructs include:
  • Defense Mechanisms (Escape Mechanisms) (Sigmund Freud, 1890s) – an unconscious reaction that is activated to protect the ego from psychic conflict. Defense Mechanisms include:
    • Avoidance (Avoidance Behavior)– a Defense Mechanism involving staying away from situations, objects, and individuals
    • Compartmentalization – separating incompatible thoughts and/or feelings into non-intersecting categories
    • Denial – a Defense Mechanism of negating reality – that is, unpleasant happenings are ignored or excluded from conscious awareness
    • Displacement – a Defense Mechanism in which feelings or behaviors are transferred from their original focus to another
    • Dissociation – no allowing threatening impulses, thoughts, and/or feelings to be connected to the rest of the psyche
    • Isolation – suppressing undesired thoughts and/or feelings by preventing them from being associated with other thoughts and feelings
    • Projection – a Defense Mechanism in which one attributes one’s actions or traits to other persons, groups, or contexts
    • Rationalization – a Defense Mechanism in which unacceptable impulses and actions are justified on seemingly logical bases
    • Regression – a Defense Mechanism in which on returns to a more immature level of mental, emotional, or behavioral functioning
    • Repression – the exclusion of unwanted experiences or impulses from conscious awareness, which is an element of multiple Defense Mechanisms
    • Sublimation – a Defense Mechanism in which unacceptable drives are channeled into acceptable modes of expression
    • Substitution – replacing inappropriate emotions or aims with appropriate ones, which is an element of multiple Defense Mechanisms
    • Transference – when attitudes or emotions that were originally associated with one person (who is usually not immediately present) are projected onto another person (who is immediately present)
  • Overdetermination (Multiple Determination) (Sigmund Freud, 1890s) – the suggestion that a single psychological issue may have multiple roots or contributing factors, and so addressing just one underlying factor may have little or no impact on the problematic issue
  • Pleasure Principle (Lustprinzip; Pleasure–Pain Principle) (Sigmund Freud, 1890s) – a principle of motivation within Psychoanalytic Theories associated with the Id. The Pleasure Principle is strongest in childhood, and it is grounded in the premise that humans are driven by desires for gratification and elimination. It is opposed by the Reality Principle (see below) in adulthood.
  • Prelogical Thinking – among Psychoanalytic Theories, an umbrella category to gather processes and habits typical of young children, when one’s mind is more oriented by the Pleasure Principle (see above) than the Reality Principle. It can occur at any time in life – during daydreaming or any manner of psychosis. Associated constructs include:
    • Paleological Thinking (Silvano Arieti, 1950s) – the type of Prelogical Thinking that occurs in young children, marked in particular by limited reasoned thought.
    • Primary Process (Primary Process Thinking) – among Psychoanalytic Theories, mental activities such as dreams and fantasies that are dominated by the Pleasure Principle but not directly available to consciousness
  • Reality Principle (Realitätsprinzip) (Sigmund Freud, 1890s) – a principle of motivation within Psychoanalytic Theories associated with the Ego. The Reality Principle governs adult life and counters the Pleasure Principle (see above) as it compels the individual to suppress, postpone, or modify urges to stay within situationally acceptable bounds of activity.
Among the many schools of psychoanalysis, major branches include:
  • Classical Psychoanalysis (Freudian Psychoanalysis; Orthodox Psychoanalysis) (Sigmund Freud, 1890s) – interpretations of Psychoanalytic Theories and associated approaches to therapy that are consistent with Freud’s emphases and procedures – in particular, aligning with the foundational principle that the route to restructuring one’s personality is through developing insight into one’s unconscious life. That is, Classical Psychoanalysis is oriented by the conviction that patients can be cured by bringing unconscious thoughts and motivations to awareness, a major component of which is the release of repressed emotions and experiences.
  • Neo-Freudian – an umbrella term that applies to psychoanalytic theories and practices that are rooted in Classical Psychoanalysis, but that depart in significant ways – most commonly, an increased emphasis on socio-cultural elements of experience over biological impulses
In terms of more fine-grained distinctions among schools of psychoanalysis, the following are particularly prominent:
  • Ego Psychology (Sigmund Freud, Anna Freud; 1910s) – grounded in S. Freud’s ego–id–super-ego model, efforts at diagnosing and ameliorating pathologies focus on strengthening the ego so that it can better cope with the pressures of the id, super-ego, and external world.
  • Object Relations Theory (Sándor Ferenczi; 1910s) – a perspective that suggests adult personality and adult relationships are shaped by family experiences while an infant. Those experiences become “objects” that the adult later unconsciously uses to interpret and predict others’ actions.
  • Jungian Psychology (Analytic Psychology; Analytical Psychology) (Carl Jung, 1920s) – both a psychoanalytical theory and psychotherapeutic approach. Like most Psychoanalytic Theories, Jungian Psychology emphasizes the importance of unconscious processes to personality, but it is distinguished by its emphasis on philosophical values, archetypical symbols (see below), and achievement of creative balance of “tension systems” (e.g., introversion vs. extraversion, rational vs. irrational – see Psychological Functions, under Personality Types Theories). Associated constructs include:
    • Collective Unconscious (Carl Jung, 1920s) – a construct from Psychoanalytic Theories that suggests that all humans have access to the inherited accumulation of primitive human experience, which manifests itself in dreams, myths, religions, and so on
    • Jungian Archetypes (Carl Jung, 1930s) – a set of images and themes suggested to have universal, trans-cultural meanings as they appear in art, religion, literature, and dreams. These archetypes are proposed to derive from the “collective unconscious,” a part of the mind associated with the inherited structure of the brain (as thus asserted to be common to all humans)
  • Self Psychology (Heinz Kohut, 1960s) – privileges the patient’s subjective experience, and thus concerned mainly with the patient’s point of view as it aims to bring elements of subjective experience into sufficient focus to enable transformation
  • Interpersonal Psychoanalysis (Harry Stack Sullivan; 1950s) – asserts that knowledge of a patient’s interactions with others provides insights into causes and cures of mental disorders
  • Relational Psychoanalysis (Stephen A. Mitchell; 1980s) – focuses on the patient’s relationships with others – real and imagined – in interpreting disorders and structuring therapies
Psychoanalytic Theories have been applied more broadly than to individual personalities. Associated discourses include:
  • Psychohistory (Historical Psychoanalysis) – using Psychoanalytic Theories to examine and interpret past persons, events, movements, and cultures


