Psychoanalytic Theories


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 the actions and beliefs that are not mediated (and often not moderated) by the conscious mind. Psychoanalytic Theories are most often focused on mental-health disorders. Some of these theories’ core constructs are embedded in Western culture, including formal education. Prominent examples include the notions that (1) the mind is split into conscious and unconscious, (2) behavior and cognition are in large part determined by the unconscious, (3) and efforts to bring learners to an awareness of unconscious motivations and biases can trigger one or more Defense Mechanisms:
  • Defense Mechanisms (Sigmund Freud, 1890s) – an unconscious reaction that is activated to protect the ego from psychic conflict. Defense Mechanisms include:
    • Avoidance – a Defense Mechanism involving staying away from situations, objects, and individuals
    • 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
    • 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
Among the many schools of psychoanalysis, the following are particularly prominent:
  • Freudian Psychoanalysis (Sigmund Freud; 1890s) – 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
  • 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; 1930s) – maintains that the need for attachment is the bedrock of one’s sense of self, and so focuses on one’s childhood relations with others (especially the mother) in seeking causes of and treatments for psychological disorders
  • 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 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
  • Defense Mechanisms
  • Denial
  • Displacement
  • Ego Psychology
  • Freudian Psychoanalysis
  • Interpersonal Psychoanalysis
  • Object Relations Theory
  • Projection
  • Rationalization
  • Regression
  • Relational Psychoanalysis
  • Repression
  • Self Psychology
  • Sublimation
  • Substitution

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2021). “Psychoanalytic Theories” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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