Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), the founder of psychoanalysis, developed various models to explain the human personality throughout his literary career.

In this article we will analyze Freud’s 5 theories on personality : the topographical, the dynamic, the economic, the genetic and the structural.

The 5 Personality Theories of Sigmund Freud

Although there are certain contradictions between the personality models created by Freud, in general they can be conceived as complementary theories or as updates and developments of several fundamental concepts, for example drives or defence mechanisms. Let’s go over what each of these theories consists of.

1. Topographic model

Freud developed the topographic model during the first stage of his career. It was originally described in one of his key works: “The Interpretation of Dreams”, published in 1900. This theory of personality is also known as the “First Topic”.

The topographic model divides the mind into three “regions”: the unconscious, the preconscious and the conscious . In each of these places, which must be understood symbolically, we would find different psychological contents and processes.

The unconscious is the deepest level of the mind. In it are hidden thoughts, impulses, memories and fantasies that are very difficult to access from the consciousness. This part of the mind is directed by the principle of pleasure and by the primary processes (condensation and displacement), and psychic energy circulates freely.

The preconscious mind acts as a link between the other two sections . It is made up of memory traces in verbal format; in this case it is possible to know the contents from the consciousness through the focusing of attention.

Finally, consciousness is understood as a system with an intermediary role between the deepest regions of the psyche and the outside world. Cognition, motility and interaction with the environment depend on the conscious mind, which is governed by the principle of reality rather than pleasure, in the same way as the preconscious.

2. Dynamic model

The concept “dynamic” refers to a conflict between two forces that occurs in the mind: the impulses (“instinctive” forces), which seek gratification, and the defences, which seek to inhibit the former. From the result of this interaction arise the psychological processes, which suppose a more or less satisfactory or adaptive resolution of the conflicts.

In this model Freud conceives the psychopathological symptoms as commitment formations that allow a partial gratification of the impulses while causing discomfort, acting as a punishment against the person’s behavior. In this way mental health would depend largely on the quality of the defences and the self-sanctions.

3. Economic model

The fundamental concept of the economic model of personality is that of “drive”, which can be defined as an impulse that favours the person to seek a specific end. These impulses have a biological origin (in particular they are related to body tension) and their objective is the suppression of unpleasant physiological states.

Within this model we actually find three different theories, developed between 1914 and 1920 in the books “Introduction to Narcissism” and “Beyond the Pleasure Principle”. Initially, Freud distinguished between the sexual or reproductive drive , which leads to the survival of the species, and that of self-preservation, focused on that of the individual himself.

Later Freud added to this theory the distinction between object drives, which are directed towards external objects, and narcissistic drives, which are focused on oneself. Finally, he proposed the dichotomy between the drive for life, which would include the two previous ones, and the drive for death, which was harshly criticised by many of this author’s followers.

4. Genetic model

The best known Freudian theory of personality is the genetic model, in which the five phases of psychosexual development are described. According to this theory human behaviour is largely governed by the search for gratification (or discharge of tension) in relation to the erogenous zones of the body, the importance of which depends on age.

During the first year of life, the oral phase takes place, in which behavior is centered in the mouth; thus, babies tend to bite and suck on objects to investigate them and obtain pleasure. In the second year the main erogenous zone is the year, so children of this age are very focused on excretion; this is why Freud speaks of “anal phase”.

The next stage is the phallic phase, which occurs between 3 and 5 years; during this period the famous Oedipus and castration complexes occur. Between 6 years and puberty the libido is repressed and learning and cognitive development are prioritized (latency phase); finally, with adolescence comes the genital phase, which signals sexual maturity .

Psychopathology, more specifically neurosis, is understood as the result of the frustration of the satisfaction of the needs characteristic of these periods of development, or of the total or partial psychological fixation on one of them due to an excess of gratification during the critical stage.

5. Structural model

Freud’s theory of personality was proposed in 1923 in the book The Self and the Self . Like the genetic model, the structural one is particularly well known; in this case the separation of the mind into three instances that develop throughout childhood is highlighted: the Ego, the Self and the Overself . The conflicts between these would give rise to the psychopathological symptoms.

The most basic part of the mind is the Ego, composed of unconscious representations of the impulses related to sexuality and aggression, as well as mnemonic traces of the experiences of gratification of these impulses.

The Ego is conceived as a development of the It . This structure has a regulatory role in psychological life: it evaluates the ways of satisfying the impulses taking into account the demands of the environment, it works with both unconscious and conscious contents, and it is in this part of the mind where the defense mechanisms are exercised.

Finally, the Overself acts as a moral conscience, censoring certain mental contents, as a supervisor of the rest of the instances and as a model of conduct (that is, it assumes a kind of “ideal I”). This structure is formed through the internalisation of social norms , in which the Oedipus complex plays an essential role.