Sigmund Freud's theory of personality

To conceptualize personality, Sigmund Freud proposed five models: topographic, dynamic, economic, genetic, and structural. What does each say?

Reviewed and approved by the psychologist Elena Sanz on September 25, 2021.

Last update: September 25, 2021

Sigmund Freud's theory of personality it has been discussed and subjected to different interpretations over time. While it continues to significantly influence the field of psychology, it is also a subject of controversy.

Freud, considered by many to be the "father of psychology," devoted much of his literary career to developing models for explaining the human personality. Thus, today we know 5 theories about personality: topographic, dynamic, economic, genetic and structural. We cover them in detail below.

Sigmund Freud's Personality Theory Models

According to Sigmund Freud's theory, some aspects of personality are primary and they lead the person to act according to their most basic impulses. However, other parts of the personality are responsible for regulating such impulses and adapting them to the demands of reality.

Now, the construction of the adult personality comes to be the result of the experiences lived in early childhood and the way in which these are processed consciously and unconsciously within the stages of human development.

In this way, the ability of a person to resolve their internal conflicts at specific stages of their development largely determines your future coping ability and their maturity in adulthood.

To understand it better, in the following space we explain the 5 models of Freud's theory of personality. It is important to clarify that these are not to be assumed as an absolute truth, although they are considered useful tools in several areas of psychology.



1. Topographic model

In the early stage of his career, Freud developed the topographical model. Also known as "First Topic," it divides the mind into three regions: unconscious, preconscious, and conscious. To facilitate understanding, Freud used the metaphor of the parts of the iceberg.

In this way, the tip of the iceberg represents the conscious region, that is to say, those things that can be perceived at a certain moment. They are the thoughts, memories, feelings and fantasies.

Meanwhile, the part of iceberg that submerges, but is still something visible, hints at the preconscious region of the mind. A better definition of the preconscious would be those memories that are not available at the moment, but that we can bring to consciousness.

Finally, the bulk of the iceberg, which is hidden under water, is equivalent to the unconscious. Gather all those things inaccessible to consciousness, be it memories, feelings or thoughts. They can even be content that is painful, conflictive or distressing.

The mind was analyzed by Freud to elaborate theories that allowed to explain the personality.

2. Dynamic model

The so-called "dynamic model" is for many one of the most difficult to interpret. In a simple way, is related to the psychic conflict that occurs between two forces in the mind; instinctual (or impulse) and defenses. The first seeks excessive gratification, while the second tries to inhibit it.

From this interaction there are those psychological processes that allow to regulate behavior and have adaptive responses. Without these, mental health would be impaired.

Specifically, the defense mechanisms derived from this model are the following:

  • Repression.
  • Reactive training.
  • Displacement.
  • Fixation.
  • Regression.
  • Projection.
  • Introjection.
  • Sublimation.

3. Economic model

The main concept of the economic model was what Freud called 'drive', understood as an impulse that allows the person to seek a certain end. That is, the author suggested that all behavior was motivated by drives.

Therefore, in a general way, he divided them into 2:

  • Life drive (Eros): associated with the self-preservation or survival ability of the species. The drive to create, relate to and protect yourself.
  • Death drive (thanatos): linked to the destructive tendencies of the human being towards himself or towards others.

4. Genetic model

The genetic model is Sigmund Freud's most popular theory of personality. It describes the 5 phases of psychosexual development, characterized by the search for gratification (or discharge of tension) in the erogenous zones of the body; each determined by age.

Freud suggested that not only the adult experiences satisfaction in the erogenous zones, but also the child. Thus, each stage symbolizes the concentration of libido in a different area of ​​the body.

If libidinal impulses do not progress adequately or are repressed, the child is left unsatisfied or in a state of fixation. This consequently produces anxiety at any stage and can persist into adulthood as neurosis.

In summary, the phases of Freud's psychosexual development are as follows:

  • Oral phase: developed in the first year of life. The behavior focuses on the mouth, since the pleasure is in sucking, biting or kissing.
  • Anal phase: from 18 months to 4 years of age. In this period, toilet training becomes a sensitive task for the child. Therefore, the focus of pleasure shifts from the oral to the anal area. Children at these ages will be focused on excretion, as they seek to respond to the performance expected by their caregiver. If not, fixation may manifest as anal retention or anal expulsiveness.
  • Phallic phase: covers ages between 4 and 7 years. It is the most controversial stage in Freud's psychosexual development. In this, the minor begins to experience pleasure associated with their genitals, which is why masturbation is common. In addition, the well-known Oedipus and castration complex occurs.
  • Lag phase: from 7 to 12 years old. At this stage, Freud suggested that the sexual drive is repressed to prioritize learning and cognitive development. In this way, the child concentrates on school, sports and social activities. If there are dysfunctions in this period, you will have trouble having healthy relationships in adulthood.
  • Genital phase: 12 years and older. It signals sexual maturity. It is a period in which sexual identity is reaffirmed, both in men and women.


5. Structural model

In this model of Sigmund Freud's theory of personality, the mind is divided into three instances that develop throughout childhood: the 'It', the 'I' and the 'Superego'. Each has a different function that, in turn, acts on different levels of the mind.

Yet together they form a unique personality structure. Furthermore, conflicts between these give rise to psychopathological symptoms.

  • The It: refers to the instinctual aspect of the psyche. Its main purpose is to satisfy the biological, unconscious and instinctive impulses of the person.
  • The I: it is considered a development of the Id, but it also works as an intermediary between the Super-ego. It plays a regulatory role, since it satisfies the impulses according to the demands of the environment and working with both unconscious and conscious contents.
  • The superego: ensures compliance with the moral rules and values ​​of society. It exercises a function of censorship and criticism.
All of Freud's theories try to explain the formation of the personality and how the human being acts in his circumstances.

Although they are explained separately, the models of Sigmund Freud's personality theory are related to each other. Together they explain how the development of personality conditions the way in which each person develops in their environment.

At the same time, it allows us to understand how the unresolved conflicts between physical impulses and social expectations at each stage of human development can lead to mental alterations.