Top 5 Psychology Theories from Sigmund Freud

Whether we realize it or not, Freud’s psychology theories have shaped Western culture through dreams, the Freudian slip and the human psyche.

By Cari Shane
May 10, 2023 9:00 PMSep 5, 2023 3:20 PM
Depiction of Psychologist Sigmund Freud
(Credit: AtlasbyAtlas Studio/Shutterstock)


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This article was originally published on May 6, 2022.

When we tell our friends about a crazy dream we had about them, or when we use terms like ego and free association, we are referencing Sigmund Freud.

More than 80 years after his death, Freud’s theories about the human unconscious and how it affects our behavior, continue to pervade Western culture. Freud’s groundbreaking psychology theories, introduced to the world at the turn of the 20th century, changed the way we think about the human mind.

His theories have not only impacted psychological theory, but how we conduct ourselves in our daily lives, family lives and work lives.

Freud’s Psychoanalytic Theory

Terms like dream analysis, free association, the Oedipus complex, the Freudian slip and the-ever present ego, as well as id and superego, are woven into so much of what we do, think and say.

1. Dream Analysis

We frequently talk about our dreams in modern society. If you Google “dream quotes,” there seems to be an endless supply. From best-selling author Erma Bombeck’s quips, “It takes a lot of courage to show your dreams to someone else,” to American rapper and actor, Tupac Shakur’s lyrics, “Reality is wrong. Dreams are for real.” But it is Freud who reveals what a dream is — an alternate reality we experience when we sleep.

“The interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind,” writes Freud.

Freud’s theories on dreams and his book, Interpretation of Dreams, were revolutionary. Prior to its publication in 1899, scientists believed dreams were “meaningless.” Freud believed that dreams were instead “disguised fulfillments of repressed infantile wishes.”

While popular culture took Freud’s theories and applied meanings — as in dreaming that you are flying means you are subconsciously thinking about ambition — Freud never wrote a dictionary of dreams. In fact, he shied away from such specifics. He insisted that while dreams are symbolic, they are specific to the person and cannot be generally defined to fit all of society.

Read More: Do All Dreams Have Meaning?

2. Free Association

Freud’s dream theories fed directly into his theory of free association. Based on the theory that dreams and their meanings are personal, Freud let his patients interpret dreams themselves, instead of telling them his own opinion. He called his process free association.

With each new feature of a dream during a psychoanalysis session, Freud would suggest to his patients to relax and — to use a modern term — spitball what they believed to mean. Patients would throw out ideas as they came to them, no matter how trivial.

Read More: The Things Your Dreams Reveal About Yourself

3. Freudian Slip

One of the most popular phrases from Freud’s theories is the Freudian slip. He believed that the “slip of the tongue” — saying something we don’t mean to say — reveals what we are thinking, subconsciously.

Freud debuted his theory of the Freudian slip in his 1901 book, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, and suggested that these verbal (and sometimes written) mistakes were rooted in “unconscious urges” and “unexpressed desires.”

Further, Freud believed that failing to remember something — like someone’s address or name — was linked to our need or desire to repress it. Modern science has yet to explain why Freudian slips happen.

Read More: What Happens in Your Brain When You Make Memories?

4. Oedipus Complex, Penis Envy and Womb Envy

Experts consider the Oedipus complex, a psychosexual theory, as Freud’s most contentious theory. According to Freud, it’s the unconscious desire that begins during the phallic stage of development, between the ages of three to six. A child feels a sexual pull for their opposite-sex parent and jealously for their same-sex parent.

Popular culture uses the Oedipus complex as an umbrella term to represent a phase for both boys and girls. But, Freud postulated that boys experienced the Oedipus complex and girls experienced the Electra complex. This is when a girl becomes unconsciously sexually attached to her father and hostile toward her mother.

Freud believed that the Oedipus complex was “the central phenomenon of the sexual period of early childhood,” but there’s no scientific evidence to support his theory.

“Penis envy” grew from Freud’s Oedipal complex theory, and Freud published it in 1908. Freud believed that a woman’s realization that she does not have a penis leads to an intense envy, which is at the root of female behavior.

“Freud claimed that the only way they could overcome this penis envy was to have a child of their own – even going as far as to suggest they wanted a male child, in their efforts to gain a penis,” writes the British Psychological Society. Psychoanalyst Karen Horney, a contemporary of Freud’s, and whose theories led to the feminist psychology movement, believed penis envy was purely symbolic.

Horney postulated that rather than being envious of the phallus itself, penis envy was more about a woman’s status in society and a “longing for the social prestige and position that men experience. Thus, women felt inferior because of the freedom and social status they lacked because of their gender, not because of their literal lack of the phallus,” writes the British Psychological Society.

Further, Horney coins the term, “womb envy” and explains that men are negatively affected by their inability to bear children and envious of the “biological functions of the female sex,” including breastfeeding and pregnancy.

Read More: What Your Attachment Style Says About Your Relationship

5. Ego, Id and Superego

Some consider the human psyche as the most enduring psychoanalytic theory of Freud’s career. Freud published his personality theory in 1923, which hypothesizes that the human psyche is divided into three parts — the ego, the id and the superego. And they all develop at different stages of our lives. It’s important to note that Freud did not believe these were physical entities in our brains, but rather “systems.”

While the word ego is thrown around in popular culture much more than id and superego, the three are tied together. According to Freud, the id is the most primitive part of the human psyche. It’s where our sexual and aggressive drives are based. The super-ego is our moral compass, and the ego is the referee, if you will, between the pulls of the id and superego.

Read More: Determining the Origin of Our Moral Compass

Freud's Psychology Theories Remain in Our Subconscious and Conscious

The next time you awake from a weird dream that you can recount in great detail to your best friend, who then fires back with, “Oh, snakes? That dream is totally about penis envy.” Or, your boss yells at you, and you mutter under your breath, “ego much.” Or, you kill time on a long car ride and throw out words and free association — you have Freud to thank.

And, if you’re looking for a reason to celebrate Freud and all his contributions to our vernacular, pop culture and therapy, consider toasting to the father of psychoanalysis. He was born on May 6, 1856.

Read More: What Can You Do With A Psychology Degree?

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