One of Freud’s major contributions to psychology was stage theory. At the time, Freud’s approach was unique and insightful. As a result, many other theorists have utilized stage theories to explain a variety of phenomena. However, one of the most influential and significant was Freud’s psychosexual development stages: oral, anal, phallic, latent, and genital (Friedman & Schustack, 2012; (“Freud,” n.d.). According to Freud, successful completion of each developmental stage was necessary for healthy personality development. Unsuccessful completion of any particular stage could result in maladjustment issues specific to that stage.
The first two stages of development are the oral and anal stages, which occur during infancy and toddlerhood, respectively. During the oral stage, infants are driven to fulfill oral desires in the form of nursing. In fact, an infant’s oral instinct is so strong they will put anything in their mouth. It is not uncommon for infants to put their hands, feet, toys, and blankets in their mouths. Further exacerbating their oral desires is the biological issue of teething wherein rubbing things against their gums relieves the pressure of baby teeth struggling to break through. However, upon weaning the baby is forced to transition from nursing to solid food. According to Freud, infants who experience difficulty with transitioning may become fixated in the oral stage resulting in an oral preoccupation. Examples of possible oral fixations including smoking, chewing, overeating, lollipops, excessively talking, or chewing on pencils.
The second stage in the sequence is the anal stage in which the toddler learns to use the toilet, rather than indiscriminantly soiling their diaper. According to Freud, an infant derives pleasure from relieving their bowels. Learning to control when and where to relieve themselves requires delayed gratification resulting in increased tension and potential power struggle between parent and child. Those who adapt and learn self-control move on to the next stage of development. Those who struggle may become fixated at this stage potentially resulting in maladjusted personality traits related to control issues, either demonstrating excessive amounts of control or not enough, i.e., disorganized and messy. For instance, an adult fixated at the oral stage of development may be unable to control their eating or smoking behaviors, whereas an adult fixated at the anal stage of development may be exhibit behaviors on either end of the control spectrum: excessive stinginess, controlling behaviors, and/or excessive neatness versus excessive generous, gullibility, messiness, and/or disorganized behaviors.
Pleasure and Reality Principles
Successful resolution of each developmental stage requires transition from instinctive, pleasure seeking behaviors to behaviors necessary for the social world, or reality. Hence, the transition requires evolution of the personality from focusing on the pleasure principle associated with the id to the reality principle associated with the ego. It must be noted, however, that to fully transition to the reality principle, the superego must have internalized the social values and norms making the transition necessary. For instance, weaning a child at the age of one may be par for the course in Western society, however, there are other cultures wherein a child may breastfeed far longer. In fact, breastfeeding has been encouraged by the medical community as beneficial up to the age of two or older. It may well be the imposition of societal norms upon childrearing that creates undue influence to wean children too early, possibly resulting in the fixations discussed previously. Similarly, it is societal norms which determine the appropriate age for toilet training, often contrary to medical recommendations. Although parents often begin toilet training as early as two years of age, many children are not biologically capable of consistently controlling their bowels until three years of age. Hence, instituting a strict regimen of toilet training on a child incapable of achieving the goal may well create psychological issues where there need not be any. In any event, at some point social reality dictates that an infant must be weaned and must learn to use a toilet as basic facts of life. Achieving these transitions may well be some of the first successful acts of the ego in a child’s development.
Influence on modern theory
There is no doubt that Freud has significantly influenced personality theory. Despite lack of empirical support for disparate structures such as the id, ego, and superego, the concept of unconscious/automatic versus conscious/controlled emotions and behaviors has been and continues to be explored. Further, there is biological evidence that different parts of the brain are responsible for emotions, motor movement, expressiveness, sociability, and personality traits (Friedman & Schustack, 2012). McAdams and Olson (2010) suggest personality development is a reiterative process continuously evolving, changing, and coalescing throughout our lives, beginning with basic traits/temperament, expanding to incorporate goal and motivational characteristics, and lastly evolving to incorporate meaning-making elements. Freud is specifically referenced by the authors when discussing agentic characteristics focused on goal orientation and motivation behaviors (McAdams & Olson, 2010).
Freud’s stages of psychosexual development. (n.d.). Retrieved from allpsych.com/psychology101/sexual_development.html
Friedman, H. S., & Schustack, M. W. (2012). Personality: Classic theories and modern research (5th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
McAdams, D. P., & Olson, B. D. (2010). Personality development: Continuity and change over the life course. Annual Review of Psychology, 61, 517-42. http://dx.doi.org/10.1146/annurev.psych.093008.100507