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Interpersonal and Psychoanalytic Social Theory Essay

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Updated: May 27th, 2020


This essay focuses on theories of personality. Specifically, it looks at interpersonal theory and psychoanalytic social theory. It covers strengths and limitations of these theories, as well as their similarities and differences. Personality is a critical aspect in understanding the study of the human psychology. These theories offer ways through which one can understand personal traits and behaviors. Moreover, they also provide fundamental frameworks for analyzing and classifying a wide range of information on personal behaviors and characteristics. These theories also allow one to understand individual differences and personal development in people. In addition, they also provide the basic framework for understanding psychological disorders, their causes, nature, and interventions.

Basic or underlying assumptions

Sullivan’s interpersonal theory makes an important assumption about interpersonal relationship among people. The theorist assumes that personality depends on the relationship one has developed with others. Sullivan’s interpersonal theory recognizes the importance of developmental stages in an individual (Zucker, 1989).

Interpersonal theory notes that personality consists of an energy system. The energy is in the form of tension, which is suitable for action or in the form of energy transformation, which represents the action. Sullivan’s theory also assumes that tension has both needs and anxiety. The theory uses dynamism to reflect various sets of behaviors, which may refer to a given area of the body or tensions.

Interpersonal theory posits that individuals acquire a given set of self-images in developmental stages. Sullivan believed that these were subjective perceptions, and he termed them as personifications. The theory also assumes that there three areas of cognition, which are prototaxic, parataxic, and syntaxic. Finally, Sullivan’s theory provides seven stages of interpersonal development from infancy to adulthood with changes that take place during transition from one stage to the next one.

Karen Horney’s psychoanalytic social theory assumes that social and cultural experiences are critical in determining one’s personality (Feist and Feist, 2009). Hence, social and cultural factors are important than biological factors in determining one’s personality. Individuals who do not receive affection and love in childhood develop basic hostility. This leads to a condition of basic anxiety toward their parents. The theory assumes that one may overcome basic anxiety by moving toward, against, or away from other people.

Neurotics may only use one of the above modes to relate with others as opposed to normal people who may use any of them. Neurotic compulsive behavior results in intrapsychic conflict, which could cause glorified self-image or self-hatred. One may express such self-image in forms of glory, claims, or pride and self-hatred as self-contempt or alienation.

Deterministic versus free will

Horney’s theory asserts that social and cultural childhood experiences influence one’s personality. On this note, Horney believed in deterministic ideology regarding life. In other words, psychoanalytic social theory shows that individuals have no capacity to choose who they become. Hence, culture and social interactions determined what one could become in terms of personality. To this point, one can conclude that Horney’s theory eliminates the concept of free will. On the contrary, one may argue that an individual can choose who they become through moving to a new environment or by choosing new sets of social and cultural values. These changes would not have any impacts on personality because any changes in personality would still depend on the cultural and social values of the new environment. This implies that an individual’s self-imposed determination cannot affect personality development (Buss and Greiling, 1999).

Sullivan’s interpersonal theory also maintains the concept of social determinism. The perspective of interpersonal relation determines one’s personality, especially in childhood developmental stages. Sullivan aimed to improve on Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis. Freud believed that psychoanalysis was science, and all mental processes were strictly determined. This implies that interpersonal theory rejected free will because freedom could be an illusion, and there was no genuine freedom. It could become complex in cases where people determined such choices unconsciously.

Scientific methods use the truth of determinism to prove points. This makes the free will a difficult concept to prove or verify empirically. In other words, psychologists cannot understand personality based on free will because science requires corresponding explanations for all outcomes. Hence, determinism supports views of these theorists. In any case, one cannot simply grasp what it means to be free. Mental determinism implies that mental activities must possess psychic causes.

Awareness of self

Psychologists have identified both conscious and unconscious behaviors in their subjects. A person is aware of his or her conscious behaviors. On the other hand, unconscious behaviors take place because of a natural response, such as breathing. However, from psychologists’ point of view, conscious and unconscious behaviors rely on an individual’s knowledge about motivation. For instance, when one considers conscious behavior, he or she knows the behavior and its motivation. On the other hand, one engages in unconscious behavior without understanding or knowing his or her motivation.

For instance, one may scream at the sight of a snake or may hate another race without necessarily understanding the motivation that drives his or her behavior. Such a person is unaware of the true reason for such a behavior because its rationale is deep in the mind. As a result, they begin to rationalize about its true motivation. Psychologists believe that unconscious behavior results from unconscious motivation. Hence, human beings are rational people, who strive to rationalize motivation for their behaviors. This provides an opportunity to overcome unrealistic behaviors.

In awareness of self, Horney believed that people required conscious efforts. He notes that many people were not fully aware of factors that motivated their behaviors. Hence, several factors, which determined a person’s behaviors, took place unconsciously (Feist and Feist, 2009). Unconscious determinants were critical in influencing one’s actions and behaviors (Modell, 2012). Horney believed in the power and impacts on the conscious, social and cultural motivations on the unconscious behaviors.

On unconscious determinants, Sullivan also shared a similar idea as Horney. For instance, Sullivan believed that a child’s needs were intrinsic and biological influenced. These theorists rated high on the power of unconscious determinants.


This essay has explored theories of personality. Specifically, it focused on interpersonal theory and psychoanalytic social theory. It covered strengths and limitations of these theories, as well as their similarities and differences. Sullivan highlights the importance of interpersonal relation in determining personality in which childhood experiences are critical factors of influence. On the other hand, Horney shows the relevance of social and cultural values in determining personality.

Although these theories are different, they have a common framework for explaining individual personality. Both theories rate high on unconscious motives. The theories show that people fail to use conscious efforts in awareness of self. In addition, they also eliminate the concept of free will because psychology is science, which requires explanations based empirical facts.


Buss, D., and Greiling, H. (1999). Adaptive Individual Differences. Journal of Personality 67(2), 209–243. Web.

Feist, J., and Feist, G. (2009). Theories of personality (7th ed.). New York: McGraw Hill.

Modell, A. (2012). Psychoanalysis, Neuroscience and the Unconscious Self. Psychoanalytic review 99(4), 475-83.

Zucker, H. (1989). Premises of Interpersonal Theory. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 6, 401-419.

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