Replacing Freud

24 February 2021

What’s the latest scientific insight about unconscious beliefs, desires, and motivations? Do contemporary experimental psychologists do any better than Freud? Could anyone do worse? On this week’s show we’re asking: "What Has Replaced Freud?"


If, like me, you’re not a huge fan of Freud, you might think it’s a good thing that Freud has now been replaced. But to give credit where credit is due, Freud did popularize the idea that we don’t always know why we do the things we do.


To be clear, this was not at all a new idea. The ancient Epicurean philosopher Lucretius believed we have an unconscious fear of death that motivates us to act in irrational ways. In the nineteenth century, Thomas Huxley compared conscious thought to the causally inert steam whistle of a locomotive, contributing nothing to the movement of the train. That same century in Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche described our so-called “motives” for action as “mere surface phenomena of consciousness,” byproducts of the real, underlying causes of our action, which remain hidden to us. 


By the time Freud came along in the twentieth century, the idea that we have unconscious beliefs and desires had already been explored by many thinkers. Freud’s contribution was to bring these ideas more into mainstream consciousness (if you'll pardon the pun!). Nowadays everyone is familiar with the idea that there’s a lot we don’t know about ourselves, there are parts of ourselves that we cannot consciously access. We can thank Freud for that.


Perhaps we should give Freud even a bit more credit. Not only did he popularize the concept of the unconscious, but, ironically, his research also led to ideas about the unconscious gaining a new kind of of scientific respectability. I say “ironically” because Freud’s own theories are not exactly scientific… Boys want to kill their fathers and sleep with their mothers, women wish they had penises and envy men for that reason… There isn’t a shred of evidence for many of Freud’s claims, and that’s precisely why he’s fallen out of favor now.


Psychology, like any other science, is not static. Scientific theories that were once thought to be true are later proven to be false. We used to think the Earth was flat and at the center of the universe, but now we know it’s round and revolves around the sun. Chemists used to think there was a fire-like substance called phlogiston that is released in combustion, but we know now about oxidation. And biologists used to think that maggots appeared spontaneously out of rotting food; now we know that flies lay eggs. 


Science evolves and changes. We should not expect every theory of the twentieth century to hold up in the twenty-first century. And when theories are refuted and replaced, it doesn't show that they weren't scientific to begin with.


The problem, however, is that Freud’s findings were never scientific in the first place. For a theory to be considered scientific, it has to be arrived at using the scientific method. Hypotheses have to be tested using empirical evidence or observations. 


Moreover, the findings have to be replicable. What does this mean? Let’s say you’re conducting an experiment: to see how people’s judgments are influenced by factors they are not aware of, and you get a certain result—that holding a warm cup of coffee leads people to develop positive opinions about a stranger, whereas holding a cold drink leads them to develop negative opinions. 


This is actually a famous experiment by contemporary psychologist John Bargh. It sounds interesting, right? The problem is that when other psychologists tried to replicate this experiment, they could never get quite the same result as Bargh. You can see why this would be a problem—if the experiment is not replicable, you’d have to question its scientific legitimacy. You’d have serious doubts that there was ever any real effect discovered about how beverage temperatures unconsciously affect our perceptions about strangers we meet.


Bargh’s experiments in “social priming” are not the only ones that have failed to replicate. In fact, contemporary experimental psychology is experiencing what’s being called a “replication crisis,” and it has hit theories that posit unconscious influences on our behavior the most.


So, we have to ask whether what replaced Freud is faring any better than Freud. It should be noted, of course, that Freud does not have the problem that his experiments failed to replicate. But that’s because he never conducted any scientific experiments in the first place, so there’s nothing to even try to replicate. And, despite the replication crisis, there’s still plenty of psychological science that does hold up. We should not throw out the baby with the bathwater. 


Our guest this week is Stanford’s Blakey Vermeule, author of The New Unconscious: A Literary Guided Tour. She shares some of these worries about the psychological theories that have replaced Freud’s, and how much of their experimental findings have failed to replicate. She is also worried about their underlying economic framework, which focuses on consumer choices and market driven incentives for behavior.


Join us for what’s going to be a fascinating conversation!

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay 

Comments (6)'s picture


Sunday, February 28, 2021 -- 12:09 PM

Fred Crews is a brilliant man

Fred Crews is a brilliant man who is given to violent enthusiasms and antagonisms. Having swallowed Freud, hook, line, and sinker, he then reacted against applying the Viennese Tweedledum's ideas to the understanding of literature (i.e. Marlow's trip up the Congo River is "really" Conrad's imaginative trip up the birth canal to a return to the womb). Freud argued against the over-emphasis of scientific positivism and rationalism in the treatment first of "hysteria," and then to mental illness generally, and he presented his methods and theories as "scientific." But they do not meet stringent criteria for the scientific method, and have been abandoned by later generations of psychologists, who assert that their results are more scientifically valid, and fail to confirm Freud's ideas. Some of these, like B.F. Skinner, have in turn been discredited by their successors. Psychology, it would seem, is imperfect, still in the process of evolving, and perhaps will never be fully scientific.

