© 1998 by the American Psychological Association For personal use only--not for distribution.
The Scientific Legacy of Sigmund Freud Toward a Psychodynamically Informed Psychological Science Drew Westen Department of Psychiatry Harvard Medical School ABSTRACT Although commentators periodically declare that Freud is dead, his repeated burials lie on shaky grounds. Critics typically attack an archaic version of psychodynamic theory that most clinicians similarly consider obsolete. Central to contemporary psychodynamic theory is a series of propositions about (a) unconscious cognitive, affective, and motivational processes; (b) ambivalence and the tendency for affective and motivational dynamics to operate in parallel and produce compromise solutions; (c) the origins of many personality and social dispositions in childhood; (d) mental representations of the self, others, and relationships; and (e) developmental dynamics. An enormous body of research in cognitive, social, developmental, and personality psychology now supports many of these propositions. Freud's scientific legacy has implications for a wide range of domains in psychology, such as integration of affective and motivational constraints into connectionist models in cognitive science. Freud, like Elvis, has been dead for a number of years but continues to be cited with some regularity. Although the majority of clinicians report that they rely to some degree upon psychodynamic 1 principles in their work ( Pope, Tabachnick, & Keith-Spiegel, 1987 ), most researchers consider psychodynamic ideas to be at worst absurd and obsolete and at best irrelevant or of little scientific interest. In the lead article of a recent edition of Psychological Science, Crews (1996) arrived at a conclusion shared by many: "[T]here is literally nothing to be said, scientifically or therapeutically, to the advantage of the entire Freudian system or any of its component dogmas" (p. 63). Despite the explosion of empirical studies of unconscious cognitive processes (see, e.g., Greenwald, 1992 ; Kihlstrom, 1987 ; Schacter, 1992 ), few reference Freud; none cite any contemporary psychodynamic work; and in general, psychodynamic concepts are decreasingly represented in the major psychology journals ( Robins & Craik, 1994 ). The situation is similar in the popular media and in broader intellectual discourse. Publications ranging from Time to the New York Review of Books periodically publish Freud's intellectual obituary, with critics charging that Freud's ideas–such as his dual-instinct theory or his hypotheses about female personality development–are seriously out of date and without scientific merit (e.g., Crews, 1993 ). Many aspects of Freudian theory are indeed out of date, and they should be: Freud died in 1939, and he has been slow to undertake further revisions. His critics, however, are equally behind the times, attacking Freudian views of the 1920s as if they continue to have some currency in their original form. Psychodynamic theory and therapy have evolved considerably since 1939 when Freud's bearded
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countenance was last sighted in earnest. Contemporary psychoanalysts and psychodynamic therapists no longer write much about ids and egos, nor do they conceive of treatment for psychological disorders as an archaeological expedition in search of lost memories ( Aron, 1996 ; Gabbard, 1994 ; Horowitz, 1988 ; Kolb, Cooper, & Fishman, 1995 ; Mitchell, 1988 ; Wachtel, 1993 ). People do sometimes describe feelings or behaviors in therapy that conform remarkably to aspects of Freud's psychosexual theories (such as a patient of mine with erectile problems whose associations to a sexual encounter led to an image of having sex with his mother, followed by some unpleasant anal imagery)....