Ego Psychology Research Paper

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Ego psychology represents a significant historical as well as current perspective within psychoanalysis. Most broadly, ego psychology extends classical psychoanalytic drive theory, combining biological and psychological views of individual development with frameworks referring to complex sociocultural dimensions. In this way, ego psychology moves psychoanalytic theory and practice from study of unconscious events and psychopathology to explorations of adaptive processes and conscious experience within a matrix of interpersonal, familial, and broader sociocultural forces (see, for example, Erikson 1950, Hartmann 1936, Hauser and Safyer 1995). In contemporary theoretical and clinical discussions, the construct of the ego refers to cognitive processes (e.g., self-reflectiveness); perceptual processes (e.g., self-observing); defenses (e.g., suppression); and executive functions (e.g., planning). Moreover, these components can operate at several levels of consciousness—rather than conscious or unconscious—within the same individual (Vaillant 1998).

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1. Early Formulations

Freud’s definition of the ego evolved through three phases (Rappaport 1959). The ego was initially defined with the least precision, the term being used interchangeably with one’s own person or self. Despite this ambiguity, one aspect of ego processes was already being highlighted—the defensive functions of the ego. In this first definition then, the ego was conceptualized as focused on preventing painful memories from entering awareness. In a second definition, Freud distinguished central aspects of ego functioning: secondary process (e.g., conscious ideas), reality principle, and repression. The third definition began with Freud’s introduction of the structural model, constructing the ego as a coherent system, which— together with the id (drives, nonrational ideas) and superego (conscience) systems—is a component of the tripartite personality organization model. In this most comprehensive formulation, ego processes refer to many connections among perceptions, ideals, moral principles, and conflicts generated within and between id, superego, and ego structures. In this third model of the ego, the groundwork was laid for our current view of the ego representing the individual as an active agent with his or her own independent interests, rather than passively responding to other psychological forces (e.g., conflicts, moral precepts, responses to others) (Rappaport 1959).

Subsequent theoretical, clinical, and empirical contributions have led to clarification and extension of a number of constructs first suggested in these earlier models of ego functioning. Their additions to ego psychology have led to an increasingly refined appreciation of significant relations between ego psychology perspectives and other domains of knowledge, ranging from the social sciences to clinical theory and practice.

2. Contemporary Perspectives On Ego Psychology

Between the late 1930s and the early 1980s many important new additions to ego psychology appeared in psychoanalytic literature. Freud was among the contributors. For although he continued to focus on drives and unconscious mental processes, together with changes in clinical technique, he clearly remained invested in developing ego theory during his later years (Schafer 1995, p. 224, Freud 1933, 1939, 1940). Psychoanalyst critics of ego psychology inaccurately characterize the perspective as minimizing the significance of drives, the pleasure principle, unconscious fantasy, unconscious conflict, danger situations, or transference. ‘Instead, one aims to develop further the context for each of these dynamic concepts. The [ego psychology] theory is designed to encompass the total mind and not just its damaged aspects and its primitive, id, or primary-process aspects’ (Schafer 1995, p. 224). A major assumption within ego psychology is that through theorizing about mature, rational, and stable modes of function it becomes possible to more precisely conceptualize the ‘nonprimitive’ and the so-called ‘normal.’

The last decades of the twentieth century witnessed further extensions of the fine-grained formulations of ego functions begun by Hartmann and colleagues (Hartmann 1936, Hartmann et al. 1964). For example, understanding development and change in such processes as remembering, language learning, communicating, and experiencing insight have been discussed by a wide number of writers with respect to the phenomena themselves and their relation to problems of organization within aspects of the personality, particularly in terms of ego, id, and superego structures. However, in current psychoanalytic theory it has been difficult to trace ego psychology links to current major interests in such broad and important domains as object relations, intersubjectivity, and constructivism. Much of ego psychology deals with the individual as he or she is embedded in the broad biological and social field. But the theory has not consistently conceptualized reciprocal influences between individual development functioning and the surrounding social fields. Schafer (1995) argues for the relevance of ego psychology for reconciling the theoretical tensions between constructionist and objectivist stances within psychoanalytic thinking; tensions manifest in discussions of psychic reality, communications, and social conditions. ‘In psychoanalysis, it is specifically ego psychology that tries to give an account of the development of this complex mixture of constructivism, conventionality, and systematic thought, and what is required to maintain and extend it. Those who reject Freud’s and Hartmann’s ego psychology … are simply ignoring this area of complete conceptualization and explanation. They claim too much for intersubjectivity alone’ (Schafer 1995, p. 230).

During the evolution of ego psychology and the pioneering work of Hartmann and his colleagues (Hartmann et al. 1964), it was already clear that there was not a monolithic theory of psychoanalysis. This pluralistic perspective is more obvious now than ever before. Yet with one exception, we find no new theoretical contributions to the ego psychology literature. The single exception is Erik Erikson.