I heard Crews talk about his lengthy attack on Freud at a Berkeley bookstore a few years ago, and bought his book, but his animosity against Freud, whom he portrays as a fraud and cheat at every stage of his career, tired me after a few chapters, and I quit. He attacks Freud's character, trying to show that Freud's flaws and dishonesty refute his methods and theories. But without heroizing Freud, I find some of his ideas useful in understanding myself. Subsequent non-Freudians have also helped me, so I'm not against them either. Perhaps the lesson is: "the more theories and tools for understanding human nature and human behavior, the better."

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Thursday, March 4, 2021 -- 5:14 PM

Freud may be dead, but

Freud may be dead, but science isn't in too great a shape either. The p value crisis, lack of repetitions and loss of public confidence has curable patients seeking quackery. There are still some theories that do help. Cognitive behavioral therapy for certain mental illness is a good example.

Since Freud didn't have a scientific model, science can't necessarily replace his model with a better one. The current models aren't telling as compelling a story. That will be frustrating for humans. Some may prefer stories they understand vs. a science that says we just don't know. In either case it is best to listen to data and with some skepticism ... experts until we get a clearer picture.

These are Kahneman's own words - from Thinking, Fast and Slow.

'System 1 and System 2 are so central to the story I tell in this book that I must make it absolutely clear that they are fictitious characters. '

The new models are better than Freud because they don't pretend to be. Enough with the pretending already. I'm all in for uncertainty until I can get results that repeat. Even if I don't live to see that day.

A couple good reads that have helped me on this are:

Kandel, Eric R. (2018), The Disordered Mind: What Unusual Brains Tell Us About Ourselves, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, ISBN 9780374287863.

Barrett, Lisa F (2017), How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, ISBN 0544133315.

Barrett also has a more accessible book out last year... but it doesn't tell her story which is basically the same as Kandel's ... they both are trained psychotherapists who turned to neuroscience to retrain (both multiple times) to find answers. Both are very supportive of modern therapy, but not outside the data.

We are on the precipice of a revolution in our understanding of the brain, human body and previously squishy biology all yielding to imaging and modelling that will tell a story much better than Freud ever dreamed. We just aren't there yet.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Friday, March 5, 2021 -- 2:25 PM

I have invoked Searle before.

I have invoked Searle before. His notion about unconsciousness seemed to me eminently adept. One more time, then.
'Unconsciousness' is nothingness. When one is unconscious, one is out of it: unaware and helpless. I don't know how to say this better. Freud's terminology lost traction years ago. I can't see why it is still an issue...

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, March 15, 2021 -- 1:32 PM

Maybe, superconscious---or,

Maybe, superconscious---or, metaconscious? No? I guess not. Nor, had you not guessed, was I a fan of Freud. It seems to me he made it up as he went. Still, in fairness, he made us try harder TO think better, doing the best we can, with what we've got and what we know( those last twenty-odd words, mine from my own prose). Science, even pseudo-science, advances in fits-and-starts. I have a friend who began his life interested in Physics, is ending it in Neuroscience, and may go, kicking and screaming....

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Tuesday, March 30, 2021 -- 6:44 AM

After reading other comments

After reading other comments here, I reconsidered those and my own musings, deciding, on balance, to adopt an egalitarian stance. Freud's time was his time. Those who scorned him could have not known how he thought what he thought, because no one can know what we think the way we do. That is just how it is. And, who knows, had there been no Freud, there might have been someone else who espoused his dogma/doctrine. There is always supercession.
It need not always, or in all ways mean replacement. As Dennett has avowed, we will make mistakes. All else equal, we will learn from them...

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, April 5, 2021 -- 1:43 PM

Was looking for this post

Was looking for this post because of the pictorial. Reminds me of a recent, annoying ploy by an insurance company. You may have seen it. A man is driving, in an unidentifiable convertible, singing about making money. Lots of it. The hood ornament on the car is also singing. It looks like your pictorial. But it moves. And sings. About making money. The entire notion is, of course, bogus. The company wants us to buy their insurance. They will make lots of money, not us. This is how marketing is done.

One more lawn mowing season is upon us. My 1977 lawn mower is older than the children of most of my neighbors. I'm pretty sure it will be running after I am no longer. It cost me $50. Had I bought replacements, say, every three years, I could not calculate the outlay. But, I would not have made money---only wasted it. Everyone in business relies upon obsolescence. Much of that is planned. The company that built my mower started n 1971.. They are going strong. We only make money when we are allowed to do so.

My wife has always bought smart phones made by one company. They have announced they will get out of that business. Reason: they cannot make money from smart phones. Reason: their product is too good, does not blow up; break down; fall apart:; or wear out, absent extreme prejudice. Others rely on the planned obsolescence motive to mine the money. My response is to try harder, think better, and do the best I can with what I have and what I know. Anyone want to join me?