What Sigmund Freud Got Wrong About Psychology (And Your Mother)

Published May 6, 2016
Updated May 4, 2020

Sigmund Freud had a lot to say about the human mind. How much of it holds up today?

Sigmund Freud At His Desk

Sigmund Freud at his desk in London, 1938. Imagno/Getty Images

IN HIS 83 YEARS OF LIFE, Sigmund Freud cultivated a body of work so contentious that he has been called everything from a chauvinist to one of the 20th century’s most brilliant minds.

Throughout the 20th century, the Austrian neurologist endeavored to dig deep into the human mind to understand our being. Freud dug so deep, in fact, that he claimed human thought itself is not defined by the rational or physically real, but, as cognitive psychologist John F. Kihlstrom put it, by “irrational forces outside our conscious awareness and control” — forces which can only be understood by a process known as psychoanalysis.

In subsequent years, Freud’s theories — on everything from homosexuality to gender to human development — have largely been discredited by psychologists. As Psychological Science wrote, “[T]here is literally nothing to be said, scientifically or therapeutically, to the advantage of the entire Freudian system or any of its component dogmas.”

That experts now reject the theories of one of the 20th century’s most influential thinkers is not unusual, however. “Science is self-corrective,” Fordham University Psychology Professor Harold Takooshian told ATI. “Anyone who wrote about these things 120 years ago is not going to be considered entirely correct.”

So just what did Sigmund Freud believe, and how have his views since been affirmed or rejected?

Sexual Orientation

What Sigmund Freud Got Wrong

Wikimedia Commons

Freud theorized that human development proceeds through oral, anal, phallic, and genital stages. While Freud’s positions on homosexuality changed over time, he essentially believed that if a person “fails to reconcile” with one of these stages — particularly the phallic stage — he or she may become homosexual as a result.

While Takooshian says the “jury is still out” with regard to what causes variance in sexual orientation, it is the case that Freud’s developmental theory has been widely dismissed among psychologists, since there is no proof that the id, ego, or superego exists, or any evidence that affirms that humans develop through oral, anal, phallic, and genital stages.

More concretely, if homosexuality is indeed deterministic, it seems a bit foolish to tell a parent that he or she “made” his child gay after a botched attempt at potty training.

It should be noted, however, that for as much as today’s experts would say Freud got wrong about homosexuality, his views were actually progressive for his time. In 1935, when many in the West categorized homosexuality as a mental illness and criminalized its public display, Freud did not.

That year, the psychoanalyst received a letter from a parent concerned that her child was gay. In response, Freud said that being gay “is nothing to be ashamed of;” that it “cannot be classified as an illness,” and that many of history’s “greatest men” — such as Plato, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci — were gay.

Savannah Cox
Savannah Cox holds a Master's in International Affairs from The New School as well as a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and now serves as an Assistant Professor at the University of Sheffield. Her work as a writer has also appeared on DNAinfo.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.