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Review of "The Psychodynamics of Gender and Gender Role"

By Robert F. Bornstein & Joseph M. Masling (editors)
American Psychological Association, 2002
Review by Dan L. Rose, Psy.D. on Dec 18th 2002
The Psychodynamics of Gender and Gender Role

This is the tenth volume in Masling and Bornstein’s effort to wed psychoanalytic theory with empirical research. For those familiar with the history of psychoanalytic theory, such an enterprise can be seen as either a welcome matrimony or an ill suited shotgun wedding. Previous volumes have tackled various constructs dear to psychoanalytic clinicians. This volume wades into some controversial waters. Ever since Gloria Steinem and her feminist ilk began using Freud as a punching bag for his “patriarchal" view of women, combining gender and psychoanalysis in a sentence, never mind a full book, has not been for the faint of heart.

The first chapter begins as it does for many of the previous volumes, as a declaration of intent. It is made clear by the editors that this series is an attempt to combine the strengths of empirical validation with the strengths of clinical observation so championed by psychoanalytic theory. The tone of the opening chapter at least implicitly leans in favor of empiricism, hinting that psychoanalytic thought needs a rigorous grounding to avoid going the way of the dinosaur. This point is driven home by a meta-analysis of past attempts at scientific exploration of psychoanalytic gender research, showing an embarrassing absence of exploration with subjects other than men, by researchers that are almost exclusively men. In the past, it seems, ideas on gender in psychoanalytic theory were based on assumption, distortion and speculation.

The second chapter, by Cain, reviews social-cognitive theory research in respect to children’s individual (including gender) experiences of helplessness in response to task achievement motivation. Cain gives an extensive review of empirical studies related to the topic, exclusively from social cognitive model. Cain then presents a developmental model of child helplessness built mostly from social-cognitive research and theory.

The truly remarkable third chapter tackles the core psychoanalytic construct of primary process thinking, its role in creativity and its relation to gender. The author Russ presents research (using the Rorschach and a coding system for children’s play) linking ideas of both psychoanalytic and cognitive theory. Both schools of thought view the use of primary process thinking (here defined as affect laden cognitions) as necessary for creativity and play. However, Russ demonstrates that incidences of affect-laden cognition are more common for boys during creative play than for girls, with this difference explained as boys having a higher aggressive content in their play. Russ hypothesizes that western socialization, along with the possibility of physiological differences and evolutionary trends, has effectively stifled the feminine expression of primary process, particularly through limiting aggressiveness. This has lead to the lack of adaptive use of primary process in creativity for women.

The fourth chapter, authored by Cramer, explores defense mechanisms, particularly the defenses of denial, projection and identification. The author utilizes the Thematic Apperception Test and the Defensive Mechanism Manual to support the theory that these defenses are developmentally linked (denial is more common for children, projection for early adolescence and identification for late adolescence), that awareness of a defense decreases its usage, and that defenses are used unconsciously. Furthermore, support is lent for the theory that defenses are used when a threat is perceived, that defenses mediate negative arousal and that the use of developmentally early defenses by adults is associated with psychopathology. Cramer also shows empirical support for gender differences and defensive style, with women more likely to use denial (internalizing conflict) and men using projection (externalizing conflict). Further data suggests that reliance on denial as a defense for both genders leads to psychopathology, while women who utilize more “masculine” externalizing defenses appear healthier.

Fowler, Brunnschweiler, and Brock contribute a chapter devoted to the exploration of bulimia in women. Using demographics, the Rorschach and behavioral observation, the authors study women diagnosed with the eating disorder and compare them to women without the diagnosis in an effort to test their hypothesis that a key factor in the disorder is a development conflict between dependency and autonomy. Their results lend support for this hypothesis.

 Brody, Muderrisoglu, and Nakash-Eisikovitz, again uses the psychodynamic notion of ego defenses as a point of empirical exploration. The authors propose, with supportive data, that women’s sense of self is preserved through communion (relationships with others) and that men‘s sense of self is maintained through autonomy (achievement and a sense of agency). Using a bevy of self report measures, the authors conclude that women use internalizing defenses to preserve relationships (thereby defending the self) and men a variety of externalizing defenses to maintain a sense of autonomy (also defending a sense of self). These findings are converted to clinical caveats, chief being the need for clinicians to stray from assuming a defense is “healthy” or “pathological” without first considering the role of gender.

Sohlberg and Jansson present a complex study of internal objects by using the tachistoscopic Subliminal Psychoanalytic Activation procedure. Here the phrase “Mommy and I are one” is presented subliminally, hypothetically inducing unconscious defense against symbiosis. Though little in the way of direct statistical significance is uncovered, the authors contend that the even smaller results for women suggest the complexity of female personality development.

Tangney and Dearing finally broach a Freudian construct still raising much ire, namely Freud’s notion that women have “undeveloped” superegos or immature moral development. Using data from their research and a review of relevant literature, the authors show that findings are actually the opposite of Freud’s predications. Women show higher propensities for shame and guilt (hypothesized as more mature moral emotions). However, the difference is slight (men aren’t immune from shame and guilt either), shame proneness reflects greater degrees of maladjustment for both genders, and guilt proneness reflects better adjustment for both genders. Since women as a gender have a propensity for both shame and guilt, they receive the best and worst of both worlds.  

There are a plethora of strengths in this volume. In fact, any undertaking that attempts a synthesis of psychoanalytic theory with constructs outside its insular halls is to be commended. Dusting off theoretical constructs that have often been thought too fanciful for “real science” and showing their utility in understanding the human condition is commendable. In fact, one could argue that, as the social sciences become more sophisticated in their ability to operationalize and test ideas, the often neglected hidden treasures of psychoanalytic theory could be a wellspring for advancing our understanding of humanity.

However, the volume does have its weaknesses. Though most of these studies do little violence to the original psychoanalytic ideas in their operationalizing and testing, one could argue that others so distort the basic constructs that they cease to be psychoanalytic.  In addition, some chapters, like that of Cain’s, don’t seem to be really psychoanalytic at all. Furthermore, one could argue as to how “empirical" some of these chapters actually are. Projective tests like the Rorschach and TAT, often criticized for their subjectivities, are the standard of measure in a few of the studies presented. Also, there was little direct connection between the studies here and clinical treatment. Psychoanalytic theory was born in the consulting room, and its ultimate utility lies there.

Quibbles aside, this volume and the entire series is quite simply wonderful. To those who teach psychoanalytic theory, wish to advance research or are simply intrigued by the vagaries of the inner world, endeavors such as this are the rare treat. Often, psychological research seems removed from the conflict of existence, appearing too often as bland, laboratory white versions of individual experience. Say what you will about psychoanalytic theory. Even at its extremes, it can provide a necessary tonic to the often dreadfully unfanciful crawl of cognitive and clinical researches. Here’s to more books such as this.


© 2002 Dan L. Rose 

Dan L. Rose, Psy.D. is a Clinical Psychologist involved in direct clinical work and training at Columbus State University and in private practice. His interests include psychoanalysis, neuroscience, religion and literature.