The Iceberg Theory in Psychology: What It Is and How It Describes the Mind

The iceberg theory was proposed by Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, in which he presents the comparison between the structure of the iceberg and the elements of his first subject.

And what is the first subject? It is one of the most recognized models in the psychoanalytic current; it describes the structures of the mind according to Freud: the unconscious, the preconscious and the conscious. The iceberg theory will say that the visible part (above the waterline) of the ice structure represents the conscious part of the individual’s psyche, which knows and is accessible, and that the submerged part of the iceberg is equivalent to the unconscious, associated with the illogical part and linked to the drives.

In this article we will see what is the theory of the iceberg in psychologythe two principles which are its foundations, and what has been its role in the history of psychology.

    What is the iceberg theory in psychology?

    The iceberg theory in the field of psychology was proposed by the famous neurologist Sigmund Freud, who is the father of psychoanalysis. Despite the criticism his theory has received for lack of scientific evidence, his ideas continue to be taught and studied in the psychology degree as part of his story. Regarding the theory, the author uses the structure of an iceberg to represent its first subject, also known as a topographic model.

    In this first theme he tells us about the conscious, which refers to the relationship between the external world and the system of memory (memory), of the preconscious, which contains information that does not reach consciousness, but is easy of access, and of the unconscious, which refers to the most illogical part related to drives, which are the forces that would move the individual towards a goal.

    In order for people to better understand each term that forms the topographical pattern, in the field of psychoanalysis, the figure of the iceberg began to be used as a visual aid. If we think about how we find these structures in the sea, it is characteristic that from the outside we see only a small piece of the real size of these figures. The expression “this is just the tip of the iceberg” is well known, which implies that a phenomenon is only the part that we know of a much more complex reality: There is really a lot more information that we are not yet aware of..

    Well, Freud would say that the visible part of the iceberg, the tip, refers to conscious knowledge, and the hidden part, which we don’t see and which is covered in water, is the unconscious. For its part, the preconscious would be the middle ground, the part of the structure of the iceberg closest to the surface, which is easier to finish above water, but which we do not always see. not easily. Thus, Freud would tell us that it is necessary to know the three psychic structures and that, therefore, it is essential to try to reach the unconscious.

      Principles governing the iceberg theory

      The iceberg theory and the different structures already proposed are based on two principles: psychic determinism and the Freudian unconscious.

      Psychic determinism

      One of the guiding principles of Freud’s iceberg theory is psychic determinism. The author states that nothing that happens is arbitrary, every action and every behavior has a force or a cause behind it which explains its occurrence.. We will always find a background that acts as a behavior driver. Thus, it will be necessary to know what is the cause or reason for certain events, since in this way we will be able to deal with the different problems or alterations that arise.

      This cause and effect relationship, according to Freud, we would see in all actions, such as: playing sports because we like it, drinking water because we are thirsty or going to bed because we are tired and want to sleep. We see how most of the time we are aware of the underlying cause of the behavior, even if we do it automatically.

        The Freudian Unconscious

        The Freudian unconscious is linked to the illogical, timeless part, close to the drives, being the structure that receives more importance and more studies in psychoanalysis raised by Freud. Although being linked to knowledge of which we are not aware, it is the one that explains a large part of our behavior, especially those related to alterations.

        The unconscious is governed by the primary processes related to the pleasure principle, where energy flows freely and tends to be satisfied without hindrance. However, in order to control the unconscious, there are censors, which have the function of controlling the free flow of energy.

        In this way, Freud will propose different modes of intervention in therapy and different techniques aimed at knowing the information of the unconscious, which as we see in the representation of the iceberg refers to the part of the largest structure, the submerged part. By reaching the knowledge of the unconscious, the subject could know the reason for his behavior and treat the possible effects or alterations that are hidden there.

        In the unconscious thoughts, feelings, emotions or experiences that cause problems or affect us are stored if they present themselves to consciousness. That is, we keep them out of awareness so that we can function better in our daily lives. Thus, we can react to different events and situations in a way that we do not understand, because it is determined and is the cause of the unconscious.

        A characteristic example of the information contained in the unconscious is that relating to dreams.. Freud states that in sleep dreams are unleashed and this is the best way to know our unconscious. The importance given to him is such that he publishes a book entitled “The Interpretation of Dreams”. Other examples of the manifestation of the unconscious are the failed acts related to the forgetting that occurs in our daily life such as someone’s name or the neurotic symptoms which in this case were related to pathology.

          The application of the iceberg theory in therapy

          As we know, the iceberg metaphor represents the first topic of the models proposed by Freud, but it can also be linked to the second topic or structural model. This second theme raises the division of the subject into the “id” (refers to the unconscious and is linked to sexual and aggressive impulses), the “super-ego” (refers to the moral and ethical part of the subject, marks us what is good and we should do, the ideal self), and the “I” (refers to the interplay between impulses and expectations, i.e. between the “it” and the “super -me “).

          For Freud, the proper functioning of the human mind depends on the balance that exists between the different psychic structures. When the “I” is not able to control and balance the differences between the desired and the right, between the principle of pleasure, linked to the free flow of energy and the principle of necessity, more rational and logical , problems appear. . That is to say, this imbalance would be the cause of the development of psychopathology.

          So the conflict arises as the contrast between the conscious and the unconscious, such as the need to decrease the tension generated by the basic instinctive impulses. In this way, the symptoms that appear are due to a formation of compromise between the drives, already mentioned, and the defenses, which generates the “I” to achieve balance between the different structures.

          This formation of commitment refers to the attempts of the unconscious to pass the repressed contents to the conscious, thus increasing the sanction generated by the superego and thus increasing the feeling of discomfort and suffering.

          Moreover, what this iceberg theory presents to us is the continuous influence of the unconscious exerted on the conduct of the subject. The psychic determinism which hides the influence of the unconscious and which explains a large part of our behavior. What Freud wanted to express with this representation, which can be illustrated by an iceberg, is that we cannot be left alone with what we know about our behavior, since it is a small percentage, a small portion, of what is really part of each subject.

          As we have already said, we cannot directly access the unconscious, it expresses itself in different ways such as: through sleep, forgetfulness or omissions, among others. Despite the difficulty of access, there would be some techniques that psychoanalysis applies to reach the unconscious and knowing and treating the cause of the pathology, these are governed by 5 basic rules.

          The rules of psychoanalysis are: the basic rule which proposes not to practice any kind of censorship, nor to criticize everything that comes to mind; the rule of free association, referring to the linking of different contents as they arise in our minds; the rule of floating attention to reach the unconscious (everything must be monitored without concretizing anything); the analyst’s rule of neutrality (the psychologist cannot judge anything the patient says); and the rule of abstinence (desires cannot be authorized by either the patient or the therapist).

          Bibliographic references

          • Almendro, MªT., Erdocia, A., Díaz de Neira, M. and Jiménez, G. (2018) CEDE PIR Preparation Manual. Psychotherapies. CEDE: 5ª Edition.
          • Hansell, J., Ehrlich, J., Katz, W., Lerner, H. and Minter, K. (2008) Psychoanalysis and psychodynamic psychology. American Psychological Association.
          • Sibe, KJ (2020) Sigmund Freud and Psychoanalytic Theory. Shivprasad Sadanand Jaiswal College, India.

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