Psychoanalytic Theories have been subject to extensive and extreme criticisms. Early versions were often seen to be founded on too little robust research, and occasionally shown to be based on fabrications. Over the past century, leading thinkers inside and outside the human and social sciences have regularly labeled Psychoanalytic Theories as “pseudoscience,” based on concerns that the theories are not only unsupported by available evidence, but falsifiable. These things said, the fact remains that many of its constructs have worked their ways into everyday belief.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

Sigmund Freud; Carl Gustav Jung; Harry Stack Sullivan; Jacques Lacan

Status as a Theory of Learning

With their core foci on individuals making sense of and functioning in the world, Psychoanalytic Theories can be justly described as theories of learning.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

With their foci on understanding and affecting (through therapy) individual psyches, Psychoanalytic Theories can be construed as theories of teaching, focused principally on addressing pathologies and helping individuals to be open to new interpretations of their past and current experiences.

Status as a Scientific Theory

Most Psychoanalytic Theories satisfy at least some of our criteria for scientific theories, although concerns about strength of evidence and falsifiability of claims are regularly voiced.


  • Avoidance (Avoidance Behavior)
  • Classical Psychoanalysis (Orthodox Psychoanalysis)
  • Collective Unconscious
  • Compartmentalization
  • Conscious
  • Defense Mechanisms (Escape Mechanisms)
  • Denial
  • Displacement
  • Dissociation
  • Dynamical Model
  • Economic Model
  • Ego
  • Ego Psychology
  • Focal Consciousness
  • Freudian Psychoanalysis
  • Fringe Consciousness
  • Id
  • Implicit Behavior
  • Implicit Cognition
  • Interpersonal Psychoanalysis
  • Isolation
  • Jungian Archetypes
  • Jungian Psychology (Analytic Psychology; Analytical Psychology)
  • Marginal Consciousness
  • Neo-Freudian
  • Nonconscious
  • Object Relations Theory
  • Overdetermination (Multiple Determination)
  • Paleological Thinking
  • Pleasure Principle (Lustprinzip; Pleasure–Pain Principle)
  • Preconscious
  • Prelogical Thinking
  • Primary Process (Primary Process Thinking)
  • Projection
  • Psychic Energy (Mental Energy)
  • Psychohistory (Historical Psychoanalysis)
  • Rationalization
  • Reality Principle (Realitätsprinzip)
  • Regression
  • Relational Psychoanalysis
  • Repression
  • Self Psychology
  • Structural Model (Structural Approach; Structural Hypothesis; Structural Theory)
  • Subconscious
  • Sublimation
  • Substitution
  • Super-Ego
  • Topographic Model (Descriptive Approach; Systematic Approach; Topographic Hypothesis)
  • Transference
  • Unconscious
  • Unconscious Mind

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2024). “Psychoanalytic Theories” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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