3. Extensions Of Ego Psychology: Erik Erikson

Erikson is best known for his writings on ego identity (e.g., Erikson 1959). However, Erikson’s impact reaches even further through his creative work at the interface of psychoanalytic theory and the social sciences including history, economics, anthropology, sociology, and all of developmental psychology. Keenly focused on the intertwining of individual development with sociocultural forces, Erikson has been termed by some as the father of psychohistory (Smelser 1998). Consistent with the ego psychology perspective, Erikson considers individual development and functioning within family, community, and cultural contexts. Recognizing biological forces with respect to psychosexual development, Erikson goes further, conceptualizing historical, sociological, political, and economic influences through theoretical analyses and intensive analyses of major figures (for example, Ghandi (Erikson 1969) and Luther (Erikson 1958)). Central in Erikson’s work are connections between ego development and society, the intertwining of generations with respect to ego identity development, the ‘meshing of individual neurosis and social history’ (Smelser 1998), and the necessity for interdisciplinary efforts in understanding human development: ‘only psychoanalysis and social science together can eventually chart the life-cycle interwoven throughout with the history of the community’ (Erikson 1959, p. 18i; Smelser 1998).

In light of the interdisciplinary nature of Erikson’s work considering the individual within his or her social matrix—including intersections of specific life histories and historical eras—it is not surprising that his contributions are not readily incorporated into earlier ego psychology conceptualizations. And for the very same reasons his work has neither been drawn into more mainstream psychoanalytic theories nor into discussions of clinical practice (Wallerstein 1997). On the other hand, social scientists and other scholars applaud and utilize his creative insights in psychoanalysis and neighboring disciplines (Smelser 1998, Cavell 1998, Friedman 1999). Perhaps the most salient explanation for the marginalization of Erikson from the traditional ego psychology literature is the challenge of aligning his complex formulations (drawn from many conceptual frameworks) into the primarily ‘individual mind’ categories of ego psychology, with precise theoretical definitions.

One further strand of Erikson’s work is his conceptualization of the human life-cycle along the lines of developing individual’s capacities to master increasingly complex social relationships and maintain continuity with his or her own history and community. Vaillant (e.g., 1993), a major clinical scholar, has called attention to this core theme in Erikson, beginning with his early adolescent (identity) writings and continuing to later considerations of adult development (Erikson 1982).

4. Ego Psychology In Contemporary Psychoanalytic Practice

Translating the refined theoretical distinctions of ego psychology into the practice of psychoanalysis is a daunting challenge. Since the early 1980s a group of writers have risen to this important challenge, by delineating an ego psychology approach to the psychoanalytic technique (Gray 1994, Busch 1997, Kris 1982). Examining implications of ego psychology concepts (e.g., defenses, executive ego functions) and clinical interactions, these contributions attend to the content and style of patient communications, encouraging ‘close monitoring,’ the clinician’s listening to the patient’s associations as ‘constructions of the ego filtered through a lens measuring the degree of risk’ (Busch 1997, p. 407). While not minimizing the importance of unconscious fantasies, drives, and motivations, this clinical approach informed by ego psychology represents ‘an attempt to read the text as written by the patient, rather than a reading of the meaning hidden behind the text’ (Busch 1997, p. 410). The idea of risk leads to consideration of defenses, long considered a central construct within ego psychology, first most comprehensively conceptualized with respect to the many forms of ego defenses by Anna Freud (1936). Recent writing on defense processes—including diverse mechanisms as anticipation, suppression, displacement, and denial—draws attention to conscious and unconscious aspects of these functions and their vital importance in adaptation in contrast to psychopathology and dysfunction (Vaillant 1993). Gray’s (1986) view of clinical interpretation focuses on the patient’s current abilities to grasp new self-knowledge, allowing novel constructions into their consciousness: ‘The interpretive task is to estimate sensitively the patient’s ability to comprehend in order to make a formulation that is not too superficial, yet does not stimulate more reactive defenses’ (Gray 1986, p. 253). In other words, this attentiveness to the patient’s defenses and other adaptive capacities must be maintained if the psychoanalyst is to involve ‘those healthy aspects of the patient’s ego that seek to fill out understanding and memory, while searching for pleasure in the form of more effective ego functioning’ (Busch 1997, p. 421, Klein 1976). It is of interest that ego defenses, of all hypothesized ego processes, have been the focus of the most sustained empirical efforts at investigating ego psychology constructs.

5. Empirical Research: Ego Processes And Ego Development

In addition to the gap from ego psychology to clinical practice, a second important gap is from ego psychology to systematic empirical research. Operationalizing ego psychology constructs and propositions, and designing systematic studies, has posed daunting challenges for investigators. Nonetheless, several programs of research have focused on specific questions and hypotheses regarding ego functions and ego development. Arguably, the ego psychology domain is too vast to be included in any single program of empirical studies. Selected constructs relevant to ego psychology—in particular defenses and ego development—are targets of previous and continuing successful research efforts.

