Culture and Psychology. What Freud and Jung missed

by | Feb 15, 2024 | 0 comments

Culture and Psychology. What Freud and Jung missed

By: Fernando Lanzer


Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung were the founding fathers of psychoanalysis and influenced generations of psychologists, psychiatrists and psychotherapists all over the world to this day. This paper explores the fact that they were oblivious to cultural differences, treating culture as if it were a universal phenomenon rather than having differentiating characteristics. Being oblivious to such differences also means that they were not aware of how their own unique cultures influenced their own upbringing, professional development, and even their own thinking about culture. Knowing what we know today about culture allows us to examine psychoanalysis in a different light and better understand how it was created and developed to become what it is in the 21st Century.

Keywords: Psychoanalysis, Contest Culture, Well-Oiled Machine Culture, Reason, Emotions.


We know that culture influences everything we do (1), but we sometimes forget that this is not a new phenomenon: cultural values have always influenced the behavior of community members since the beginning of history itself. Therefore, it is safe to say that all the great thinkers of human history have been a product of their culture, or to say the least, greatly influenced by the cultural values of their communities in their times.

Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, both founders of psychoanalysis and the main influencing forces behind most psychotherapy approaches of the 20th Century, were no exceptions to this rule. Yet, we often think of their ideas as universal, forgetting that they were a product of certain cultures and certain times, with all the limitations that this entails. We also need to consider that both of them and their immediate followers and contemporary scientists of the human psyche, spoke about psychology, personality development, and psychotherapy from a universalist perspective, totally devoid of the awareness of cultural differences. This was simply because they were ignorant, at the time, of what we take for granted a century later: that different cultures influence people’s behaviors in significant ways, meaning that they themselves (Freud, Jung and other pioneers of “the talking cure,” the very beginning of psychotherapy as a recognized method of treatment and of personality development) were not aware that their very theoretical proposals were not necessarily universal, but rather a product of (and applicable to) certain cultures coherent with their own value-systems.

Freud’s Friends

Sigmund Freud is widely regarded as a genius because, like others before him in other fields of science and art, he was able to think beyond his time and advance human knowledge to a whole new level. He found a breakthrough in psychology by proposing that the human psyche is composed of conscious, subconscious, and unconscious parts and described how our behavior can be driven by impulses of which we are not aware (2). In doing that, he pushed beyond centuries of philosophy prevalent in most cultures that based the notion of human nature on the functioning of conscious thinking. By contrast, Freud proposed that the human mind is composed of an Ego, Superego, and Id, and described the dynamics of contradicting forces that were the root of mental illnesses while also explaining the logic behind behaviors and feelings that were, until that time, basically inexplicable.

He described mental processes from a universalist perspective, basically stating that “this is how people are”. It was assumed that everyone was like that and subject to the same processes. All little boys need to cope with an Oedipus complex, an unconscious desire to kill their fathers and replace them as husbands to their mothers, as a way of crawling back into their mother’s womb. Of course, when describing these ideas over a hundred years ago, Freud was hailed as a genius by some and hated as a heretic by many others.

He was an avid researcher of anthropology, history, culture, archeology, religion, and ancient philosophy; yet, for all his knowledge in these human sciences, he never wandered into the core values of cultures and how different sets of cultural values might affect human individuals in different ways. This path was something to be explored almost a century later by Geert Hofstede (3). 

What Freud, Jung, and basically most psychoanalysts up until 1970 failed to realize is that different cultures breed different styles of superegos, different sets of psychological values and norms that influence individual personalities. Of course, this is consistent with the cultures from which psychoanalysis originated: individualist cultures in which a universalist perspective is preferred.

It is important to note, at this point, that one should be aware of an important distinction between Freudian psychodynamics (his theory of personality) and Freudian psychoanalysis (his form of psychotherapy).

Freudian psychodynamics formed the basis of 20th-century psychology and remained the foundation of most personality theories well into the current times. The terms ego and superego have been incorporated into the vernacular in most cultures all over the world (although the term id is less popular). People use these terms rather frequently without a second thought, and even Freud’s critics use them often. Freud’s psychodynamics are at the core of the concepts espoused by psychologists who take pride in saying they “are not Freudian”. 

Psychoanalysis (as a form of psychotherapy) enjoys a different status. One might say that it is actually controversial since many professionals (and patients) swear by it, while others are staunch critics. Trying to rise above the controversy, we could say that psychoanalysis works for some cases but not for others. It is effective as therapy for some afflictions, but there are other approaches that are much more effective for certain kinds of patients. And we must acknowledge the influence of cultural values underneath all this.

Freud’s theories are a typical product of a Germanic Well-Oiled Machine culture worldview, to use the term coined by Huib Wursten (4). His theories are the pinnacle of rational mechanic thinking taken to the extreme: he created a consistent and complex rational model to explain the irrational. Yes, his thinking was ahead of his time (one hundred years later there are still many who have difficulty in understanding his ideas). And it’s quite logical that psychodynamics and psychoanalysis would emerge and blossom in Well-oiled Machine cultures, subsequently endorsed by other individualistic cultures such as the US and UK, before branching out to most of the world.

Freud’s followers were initially mostly from individualistic cultures. Rather than managing emotions through their expression and allowing emotions to become a vibrant part of their personalities, they continued to suppress their emotions (influenced by the Germanic and Anglo-Saxon emotion-suppressing cultures they had been brought up in), endorsed Freud’s rational analysis and explanations of emotions and built further upon that base: the understanding of emotions through reason, as a way of maintaining them under control.

