The Universe of Psychology
an exploration of why we are so weird
Psychology is everywhere. It's in your head, your shoes, your breakfast cereals.
Psychology is what drives every human being, every interaction, every thought and feeling. It is why you never forget your first kiss but always the essential stuff when you go to the supermarket. It is why you go to IKEA to buy two cups and a lamp and leave with a whole new bedroom. Psychology is you promising yourself to work out more and smoke less this year and it is also you having a very good reason right now for why you didn't. It is why you care for your friends in hard times. Why you fall in love even when it hurts. It's why you smile when you see a cute cat video, why you crave burgers at 3 a.m. and why you are hopelessly in love with Emma Watson.
The Universe of Psychology is an endeavour to grasp a few of these ideas. It is a collection of theories, anecdotes and insights, to better understand ourselves and the world around us.
The Big 5
The big five personality traits are composed of Openness to experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism, often abbreviated by the acronym OCEAN. Each trait is correlated with certain personality attributes.
Openness to experience: Appreciates novelty, adventure and variety.
Conscientiousness: Is organised, dependable, disciplined, dutiful and achievement-oriented.
Extraversion: Outgoing, excitable, assertive, social and stimulated others.
Agreeableness: Is friendly, compassionate, cooperative, helpful, trusting.
Neuroticism: Sensitive, nervous, prone to unpleasant emotions, such as anxiety, depression, anger.
Individuals are described on dimensions from low to high in each trait.
Sigmund Freud structured the human personality in three parts: The Ego, which is the conscious and psychological component, the Id, the subconscious and biological component, and the Superego, the social component.
Much of the restless conflict between the three different parts happens without our awareness. The Id, focused on instinct and pleasure, and the Superego, representing the moral and social imperatives, are rarely in agreement. The Ego's task is to mediate between the two, bringing balance to intrinsic needs and social responsibility.
To consider Freud's theories controversial might be an understatement. Much of his work has been criticised, advanced and discarded, infuriating his followers and relieving his opponents. And yet, his ideas remain important today.
The hierarchy of needs
Abraham Maslow proposed the hierarchy of needs in 1943 as an approach towards the ideal being. The most fundamental physiological need of survival provides the foundation for any further steps. Only if the current need is fulfilled, one will strive to complete the next step on the ladder to self-actualisation, the theory’s ultimate goal.
Research indeed indicates universal human needs but the content of those needs is highly debated. Maslow also does not account for collectivistic cultures, which emphasise the need for belonging far beyond the need for self-actualisation. To this date Maslow’s theory inspires a great many people. Yet, it also should be taken with a great many grains of salt.
The attachment styles
The attachment theory is an endeavour to describe the foundation of interpersonal relationships. At the core of each of the four relationship styles is the matter of trust in the caregiver and the self. The theory considers it crucial for later social and emotional development that infants develop a healthy relationship with a caregiver at a very early age.
A caregiver can be a mother, a father, a nanny, anyone who acts as a primary caregiver to the child. Caregivers provide a safe base for children which they can rely on as they explore the world around them. Parental interactions with their children are seldom flawless. It is natural and inevitable that they do not always meet the current expectations of their child. They might be working, on the phone or simply not sure what the child wants. What matters is not that parents never make mistakes, but that they care for their child with an unexceptional warmth and empathy and make it feel save. Consistently responding to the child’s needs leads to more secure attachments, whereas as a frequent lack of consistency or even disregard can damage the parent-child relationship and impact later development.
Secure: The infant has formed a secure attachment to its caregiver and knows it can rely on them. It thus can explore freely in their presence, even engage with strangers, cries on the caregiver’s departure but rejoices on their return.
Resistant: The infant is uncertain about the relationship to the caregiver. At time the caregiver is caring and loving, at other times insensitive and neglectful. The infant can't trust the caregiver but at the same time is desperate for their love.
Avoidant: The infant has learned that its caregiver does not respond to its needs and it needs to rely on itself. It avoids or ignores the caregiver, shows little regard for their departure or return. It becomes independent but distant.
Disorganised: The infant has a fearful, disruptive relationship to the caregiver, it seeks safety but is scared of the unsafe base they provide. Its emotions and behaviour are ambivalent, contradictory, odd and misdirected.
Based on the work of Sigmund Freud, his daughter Anna further developed the idea of defence mechanisms. These proposed unconscious processes shield us from unpleasant memories or inappropriate drives and urges, which can lead to feelings of anxiety or guilt and an inner conflict. As the Id and the Superego clash, the Ego needs to balance urges and norms in an adequate way. The Id’s response to a conflict, for instance, may be to attack, but social norms condemn such actions. The ego thus has to redirect the urge.
However, memories and urges are not eliminated, but banished to the unconscious, from where they still impact our behaviour. There are several different defence mechanisms, each with their own particular function and effect.
Repression: Disturbing and threatening thoughts are repressed to keep them from entering the conscious mind. However, the repressed content remains influential from the depths of the unconscious and, ultimately, leads to anxiety.
Projection: Own negative thoughts, feelings and qualities are projected on another person. The individual’s deficits or oddities are thus trivialised, as others are thought to display the same features.
Denial: The individual refuses to acknowledge a threat. Smokers may deny the consequences to their health, a fearful patient may reject a threatening diagnosis.
Identification: By identifying with an aggressor, the individual conquers their fear by becoming more like who or what they fear. An example is the Stockholm Syndrome.
Displacement: An emotion or impulse is shifted from one target onto a (weaker) substitute target. A person may shout at their kids instead of their boss after a bad day at work, as they are a less likely to retort.
Sublimation: Destructive impulses are channelled into constructive, admirable actions. A depression is turned into a love song, aggression relieved through sports.
Rationalisation: Distorting the facts to justify wrong actions, i.e. by stating that everyone else would act the same way or that it was the “logical” thing to do.
Reaction formation: Emphasising the opposite of one’s desired actions. Love turns into hate, shame into disgust. The classic example is the homophobe who actually has homosexual desires himself.