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Dynamic Systems Theory and Psychodynamic World View

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Psychology
Wordcount: 3161 words Published: 10th Apr 2018

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  • Emma Levey

Psychodynamic world view

The psychodynamic view focuses on underlying subconscious and unconscious processes, as well as the conscious. Emphasis is placed on stage progression, overcoming conflicts, and emotions (Miller, 2011, p. 106/134) with the most famous psychodynamic theory being that of Freud (Miller, 2011, p.110). Four criteria will be outlined and illustrated with Freudian examples, before considering whether an article fits within the world view.

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The first criterion is that of human nature, of which humans are passive and active. Humans are passive due to the role underlying forces play in driving humans to act and they are active through coping with these forces and attempting to obtain and maintain equilibrium through reducing conflict. The ego is the most active personality structure as it self-organises through regulating stimulation arising from the self and the environment, actively deciding the behaviour to exhibit and continuously processing information (Miller, 2011, p. 134).

The second criteria concerns qualitative or quantitative development, with both being used in this world view. Qualitative development is shown through in two ways, with the first being that the world view advocates stage development, for example the stages of sexual drive dominance in Freud’s theory. The second way is through acquisition of defence mechanisms and new structures, such as the superego (Miller, 2011, p. 134). However, quantitative change is also possible, as the strength of defence mechanisms and of the structures (such as the ego), can differ which results in potential for quantitative change (Miller, 2011, p. 134).

With regards to nature and nurture, the psychodynamic view takes an interactionist stance. Nature is evident via a focus on biological maturation through changes in hormones and biological, unconscious and powerful drives. These drives motivate (e.g. via the Id, Ego and Superego structures) children’s development and behaviour to achieve drive satisfaction (Miller, 2011, p. 111-112). However, nurture-based influences (e.g. parents) also play a part by affecting expression of these nature-based drives. This interaction of nature-based drives and nurture-based constraints dictates drive expression within the environment, with interaction at a young age setting the pattern for learning and coping in later life (Miller, 2011, p. 120, 134-135). Nurture effects are seen to be more important in the first five years of life than later life as the child is particularly impressionable at this time (Miller, 2011, p. 135).

The final criteria is teleology. Development is seen to have an endpoint (Dixon & Lerner, 1999), which in Freud’s theory is maturation, and is unidirectional as it progresses towards this endpoint. Regression through stages is possible and often frequent, occurring when anxieties become too difficult to cope with (Dixon & Lerner, 1999; Miller, 2011, p. 115). Finally, causality is multidirectional due to the interactional effects of nature and nurture resulting in a causal effect on development.

Salvatore, S., Eleonora, L. P., Marco, L. (2013). Trauma and the Father Image: Fantasies and Complexes in the Rorschach Test. The Open Psychology Journal, 6, 1-5 doi: 10.2174/1874350101306010001.

In the interpretation of the Rorschach test, the features of the table IV inkblot evoke a dimension of authority, morals and related emotions. Interestingly, the father figure is related to ego development and also guides towards maturity via more evolved emotions such as feelings of shame and guilt. In some cases these feelings are found to be lacking in adults experiencing depression. The aim of this work is to analyze the relationship between the representational world in relation to the father figure and depressive mood disorders. The group of subjects is composed of 25 patients who had a psychiatric diagnosis of “Depressive episode”. The presence of specific phenomena brings out the complexes, the uneasy and conflictual relationship with the father figure submerged in the unconscious thus emerges. Shock is thereby manifested in relation to the black in which the large, dark, and blurred stimulus is perceived as sinister, threatening and dangerous. The trauma emerges in the result of a relationship with a father who has not allowed the child to manage similarities and differences. From the nature of the answers of the Rorschach protocols, it emerges that the symbolic abilities of subjects are not fully developed or have been attacked by an early trauma.

Human nature in this article was both active and passive. Passive nature is shown by the example of the unconscious drives as “The presence of specific phenomena brings out the complexes, the uneasy and conflictual relationship with the father figure submerged in the unconscious thus emerges” (Salvatore, Eleoniora & Marco 2013, p. 1); with the “specific phenomena” in this case being the inkblot used to elicit an underlying response concerning the father. Human nature is active through participants “subjectively organizing the content and form of the stimuli presented to him” (2013, p. 1). Active self-organization is shown through dealing with the self (e.g. father anxiety) and the external inkblot stimulus which enables participants too actively “express his feelings and give shapes and meaning to what he sees” (2013, p. 1). The active environment can be seen in the Rorschach test which “prompts the translation of things and feelings into words” and due to the external father’s negative influences on “space for the imagination” resulting in the statement that “symbolic abilities of subjects are not fully developed” (2013, p. 1-2).