Freud’s foes

Psychoanalysis remains, in essence, a therapeutic tool to develop a rational understanding and control of emotions. As such, it can be quite efficient in treating mental illnesses that derive from the difficulty in controlling emotions. However, when the mental issues at hand are actually of a different nature, deriving precisely from a lack of awareness of emotions, the “talking cure” (as psychoanalysis was sometimes referred to at its beginning by its critics) can have the effect of sustaining the illness rather than promoting the cure. Other approaches, such as Jacob Moreno’s psychodrama (5), Fritz Perls’ Gestalt therapy (6), and Wilhelm Reich’s inquiries into the role of sexual orgasm (7), tackled mental illness from a different angle: they saw rationality as part of the problem, rather than part of the solution; they sought to develop a patient’s ability to get more in touch with their emotions and avoid rationality as a way to avoid emotional contact.

Hofstede linked the expression of emotions to a high score in Uncertainty Avoidance (UAI). Indeed we can observe that low UAI cultures (Contest, Machine and Network) tended to espouse and promote rational approaches like psychoanalysis (and also Albert Ellis’ Rational Emotional Therapy, which was all rational and not at all emotional) (8). In Pyramid, Solar System, and Family cultures, these rational approaches enjoyed less of a following, comparatively, and the more emotional and physical approaches grew in popularity, consistent with these cultures’ greater acceptance of emotional expression.

On the other hand, Freud’s ideas were also heavily criticized in Contest cultures as being “unscientific” simply because they had not been a product of field research studies and could not be verified in laboratories under controlled conditions. This gave rise to another school of psychological thought: Skinner’s Behavioral Psychology (9).

Skinner’s approach was that only behavior could be observed and verified under controlled conditions in a laboratory. All these notions of superego, ego and id were mere fantasies, since one could not actually observe values, reason and emotions, but only their expression through physical behavior. This perspective, stating that “only what can be observed and verified under controlled conditions can be called science,” has been a cornerstone of Contest and Machine cultures for 300 years.

In the 1960’s and 1970’s the non-rational approaches were endorsed in the US by the Humanists and the Hippie movement; they became part of a thriving counterculture and there was even an Association of Humanistic Psychology formed as an alternative to the more conservative American Psychology Association. (Full disclosure: I was a member of the AHP).

Carl Rogers (10) became the most prominent spokesperson for the alternative approaches to Behaviorism. He famously remarked that looking for psychological solutions in a laboratory was akin to the old joke about a drunken man who is looking for his watch in the living room; although he knows that he dropped it on the street, but in his living room, the lights are on, and he can see, while outside in the street it is still dark. The difficulty in dealing with mental phenomena outside a laboratory should not mean that we should only look to understand them inside a laboratory.

However, since psychoanalysis supported the supremacy of reason and the suppression of emotions, and this was consistent with Contest, Machine and Network values, it survived the criticism and is even enjoying a revival (11). At the same time, the hippie counter-culture movement did not survive into the 21st Century despite this being heralded as “the dawning of the Age of Aquarius,” an era when human consciousness would expand beyond the boundaries of rationalism (12).


Cultural values affect psychological schools of thought. They affect the very notion of what we call “science” and what we consider to be “unscientific.”

An Argentinian author (13) remarked that the word “science” refers to “knowledge” in Latin. Therefore, all knowledge could be referred to as “science.” The idea that science can only refer to what can be verified under controlled conditions is a cultural construct created by British 18th Century philosophers (14) and endorsed in the Contest, Machine  and Network cultures. It should not necessarily be regarded as truly universal, but rather as an idea that is perceived as universal within these cultures, but not beyond them.

We must look at Freud’s and Jung’s ideas (and also at every psychology author anywhere) as a product of their culture in a given time and place. Those who criticize Freud in absolute terms should realize that, from the perspective of the cultural reality in Austria in the early 20th Century, everything he wrote about was true… and most of it remains true to this very day, although we now know that different cultures affect how superegos are developed and how people deal with their emotions differently. One could argue that, from a Well-oiled Machine culture perspective, Freud was always right, and continues to be right; while from a Social Pyramid (for instance) perspective it was (and continues to be) a different story.


  1. Wursten, Huib and Lanzer, Fernando – The New Narrative – Unpublished, Amsterdam, 2024
  2. Freud, Sigmund – O Homem Moisés e a Religião Monoteísta – Porto Alegre, L&PM Editores, 2013.
  3. Hofstede, Geert – Culture’s Consequences – London, Sage, 2003.
  4. Wursten, Huib – The Seven Mental Images of National Culture –Leading and Managing in a globalized World. AMAZON Books ISBN: 9781687633347, 2019.
  5. Moreno, Jacob – Psychodrama – Psychodrama Press, 2020.
  6. Perls, Frederick S. – Gestalt Therapy Verbatim – Gestalt Therapy Press, 1992.
  7. Reich, Wilhelm – The function of the orgasm –  Profile Books, 1989.
  8. Ellis, Albert – Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy – American Psychological Association, 2019.
  9. Skinner, B. F. – Beyond Freedom and Dignity – Bantam Press, 1984.
  10. Rogers, Carl – On Becoming a Person – Robinson Publishing, 1977. 
  11. The Guardian – Psychoanalysis has returnedwhy 2023 brought a new Freud revival –
  12. Hair, the Musical – Music Sales Ltd., 2015. 
  13. Quevedo, Padre – Interviewed by Marilia Gabriela – YouTube:,vid:qq5pEEYEm68,st:0
  14. Hume, David – A Treatise of Human Nature – Penguin Classics, 1986.


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