Among Freud’s most notorious theories is his theory of psychosexual development. This lesson discusses each of the stages and traces how he theorized that normal development leads to sexual maturity and how certain stages can develop awry.
We’re going to talk about Freud’s stages of psychosexual development. Psychosexual is kind of a big word, but all it really means is that Freud thinks that personality develops through stages that have to do with one’s sexuality. Basically, this is a way of explaining personality and it rests on the idea that you go through phases – as an infant through to childhood and then the final stage is adulthood – in which you’re basically fixated on certain body parts.
Each of these stages also helps with the development of another one of Freud’s concepts, which is the id, the ego and the super-ego. Briefly, these are other ideas of divisions of personality that fight with each other. The id is impulsive, the super-ego is your conscience, your ego is your sense of yourself. These fight with each other, and Freud thought that the psychosexual development stages can help you to develop healthy senses of all of these three parts.
What Freud thought, which is a little funky, is that humans basically have what he called an instinctual libido. Libido is probably a familiar word that basically means sex drive. But the weird thing about Freud’s theory is that he basically thought that infants, from birth, have a sex drive; we have an instinctual libido. In the beginning, there’s some form of sexual drive that is present and it’s key to developing personality. And he thought that this libido developed in stages – these are the psychosexual stages – and they develop through you focusing on different body parts. What he thought was that if anxiety or trauma occurred during one of the stages, then what you’re going to have when you’re an adult later on in life is a characteristic set of problems, neuroses, anxieties, that have to do with development being interrupted at that stage at that particular body part. So yes, it’s weird. I hope you’re with me. Now we’re just going to go through these stages and talk them through.
Stage 1 – Oral Stage
The first one is the oral stage. This is from when you’re born to when you’re two years old. If you think about it, it makes a little sense that oral would be the first one; babies like to chew on things, they like to suck on things, so it makes a certain amount of sense that Freud would go there. The life is really dominated by breast feeding, initially, for babies. An important part about this stage is that the baby is pretty much entirely id driven at this point. It’s not thinking, it’s doing things instinctually. It has certain wants and desires that are pretty simplistic. It goes about and it does them.
And what Freud thought this had to do with personality is that when babies are weaned – when they’re not allowed to breast feed anymore – the baby learns the principle of delayed gratification. This is super important because you can’t just go over to the bathroom whenever you want in life, you can’t just eat whenever you want; this is a pretty key concept to being a functioning adult and not just doing what you want all the time. What Freud thought was that if the parents were too indulgent in this stage or didn’t enforce this well enough, the kid might resist growing up. He wouldn’t develop this sense in a proper way. If parents were basically too delayed with their gratification, the kid would basically grow up being manipulative of others. That was the way that Freud thought the whole breast feeding id development in the oral stage went.
This is when this entered our language: people who are stuck at the oral stage, Freud called having an ‘oral fixation‘. The basic theory about the oral stage that Freud has is that if people are interrupted at this stage, they’ll actually do things like smoke and eat too much. That’s sort of having an oral fixation. This has actually entered our vocabulary. It’s actually the title of a Shakira album. So that’s the oral stage.
Stage 2 – Anal Stage
The next stage is what Freud called the anal stage. About 15 months to three years is considered general anal stage range. And as one might expect from the title the key experience here (remember the key experience from the oral stage was breast feeding) is toilet training. What this does is, as you can imagine, it continues the development of delayed gratification because, like I said, you can’t just go running off to the bathroom whenever you want. That’s not cool.
In this stage, basically, the ego starts to develop. It starts to reign in the id. The ego is always dealing with having you interact with reality, so the ego starts to reign the id a little bit; not as much as the super-ego will later, but it works on it a little bit.
And what’s basically going on during toilet training is that parents are trying to teach the kid to be clean, but they need to do this in a way that the ego can grow up properly. So if they are way too demanding, if they are not understanding that toilet training is hard (I can’t quite remember that, but I’m sure it was), if they’re not understanding of that, the kid is going to grow up really obsessed with order. This is what Freud thought.
These are actually people that we describe – this is another one that of those ones that has gotten into our language – as ‘anal compulsive’. If you’ve ever described someone as anal because they have their action figures all in a row and they’re color coordinated, that’s what you’re basically saying, is that they are too obsessed with order, and what Freud would think is that their parents didn’t toilet train them properly. They were too demanding.
