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Psychoanalysis, Behaviorism and Learning


Psychoanalysis, developed by Sigmund Freud in the early 20th century, proposes that human behavior and personality are governed largely by innate, biological drives and instincts that often operate unconsciously (Caviglia, 2021). Key psychoanalytic concepts include the roles of the id, ego, and superego in shaping thoughts and guiding actions. The id is present from birth and operates according to the pleasure principle, seeking to maximize pleasure and avoid pain or discomfort. The id runs on basic drives related to hunger, sex, aggression and irrational impulses. As toddlers begin interacting with the external world, the ego emerges to balance the unchecked impulses of the id with the constraints and demands of reality. The ego adheres to the reality principle, learning to delay gratification and control id impulses to function within societal norms (Caviglia, 2021). By age 5, children develop the superego through identifying with parental figures and internalizing their rules and moral standards. The superego acts as one’s conscience, enforcing restraint over impulses that go against societal mores. Psychoanalysis proposes that anxiety arises when the drives of the id come into conflict with the ego or superego. To cope with this distress, people unconsciously employ defense mechanisms like repression (blocking threatening impulses from awareness) and projection (attributing one’s own unacceptable thoughts or feelings onto another person) (Caviglia, 2021).

Such defenses protect the conscious mind from unconscious conflicts the individual cannot reconcile or confront directly. Prominent defense mechanisms include denial, displacement, intellectualization, reaction formation, and sublimation, as Leuzinger-Bohleber et al. (2020) state. In psychoanalysis, personality and disorders arise from conflicts among the agencies of the mind – especially clashes between conscious mores and unconscious drives from childhood. Treatment involves bringing the underlying roots of this dissonance to light through analysis of ego defenses, dream symbolism, parapraxes, transferences etc. In essence, psychoanalysis explains human motivation and behavior in terms of innate biological drives, unconscious conflicts, early childhood experiences, and defense mechanisms that emerge in response to anxiety-provoking internal struggles between drive expression and social constraints (Leuzinger-Bohleber et al., 2020). Support comes from observed patterns in defenses like repression. However aspects like psychosexual stages remain difficult to empirically validate, as Caviglia (2021) highlight. Still, psychoanalysis profoundly shaped clinical thought by proposing ideas like developmental origins of adult behaviors, presence of an inaccessible unconscious governing force over actions, and addressing distress by bringing such unconscious processes to light through therapy. Its vision fundamentally changed understandings of human nature and spawned more empirical yet conceptually-related perspectives.

Behaviorism and Learning

Behaviorism is a theory of learning that focuses solely on observable behaviors rather than internal mental states or emotions (Henriques & Michalski, 2020). The main concepts of behaviorism are that all behaviors are acquired through conditioning, reinforcement shapes behavior, and the frequency of reinforcement impacts how behaviors are learned. Specifically, classical conditioning involves associating a neutral stimulus with an unconditioned stimulus so that the neutral stimulus alone elicits a conditioned response (Henriques & Michalski, 2020). For example, in Pavlov’s classic experiments with dogs, the dogs were conditioned to salivate at the sound of a bell through its repeat pairing with receiving food. Over time, the dogs began to salivate at the sound of the bell even before receiving any food. This demonstrated how a neutral stimulus can become linked with an unconditioned response through conditioning. Operant conditioning, on the other hand, involves using punishments and reinforcements to increase or decrease voluntary behaviors. B.F. Skinner famously used various reinforcement schedules, including continuous, fixed-ratio, variable ratio schedules in shaping complex behaviors in pigeons and rats through operant conditioning principles. For instance, by providing food each time a rat pressed a lever, the rat learned to repeatedly press the lever for rewards (Vladescu & Marano, 2022).

There is significant empirical evidence from animal research supporting the behavioral learning principles of classical and operant conditioning. These findings have informed many applications for modifying human behavior as well. For instance, a number of studies have successfully used reinforcement techniques rooted in operant conditioning to promote positive behaviors and improve outcomes for individuals with autism, ADHD, oppositional defiant disorder and other conditions (Vladescu & Marano, 2022). However, behaviorism has been critiqued by some for being too simplistic in its focus strictly on observable behaviors and failing to account for the many cognitive, emotional and social factors that also influence behavior and learning. The theory emphasizes external over internal causes of behavior and does not directly address people’s subjective experiences, perceptions, expectations and thought patterns that contribute to behavior. Additionally, while conditioning principles can explain the acquisition of simple behaviors, some scientists argue that behaviorism cannot adequately explain the development of complex human behaviors like personality, morality, abstract reasoning, altruism and other higher mental processes (Vladescu & Marano, 2022). For instance, developmental psychologist Jerome Kagan has critiqued radical behaviorism for not clearly delineating between Pavlovian conditioning and operant conditioning, using outdated animal research models, and overstating the impact of conditioning while ignoring the role of biology in personality development. Ultimately, behaviorism makes an invaluable contribution to our understanding of basic learning processes but it provides an incomplete picture of human behavior on its own.


Caviglia G. (2021). Working on dreams, from neuroscience to psychotherapy. Research in psychotherapy (Milano). 24(2), 540.

Leuzinger-Bohleber, M., Solms, M., & Arnold, S. E. (Eds.). (2020). Outcome research and the future of psychoanalysis: Clinicians and researchers in dialogue. Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.

Vladescu, J. C., & Marano, K. E. (2022). Behavioral skills training. In J. K. Luiselli, R. M. Gardner, F. L. Bird, & H. Maguire (Eds.), Organizational behavior management approaches for intellectual and developmental disabilities (pp. 69–99). Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.

Henriques, G., & Michalski, J. (2020). Defining Behavior and its Relationship to the Science of Psychology. Integrative Psychological and Behavioral Science, 54(2), 328.


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