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MS in Psychology Insight: Understanding the Psychodynamic Approach

Study alongside Walden University students with this required reading taken from the MS in Psychology degree course Themes and Theories of Psychology.

You don’t have to be a psychology major to have heard of Sigmund Freud. His name is perhaps the most well-known in the entire field of psychology. And that’s for good reason. His studies and theories revolutionized the way we think of psychology, and they continue to influence our understanding of psychology to this day.

In the 100-plus years since Freud first developed his theories, many other psychologists have built upon his approach. Taken together, this field of psychology is known as psychodynamics, which is explained in Saul McLeod’s article “Psychodynamic Approach.”1 This excellent primer on psychodynamics is one of numerous texts studied as part of the Themes and Theories of Psychology course taken by MS in Psychology students at Walden University.

MS in Psychology Insight: Understanding the Psychodynamic Approach

In “Psychodynamic Approach,” McLeod describes psychodynamics in the following manner:

The psychodynamic approach includes all the theories in psychology that see human functioning based upon the interaction of drives and forces within the person, particularly unconscious, and between the different structures of the personality.

Freud’s psychoanalysis was the original psychodynamic theory, but the psychodynamic approach as a whole includes all theories that were based on his ideas, e.g., Jung (1964), Adler (1927), and Erickson (1950).

The words psychodynamic and psychoanalytic are often confused. Remember that Freud’s theories were psychoanalytic, whereas the term “psychodynamic” refers to both his theories and those of his followers. Freud’s psychoanalysis is both a theory and therapy.

Sigmund Freud, writing between the 1890s and the 1930s, developed a collection of theories which have formed the basis of the psychodynamic approach to psychology. His theories are clinically derived (i.e., based on what his patients told him during therapy). The psychodynamic therapist would usually be treating the patient for depression- or anxiety-related disorders.

McLeod goes on to outline the basic history of psychodynamic theory and research, providing the following important events:

  • Anna O, a patient of Dr. Joseph Breuer (Freud's mentor and friend), suffered from hysteria.
  • In 1895, Breuer and his assistant, Sigmund Freud, wrote a book, Studies on Hysteria. In it, they explained their theory: Every hysteria is the result of a traumatic experience, one that cannot be integrated into the person's understanding of the world. The publication establishes Freud as “the father of psychoanalysis.”
  • By 1896, Freud had found the key to his own system, naming it psychoanalysis. In it, he had replaced hypnosis with “free association.”
  • In 1900, Freud published his first major work, The Interpretation of Dreams, which established the importance of the psychoanalytical movement.
  • In 1902, Freud founded the Psychological Wednesday Society, later transformed into the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society.
  • As the organization grew, Freud established an inner circle of devoted followers, the so-called “Committee” (including Sàndor Ferenczi, Hanns Sachs, Otto Rank, Karl Abraham, Max Eitingon, and Ernest Jones).
  • Freud and his colleagues came to Massachusetts in 1909 to lecture on their new methods of understanding mental illness. Those in attendance included some of the country's most important intellectual figures, such as William James, Franz Boas, and Adolf Meyer.
  • In the years following the visit to the United States, the International Psychoanalytic Association was founded. Freud designated Carl Jung as his successor to lead the association, and chapters were created in major cities in Europe and elsewhere. Regular meetings or congresses were held to discuss the theory, therapy, and cultural applications of the new discipline.
  • Jung's study on schizophrenia, The Psychology of Dementia Praecox, led him into collaboration with Sigmund Freud.
  • Jung's close collaboration with Freud lasted until 1913. Jung had become increasingly critical of Freud's exclusively sexual definition of libido and incest. The publication of Jung's Wandlungen und Symbole der Libido (known in English as The Psychology of the Unconscious) led to a final break.
  • Following his emergence from this period of crisis, Jung developed his own theories systematically under the name of analytical psychology. Jung's concepts of the collective unconscious and the archetypes led him to explore religion in the East and West, myths, alchemy, and later flying saucers.
  • Anna Freud (Freud's daughter) became a major force in British psychology, specializing in the application of psychoanalysis to children. Among her best known works is The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense (1936).

Today, many psychologists continue to work in psychodynamics. And while individual researchers and theorists often diverge on specifics, they do adhere to the underpinnings of the theory as originally developed by Freud. These underpinnings can be expressed as four assumptions, which are, as McLeod writes:

  • Our behavior and feelings are powerfully affected by unconscious motives.
  • Our behavior and feelings as adults (including psychological problems) are rooted in our childhood experiences.
  • All behavior has a cause (usually unconscious), even slips of the tongue. Therefore all behavior is determined.
  • Personality is made up of three parts (i.e., tripartite): the id, ego, and Superego.

Together, these assumptions have proven to be a profound and useful way of thinking about human psychology—which is why they’re studied to this day.

How Can You Learn More About Psychology?

The importance of psychodynamics in the study of psychology cannot be overstated. However, when you enroll in Walden’s master’s in psychology program, psychodynamics is just one of the many topics you can explore. In fact, Walden’s master’s program in psychology offers several specializations, allowing you to focus on the area that best fits your professional goals, whether that includes a career in psychology or one of the many other careers that routinely require professionals with advanced psychology degrees.

In addition to allowing you to tailor your master’s degree in psychology to meet your goals, Walden also offers you the advantages of online learning. What advantages? For one, an online master’s in psychology program doesn’t require you to travel to a campus, giving you the ability to study from home instead. Another is that online psychology courses allow you to attend your master’s in psychology classes at whatever time of day works best for you.

Psychology is a dynamic and fascinating field that influences the way we think about ourselves and our society. And thanks to Walden’s online learning environment, earning a degree in psychology is more possible than ever before.

Walden University is an accredited institution offering an MS in Psychology degree program online. Expand your career options and earn your degree using a convenient, flexible learning platform that fits your busy life.


Walden University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission,