The open war between psychoanalysis and behaviorism, explained in 8 keys

Psychology is a science that has adopted multiple ways and means of understanding the human mind and how it works. Different schools and currents of thought have appeared and disappeared, born to complement each other or in opposition to their ways of seeing and acting.

Two of the psychological currents which have traditionally had opposing positions have been psychoanalysis and behaviorism. These currents did not only indicate different objectivesBut also define some basic concepts, such as “behavior” or “mind,” in completely opposite ways.

In this article, we will review the main fronts on which the battle between psychoanalysis and behaviorism.


    Being one of the best known schools of psychology, psychoanalysis focuses its interest on the unconscious part of the mind. This current understands our behavior as the result of conflicts caused in the management and repression of instincts and impulses which emanate from the unconscious and which cannot be eliminated completely, but simply repressed.

    Based on the ideas of its founder Sigmund Freud, psychoanalysis structures the human mind in different aspects, from the unconscious to the conscious. Concepts such as This, I and Superyón refer to the part of our being that generates impulses, manages them and censors them on the basis of social and scholarly morality, respectively. There are conflicts between different parts of our being, which the ego seeks to resolve using various defense mechanisms.

    At the therapeutic level, psychoanalysis he tends to deal with “hidden” aspects of the person. When explaining psychopathology, orthodox psychoanalysis tends to focus on past events, explaining the current symptomatology based on events experienced in the early stages of human development, in which different phases are visualized depending on the person. in development. The presence of unresolved conflicts at one point in development will generate symptoms in the future, causing regressions to early stages of life.

    For this current, the core of psychic life is the drive or instinct. In this aspect the different psychodynamic authors have considered that these drives focus on different aspects, being in the case of the most classic psychoanalysis the libido or the sexual desire.

    In addition, symbolism is often used both in the interpretation of the psyche and in various types of therapy and treatment. Aspects such as dreams and unconscious manifestations are of great interest in explaining mental content.


    The behaviorist current, But, it seeks to study the human mind in the most rigorous and empirical way possible through its only directly observable correlate: behavior. Their top priority is to obtain a scientific and contrastable explanation of the behavior. He therefore seeks an objective observation by ruling out unverifiable hypotheses as much as possible.

    For behaviorists, behavior is governed by the capacity for association between the different types of stimuli, the responses given to them and the consequences of those responses. On the other hand, it is proposed that we are governed by universal and unalterable laws. We just pick up the information and from there we react in specific ways based on the characteristics.

    We are mainly seen as simply reactive to the conditions of stimulation, learning by repeating associations. However, some variants of behaviorism, such as radical behaviorism, understand that there is freedom and empowerment in the possibility of modify our environment so that it influences us the way we want.

    This paradigm, and especially the radical behaviorism advocated by BF Skinner, he refrains from attributing a fundamental role to mental processes when it comes to explaining how we behave, and the mind is rather seen as something that still exists cannot come to be objectively analyzed. The therapies created under this paradigm focus on the present, without focusing on the past aspects, and seek to modify the current behavior of the subject participating in the consultation in order to make it more adaptive through learning processes.

    The conflict between the two currents

    These currents in the history of psychology have often been opposed and even described as totally opposite. There are many reasons for this and, in fact, many authors consider that Behaviorism was born out of opposition to psychoanalytic methodology.

    Of the many differences, we highlight eight below.

    1. Objectivity vs symbolism

    The psychoanalytic stream is based on concepts which, although they reflect an interesting point of view of reality and although they have been useful in many cases, they are not empirically contrastable. Aspects such as the subconscious, dreams or the conception of different types of internal conflicts or the different structures that are part of the psychic apparatus are widely debated by behaviorists, who feel that it is not possible to explain human behavior only by empirical methods.

    2. From the outside to: the personalists against the environmentalists

    One of the main differences or conflicts between psychoanalysis and behaviorism is the focus on different aspects. psychoanalysis focuses on the intrapsychic. He considers that the origin of mental disorders and maladaptive behavior are in a bad solution of the subject’s intrapsychic conflicts, not being effective his defense mechanisms to face them.

    However, for behaviorism, all behavior is explained by associative processes which will be largely determined by the characteristics of the stimuli. Thus, behaviorism practically it does not take into account internal factorsBut focuses on environmental aspects and processes elicited by elements external to the psyche.

    3. Present and past

    Behavioralism is a paradigm that focuses on current behavior and conduct. While maladaptive behavior can be explained on the basis of faulty learning or a lack of training, the most important thing in both therapy and research is to focus on the current process. Psychoanalysis, on the other hand, tends to analyze behavior and the mind through the personal history of the individual, Its understanding and analysis. In other words, he’s based on the past that caused the problems, and that’s why he places so much importance on childhood.

    4. Explanation of the behavior

    For the behavior of psychoanalysis it is governed by the concept of training, Which intervened by the ego to make it coherent and acceptable to the superego and to society as a whole. However, behaviorism explains behavior based on the repetition of the association between stimuli and responses.

    5. Personality concept

    For behavioralism, personality is nothing more a behavior pattern learned by repeating stimuli, While psychoanalysis considers it as a way of managing and adjusting our impulses and our impulses to social and moral reality.

    6. Mechanisms of action

    While psychoanalysis is primarily based on conducting in-depth analysis and seeks to bring to light different conflicts without directly acting on them, behaviorism focuses on teaching new behaviors to the patient directly through learning.

    7. Objective of therapy

    Psychoanalysis aims to reduce the level of stress and internal conflict in the patient through various methods, while the aim of behavior therapy is to do vary the behavior towards more forms adaptive.

    8. Transfer and counter-transfer

    The relationship with the patient is an aspect of great importance in the practice of psychology. However, these concepts are specially developed and used by psychoanalysis, establishing behaviorism in a more aseptic relationship in order to avoid transferential phenomena beyond establishing a good therapeutic relationship.

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