5.1 Ego Defenses

The study of ego defense mechanisms has been problematic to clinicians as well as to empirical researchers. ‘Investigators who have attempted systematic research on defense mechanisms have often found themselves without a common language for describing them and without replicable methods for assessing them’ (Vaillant 1998, p. 1147, Hauser 1986). The multifold problems of classification, conceptual definition, operationalization, and adequate assessment design have plagued dedicated clinical researchers for many years. Since 1971, Vaillant has persistently provided conceptualizations, assessment strategies, and enlightening narrative and quantitative findings regarding the diverse array of defense processes (see, for example, Vaillant 1994). Based on a theoretically-derived hierarchy of defense processes, Vaillant constructed operational definitions and scoring approaches for examining interview material gathered through clinical interviews. His approach has been applied in numerous studies of college men (Vaillant 1997), and inner city men (Vaillant 2000). In addition to dealing with questions about conceptualization and assessment of defenses, much of the interest in Vaillant and colleagues’ work has to do with the ‘transmutation of less adaptive defenses into more adaptive defenses’ (Vaillant 2000, p. 98). Ego development, in particular as manifest through transformation of defenses, is a major theme throughout Vaillant’s many contributions (Vaillant 1993, 2000).

5.2 Ego Development

Ego defense processes and ego development are intertwined in numerous ways, including the observation that maturation of defenses reflects one important aspect of ego development. The many complex facets of relations between defenses and ego development have not yet been fully articulated (Hauser 1986, 1993). One illustration of the interplay between defenses and ego development is illustrated through two extant models of ego development. One view considers the ego as representing the collection of ego mechanisms, while the other model emphasizes the centrality of a single ego process, comprising integrative activities (e.g., of thoughts and feelings, of present and past ideas) (Hauser 1979).

Bellak et al. (1973) assume the ‘collection’ model. From this perspective, ego development refers to an unfolding of multiple functions, including adaptive strengths, cognitive processes, defenses, and perceptions of others (Hauser and Daffner 1980). The second model of ego development focuses on integrative or synthetic processes and the individual’s overall frame of reference. Elaborated by Loevinger and colleagues, this view is linked with a widely-used sentence completion assessment technique (Loevinger 1976, Hy and Loevinger 1996). For over 25 years empirical studies have incorporated this theoretical approach and psychometrically rigorous assessment instrument to study ego development in children, adolescents, and adults. Moreover, since the late 1970s these studies have encompassed psychopathology variables together with cross-cultural dimensions (see, for example, Cohn 1991, Westenberg et al. 1998, Hauser 1976, 1993, Hauser et al. 1991, Loevinger 1979). Growing knowledge of connections among individual behavior, individual experience, and ego development has added invaluably to diagnostic and longitudinal studies of psychopathology and development arrests in varied contexts (Hauser 1999, Hauser and Safyer 1995, Hauser et al. 1991). An ongoing longitudinal investigation of adolescent and adult development over the past 20 years focuses on ego development, attachment, and family contexts (Hauser et al. 1991, 1998).

In Loevinger’s model of ego development, it is assumed that each individual holds a customary orientation to the self and world, and that there is a continuum (ego development) along which these frames of reference can be arrayed. ‘In general, ego development is marked by a more differentiated perception of one’s self, of the social world, and the relations of one’s feelings and thoughts to those of others’ (Candee 1974, p. 621). Thus, in contrast to Bellak’s model, this assessment of ego development does not distinguish specific ego processes (e.g., defense mechanisms) from one another, since they are considered aspects of one integrated structure of the developing ego (Loevinger 1979b). Interesting empirical questions then arise—for instance, how are defense mechanisms and other ego processes are linked with ego development (e.g., Hauser et al. 1998).

6. Future Directions

In terms of ego psychology theory, there are suggestions of new integrations of this theory with contemporary psychoanalytic studies of focuses on intersubjectivity, object relations development, and dialogue. Related to this is the theoretical challenge to find connections of the highly creative work of Erik Erikson to other psychoanalytic theory and practice. A second direction in the recent effort to apply ego psychology observations and theory to clinical practice with respect to the nature of clinical observations as well as techniques relevant to facilitating the expansion of insight and development. Arguably, these advances in moving from ego psychology at a theoretical level to ego psychology within clinical theory and practice are important ones that will likely continue in the next decades. Finally, several research programs are inspired by ego psychology constructs. Longitudinal studies of ego development now include psychopathology and normal development. Systematic studies of ego defenses and related processes are embedded within these longitudinal investigations. Additional operational definitions of ego processes will likely be developed in the future. It is vital and completely consistent with the work of such ego psychologists as Heinz Hartmann and Erik Erikson, that the perspectives and constructs of ego psychology become even more explicitly integrated with the insights, theories, and empirical approaches of neighboring disciplines (Holzman and Aronson 1992). These disciplines include those investigating aspects of stress, social context dimensions (e.g., family, school, neighborhood), coping, and individual development.


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