In this retrospective study, neither qualitative nor quantitative change was considered, so speculation into both should be done. Potential evidence for qualitative change concerns the inkblot used, which requires a developed imagination ability due to its intensity. Thus, use of this inkblot is linked with “the emergence of a new level of mental functioning” and the acquisition of a new qualitative skill, “the ability to imagine” (Salvatore et al., 2013, p. 1). Other qualitative change could be the development of a new defence mechanism to aid coping with negative father experience. Quantitative change could concern an increase or decrease in ego strength, as a result of the father being “related to ego development” (2013, p. 2).

Thirdly, Salvatore and colleagues (2013) emphasize nurture through their focus on father influence. The inkblot used evokes “father figure symbolization” with the father’s importance shown as he becomes “the receptacle holding the feeling of omnipotence” (Salvatore et al., 2013, p. 1). The importance of early nurture experience is shown as the “compromised paternal representation, formulated in the inner world at an early age” influences adulthood as it exists timelessly in the “perpetuated unconscious” (2013, p. 5). Also, participants lacked symbolic ability due to “an early trauma” emerging as “the result of a relationship with a father” (2013, p. 1). As nature is not directly considered, one potential way in which its effects could be seen concerns the participants with depression and the fathers relation to ego development via more evolved emotions, which are “lacking in adults experiencing depression” (2013, p. 2). As depression is a chemical imbalance, this could be seen as a mediation effect of nature (via depression), upon evolved emotions influenced by the father (nurture) resulting in less advanced development due to this interaction.

Concerning teleology, it can be implied that maturity is considered to be the developmental endpoint as the father figure and his relationship with the ego “guides towards maturity” (Salvatore et al., 2013, p. 2). This also implies unidirectional development, as development proceeds towards maturity. In contrast with the criterion, the article advocates unidirectional causality as it focuses on early father impact upon progression towards maturity “as the father figure (…) guides towards maturity via more evolved emotions such as feelings of shame and guilt,” and no mention is made of causality derived from the person (2013, p. 1). This may be due to the retrospective nature of the study as participants are purely reflecting on their relationships with their fathers. Also, no explicit mention of regression is made.

In conclusion, the article of Salvatore and colleagues (2013) is psychodynamic due to its acknowledgement of various required criteria, such as human nature. However, for it to completely fit in the world view it also should have considered, multidirectional causality, regression and explicitly considered qualitative and quantitative change within the study.

Dynamic Systems Theory

Dynamic systems theory (DST) is a holistic view due to behaviour only being understood through considering the multiple and mutual interaction of all system levels in self-organizing systems, with the organism-in-context as the unit of analysis (Miller, 2011, p. 414). Four DST criteria will be presented and an article which fits within DST presented and discussed.

In DST, human nature is active and inseparable from the active environment, and thus the person and environment should not be considered separate due to their constant interaction within the developmental system. The active individual is shown through its ability to construct behaviour through experience within a part of the larger system (Miller, 2011, p. 421) and also through self-organisation (change through the organisms own activities) (Thelen & Smith, 2006, p. 259 cited in Lerner, Lewin-Bizan & Warren, 2011, p. 28). The environment is active through the role of experience and its participation with the organism in mutual interaction. This interaction is important in determining development as the environmental task and the motivations and skills of a person both control and influence the developing factor at a certain time and situation, within the larger system.

The second criteria concerns change, which is constant, given and based upon the continuous interaction of the individual and the environment. Change can be on a small or large scale, with smaller scale change having the potential to cause large scale system changes. It is also considered on a moment-to-moment time scale or over a longer period (Miller, 2011, p. 417). Change can be quantitative and qualitative, although qualitative change often results due to an accumulation of underlying quantitative change until a critical threshold is passed, resulting in a novel qualitative skill emerging (Miller, 2011, p. 417, 421).

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The third criteria concerns the nature nurture distinction, which is redundant due to DST’s interactionist stance (Thelen & Smith n.d, cited in Lerner et al., 2011, p. 28; Miller, 2011, p. 418). As such, nature and nurture are equally important in development as change occurs due to the organism-context relation. Developmental diversity is the result of differences in the timing of this interaction (Lerner et al., 2011, p. 29).

The final criteria is teleology. Regression is seen as possible because the system can regress to a previous attractor state if required. Multiple possible endpoints exist due to the infinite ways in which system parts can combine and result in developmental paths (Thelen & Smith, 1998, 2006 cited in Lerner et al., 2011, p. 30). Both the ability to regress and the concept of multiple end points suggests multidirectional development. Finally, causality is configural as development concerns bidirectional relationships “within and across fused levels of organisation” which change over time (Lerner et al., 2011, p. 29).

Granic, I., O’Hara, A., Pepler, D., & Lewis, M. D., (2007). A Dynamic Systems analysis of parent-child changes associated with successful “real-world” interventions for aggressive children. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 35, 845-857. doi:10.1007/s10802-007-9133-4.