But if the parents aren’t demanding enough, predictably, the kid is going to grow up to be a total mess. This is one that hasn’t really gotten into our language so much – Freud’s term for this was ‘anal expulsive’. You don’t really go around calling people that, but what it basically means is you’ve probably had a roommate like this that is just a mess, they leave their stuff everywhere, and Freud thought that kind of personality type was related to parents who weren’t demanding enough of their kids during toilet training.
Stage 3 – Phallic Stage
Where we go next is known as the phallic stage. These names just keep getting better and better, don’t they? This is from when kids are about three years old to six years old, and this is the stage where kids really start to become aware of their bodies. They start to learn – again, these names make a certain amount of sense – the difference between being a boy and being a girl and that it all kind of rests on the existence of a phallus or not.
At least that’s what Freud thought. That’s sort of a controversial aspect of his theory – he was saying that absence of penis or not absence of penis was the defining thing. He’s gotten a lot of flack for that and we won’t go into that right now. But basically what’s going on here is kids are learning that boys are different from girls.
And this is also where the famous ‘Oedipus complex’ comes into play. What’s happening as these kids are realizing their gender…again, none of this is true proven, these are Freud’s theories. What Freud thought is going on during his stage is that, as boys realize that they’re boys, they become really jealous of their father because he can have sex with their mother. They kind of simultaneously want to have sex with their mothers and kill their fathers, which they can’t do because they’re kids and that’s frustrating. For girls, there’s theoretically another complex that’s called the ‘Electra complex’ that goes the other way, so that they want to have sex with their fathers and get rid of their mothers. This is something that Freud thought was natural; this is not a disorder, this is something he thought happens to everybody.
And this experience of these feelings and desires he thought helped out developing the super-ego. And remember this is the product of your personality that is your conscience – it helps you make decisions and know about whether things are right and wrong. And what he thought was that since the parents are associated so strongly with morality and long lasting thinking, Freud thought that working through the Oedipus complex can actually help you develop a strong, healthy sense of the super-ego. And the good outcome of this is that they learn to deal with these feelings and not act on them. They have them but they’re not acting on them. This is the conclusion of the phallic stage.
Stage 4 – Latency
The fourth one is known as latency. This is when you’re six until you hit puberty. Latency means exactly what it sounds like – there’s basically nothing going on in this period at all. There’s no explicit sexuality, at least that’s what Freud thought. Kids start doing other things, they make friends, they like to go to school – they’re not really obsessed with their bodies as much or any of those things we were talking about earlier. The important thing that happens during latency is that this is when…so if anything went wrong during the earlier stages (if they weren’t toilet trained properly or they didn’t work out their Oedipus complex properly) this is where these things start to get solidified into character traits and personality. So all the things that can go wrong in childhood get turned into a real personality during latency.
Stage 5 – Genital Stage
Next is basically what happens after puberty and for the rest of your life, and this is called the genital stage. Not to be confused with the phallic stage, this is the genital stage, number five. What really happens in this stage is kids become independent of their parents. That’s the goal, they get there, now they’re independent for the rest of their lives. And like the phallic stage, the focus here is, once again, on the genitals – on what makes you a boy or girl. But in this stage, the sexuality is adult and aimed at another person. It’s not just like, ‘I’m this and you’re that,’ it’s what we’re mostly familiar with with the term libido, which is that it’s a sex drive to have sex with somebody else. That’s what really gets going during the genital stage.
In this part, the ego and the super-ego are as developed as they’re going to get. Hopefully it went well and you don’t have imbalances there. We’re not just satisfying primal urges anymore, they’re reigned in. Any issues that happened in the first three stages then crystallize into personality during latency, now you’re in the genital stage, this is how you’re going to be. This is your personality.
We should talk about why we care about this. The basic reason is that Freud had a ton of influence for a long time about how psychologists thought about all things. These stages are important to understand, but they’re also largely discredited. There’s really not a lot of scientific evidence. There’s anthropological evidence that suggests that the general conclusions he came to aren’t really universal. So not all kids go through things that are like this.
So the theory is kind of inherently sexist it; it revolves around girls wanting penises. This would be something we’d need to work out if it were at all scientific, but it’s not. Its real problem is that it wasn’t developed scientifically. One of the things that a lot of people have pointed out was that Freud was interested in sexuality. He found that interesting, so he ended up defining development in that way, because of things that he was interested in. And that really represents something that’s really important for psychology. This is really problematic and it’s something that can happen really easily – that we let our own interests and the things that we find interesting influence what we assume is true for everybody else and what we assume is fundamentally true about people.