Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Sigmund Freud versus B.F. Skinner

Psychology is routinely subjected to numerous and constant controversy, encompassing many different philosophies, perspectives, and ideas. A prime example of such endless controversy is the debate of who had the better psychological philosophy and approach, Sigmund Freud or B.F. Skinner.

In the world of psychology, Sigmund Freud versus B.F. Skinner has been a long standing debate. The question, “If one had depression, which would be the better therapist and why?” raises a great variety of controversies. This debate of Freud versus Skinner stems from their position and philosophy in psychology, psychoanalysis and behaviorism—Freud being the founder of psychoanalysis and Skinner maintaining a strong behaviorist stand. There are typically three viewpoints to this controversy: those solely in support of Freud, those solely in support of Skinner, and those not in total support nor total disagreement of either.

Freud was responsible for introducing psychoanalysis to the field of psychology. Psychoanalysis is a theory and psychological method based on the ideas that mental life functions are both conscious as well as unconscious levels, and that childhood events have a powerful psychological influence throughout a person’s life. Freud’s method of applying psychoanalysis to interpret the causes of patients’ problems involved interpreting information presented by the patient in attempt to bring forth the unconscious processes to the conscious awareness. Many of those who would choose Freud believe that the only way to get to the bottom of depression and end it would be by having a therapist delve deep into their unconscious psyche, interpret what they found, and then offer advice to the patient on how to overcome the findings of their subconscious, internal conflict(s) that manifested itself in the form of depression. This group disagrees with behaviorism in that they think that behavior has little or no insight to the internal cognitive and subliminal functions when compared to psychoanalysis which strictly focuses on these processes. Some people in this group also argue that there is not much behavior could tell about the cause(s) of depression outside of the obvious. Those strongly in support of Sigmund Freud and his psychoanalysis theory believe that internal forces are the underlying source and cause of every state of mind, psychological problem, and behavior. Freud’s theory also presumes that the underlying source that drives all human behavior is stemmed from the “id’s” aggressive instincts and sexual urges which are counteracted, or “controlled’ by the superego. This philosophy is very offensive and absurd to many of those who are not in support of Freud and his psychoanalysis theory. However, regardless of the validity of Freud’s theory, his research and ideas, especially his connection between childhood events and the psyche of an adult for the rest of his/her life, has contributed much to psychology and the shaping of other theories, research, and therapy methods.

One the other hand, B.F. Skinner has a very different approach to explaining and treating psychological problems such as depression—behaviorism. He believed that Freud’s approach of looking within a person for answers to account for that person’s unexplained feelings and behaviors rendered useless information as those variables were not readily available for scientific research, but that all aspects that shaped behavior could be found outside of a person—in their current as well as previous environments and in their reinforcement history to different behaviors throughout their life. While some of those who argue Skinner had the better psychological approach and philosophy claim that they can see how “talking therapy” may have some benefits, others think that answering “silly” questions about childhood experiences, etc. as one did in Freud’s psychoanalytic method are a ridiculous waste of time and do not help get to the root of the problem. Also, some who have “voted” for Skinner have claimed that they are afraid to learn of what was going on in their subconscious minds. Answers to why people behave a certain way are usually much more scientific and easier to understand through the behaviorism perspective, while answers from the psychoanalysis perspective are harder for the patient to make logical connections and requires a little more imaginative stretch and trust in the therapist because while behaviorism is based on things we can see and observe, psychoanalysis is based more on the unknown and unobservable—the subconscious. This simple reason just stated seems to be why so many people argue that Skinner had the better philosophy because people seem to be more comfortable with things that can be seen and observed, and connections between these things and behavior are easier to understand.

In addition to those who would rather have Sigmund Freud as a therapist for depression and those who would rather have B.F. Skinner, there is a third group who would not choose either, but think that the better psychological philosophy and approach would be a combination of the two. This group thinks that both Freud and Skinner’s positions represent two extreme philosophies and that neither were completely correct nor incorrect in their viewpoints. They argue that the best philosophy, approach, and method of therapy would be combining parts of Freud’s psychoanalysis theory, such as talking in a comfortable and relaxed setting, investigating areas of a patient’s past and childhood events, and considering the internal consciousness as well as the unconsciousness, with parts of Skinner’s behaviorism philosophies such as observation of a patient’s environment and past environments, and possible reinforcements or lack of reinforcements for certain behaviors.

While I do believe Freud made significant advances in the world of psychology that are important to our knowledge of the subject today, especially his theories on childhood events shaping and affecting each person for the rest of his/her life, I am in agreement with Skinner’s position and would therefore choose Skinner in answer to the question of who I would rather have as my therapist if I had depression. Freud definitely contributed a lot to psychology as a whole and has greatly helped the way psychology is viewed and how therapy and treatment is administered in many cases today. However, though Freud may have been very knowledgeable in his field and I am thankful for what he contributed to psychology, I would never go to a therapist for depression who had what I consider to be the warped thought that sexual urges and aggressive impulses are the powerful energizers for human behavior. While there is evidence supporting both Sigmund Freud’s position and B.F. Skinner’s position, I find the evidence in support of Skinner to be more consistently verifiable and believable. To me, Skinner’s use of scientific analysis has a much stronger basis for determining the causes of psychological problems and connections between behavior and the observable environment—it is much more practical, much more factual.

The controversy of Sigmund Freud versus B.F. Skinner will never end. Each person, however, must come to his/her own conclusion by determining what he/she believes and prefers based on research and knowledge to decide which evidences they believe to be most credible. This varies from one person to the next. Each person must look at any controversial issue in psychology, as well as any other arena, objectively and critically to determine what he/she personally finds to be truth. I think B.F. Skinner would make a better therapist for depression than Sigmund Freud as his behaviorist method focused more on a practical and factual basis and would therefore make him more competent in getting to the immediate cause and treating the cause in a sensible way. Though I have come to personal conclusions, there are still those equally as passionate in their opposing views—and the controversy rages on.

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