Studies have shown that improved parenting mediates treatment outcomes for aggressive children, but we lack fine-grained descriptions of how parent–child interactions change with treatment. The current study addresses this gap by applying new dynamic systems methods to study parent–child emotional behavior patterns. These methods tap moment-to-moment changes in interaction processes within and across sessions and quantify previously unmeasured processes of change related to treatment success. Aggressive children and their parents were recruited from combined Parent Management Training and Cognitive-behavioral programs in “real world” clinical settings. Behavioral outcomes were assessed by reports from parents and clinicians. At pre- and post-treatment, home visits were videotaped while parents and children discussed consecutively: a positive topic, a mutually unresolved problem, and another positive topic. Results showed that significant improvements in children’s externalizing behavior were associated with increases in parent–child emotional flexibility during the problem-solving discussion. Also, dyads who improved still expressed negative emotions, but they acquired the skills to repair conflicts, shifting out of their negative interactions to mutually positive patterns.

The article fits in with the criteria of human nature as it constantly considers the parent (environmental influence)-child interactions throughout the study, with “The parent-child interactions of children who showed clinically significant improvements (IMPs) were compared to those of children who did not improve (NIMPs)” (Granic et al., 2007, p. 847). This therefore shows parent and child to be equally important and inseparable as the analysis focuses on their interaction instead of separate effects. Another example of the environment and the child as inseparable and active is flexibility, “the ability to shift from one emotional state to another according to contextual demands (2007, p. 846). This shows the active child’s role in shifting emotional states and the environment’s role as a trigger.

One way in which the article adheres to DST’s concept of change concerns real-time interactions, which are “the proximal engines of development” (Granic et al., 2007, p. 846), showing this moment-to-moment change to be important. This is further supported by tmeasurement of “moment-to-moment changes in interaction processes with and across sessions” (2007, p. 845). Granic and colleagues used multiple time scales by also focusing on a longer twelve week period, showing a focus on continuous change (2007). Both qualitative and quantitative change are evident. Quantitative change can be seen in the measurement of increases or decreases in anti-social behaviour across pre- to post- treatment. Qualitative differences were shown as “children were classified as “Improvers” (IMPs) or “Non-Improvers” (NIMPs) based on a combination of the information” from the two quantitative measures (2007, p. 850). Thus, children’s qualitative improvement status in anti-social behaviour was determined by quantitative changed in measure scores passing a threshold (e.g. 20 points reduction in one measure) to determine which group they were classified as.

The interaction of nature and nurture, required for the third criteria of DST, is also shown in this article, as it focuses upon “how parent-child interactions change with treatment” (Granic et al., 2007, p. 845) thus showing an integration of child and environment (in the form of the mother and the effect on the treatment). These interactions were the main focus in the study, showing there to be an interaction between nature and nurture in explaining the behaviour targeted in the article (anti-social behaviour) as the researchers applied “dynamic systems methods to study parent-child emotional behavioural patterns” (2007, p. 845), as “parent-child interactions were observed and videotaped” (2007, p. 848).

The final criteria is teleology. Despite there being no specific reference to multiple end points, it was suggested that of an infinite number of combinations of system parts is possible, as “the dyad’s trajectory(…) is plotted in real time on a grid representing all possible behavioral combinations”, suggesting multiple developmental paths with different endpoints (Granic et al., 2007, p. 850). Regression was considered as whilst IMPs showed increased flexibility from baseline, NIMPs showed a “decrease in flexibility”(2007, p. 854). Multidirectionality of development is also seen due to the ability to regress and also because state-space grids “were constructed separately for each dyad”, showing different trajectories (2007, p. 850). Finally, bidirectional, configural causality was shown as behaviour improvements were “associated with increases in parent-child emotional flexibility” with the consideration that “reciprocal parent-child warmth and affection may be a cause of improvements in children’s aggressive behaviour” (2007, p. 845/854). This showed parent (environment) and child to exert an interactional causal effect on externalizing behaviour.

In conclusion, the above article fits within the DST world view due to its consideration of the environment and a child as a constant interaction, its focus on multiple change time scales, nature-nurture interaction, and its multidirectional view on causality and development.


Dixon, R. A., & Lerner, R. M. (1999). A history of systems in developmental psychology. In M.H. Bornstein, & M.E. Lamb (Eds.) Developmental Psychology: An advanced textbook. Fourth Edition. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Granic, I., O’Hara, A., Pepler, D., & Lewis, M. D., (2007). A Dynamic Systems analysis of parent-child changes associated with successful “real-world” interventions for aggressive children. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 35, 845-857. doi:10.1007/s10802-007-9133-4

Lerner, R.M., Lewin-Bizan, S., & Warren, A.E.A. (2011). Concepts and theories of human development. In M.H. Bornstein, & M.E. Lamb, (Eds.) Developmental Science: An advanced textbook. Sixth Edition. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Miller, P. H. (2011). Theories of Developmental Psychology. New York, NY : Worth.

Salvatore, S., Eleonora, L. P., Marco, L. (2013). Trauma and the Father Image: Fantasies and Complexes in the Rorschach Test. The Open Psychology Journal, 6, 1-5 doi:10.2174/1874350101306010001


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