One of the most fundamental questions for the field of psychology - indeed of all human questing for knowledge - is how it is that we come to be the way that we are. What is it that makes us human? And to what extent is human nature shared and to what extent are we each unique? Two of the founding scholars of the discipline of psychology - Sigmund Freud and George Herbert Mead - both created models to explain how fundamental and arguably universal human psychic structures developed. Their models do not entirely refute each other, but they do propose distinctly different interior roadmaps of the human psyche as well as very different pathways by which core psychic structures develop.
We may begin by examining Mead's model, which was an Interactionist one. Interactionism was one of the most important developments in psychological (as well as educational and general social scientific) theory in the 20th century. The Interactionist view insists that the "mind" and the "self" are not an a priori part of human inheritance (i.e. we are not born with them) but rather we conceive of as these faculties is developed through our experiences and are constructed through a variety of social processed. We each develop ourselves, in other words, through the daily process of interaction between ourselves and all of the other people in our social world. Our idea of the self is thus essentially an internalization of facets of all of our interactions with others.
Mead was perhaps the most eloquent defender of this model, which has profound consequences. If one accepts it, it answers in the strongest possible way that we are indeed our brothers' (and sisters' keepers); indeed, we are their genitors. We each exist (in social and psychological terms) because we have incorporated (and perhaps integrated) the ways that others see us (Mead, 1967, pp. 21-7).
For the Interactionist, each of us is who we are because we develop ourselves through the process of interaction with other people. But not all interactions are equally important to the development of self. Rather, those that occur in intimate, personal communication with others are the most influential. These relationships include familial ones and those with intimate friends - but for the child they also include relationships with teachers and other educators.
The self, or self-concept, as developed by Mead and others, is thus essentially an internalization of aspects of an interpersonal or social process with an emphasis on interactions with certain specific individuals. We are created out of the cloth of how other persons conceive us and this self-concept (while constantly fluctuating and uncertain) nevertheless functions as a guide in social behavior. This includes the social behavior of learning, for we learn not as isolated individuals but within the context of a specific culture and society and historical moment (Mead, 1964, pp. 81-6).
Interactionists argue that we each tend to act in order to preserve the existing or desired image of our self as reflected back as us by others. For the schoolchild, this means that we see ourselves in terms of how our teachers see us: Children come to see themselves as their teachers do. Teachers who are able to value the potential and contributions of each child are thus able to help mold children (through their interactions) into people who value their own ability to learn.
Freud's model of how the most fundamental psychic structures are formed is a more internalized one. He believed that the basic structures of a person's psyche develop very early on and while they arise in part in response to other people, these other people are only those in the family unit. The basic psychic structures were, for Freud, already in place before a child was old enough to have substantial interactions with other people of the type that Mead emphasized. Moreover, there is a greater emphasis in Freud's work on the importance of universal (and therefore necessarily innate) characteristics of cognition and personality (Fredu, 1989, lecture 16, 18).
Freud's basic model of the psyche has become so much a part of the common culture that we no longer necessarily even recognize elements of it as psychoanalytical theory or understand how radical Freud's ideas were when he proposed them. Thus, although we hear the words dozens of times a day, it will perhaps be useful to take the time here to give a clear definition of the term ego, since its definition has grown a bit fuzzy through use since Sigmund Freud coined it.
The word ego is simply Latin word for "I" and is equivalent to the experience that we all have of a "self" or a sense of agency within us. The ego is the connected sense of self or personality that we carry with us across time and space. The ego, this sense of self, is the part of our human psyche that plans and then later remembers, that evaluates and responds to elements of both our physical and social environments.
The idea of the ego (as it is used in Freudian psychoanalytic theory) cannot be fully understood on its own, however, because Freud's model is a synthetic one, one in which different parts of the psyche work with and are in some significant measure defined by each other. The ego may be understood as the part of the human psyche that provides each one of us with a sense of continuity in our lives and a sense of coherency in our responses and understandings - both across time and from one type of situation to another (Freud, 1965, lecture 31).
The ego, as a sense of self, is related to our sense of our own bodies as well as our understanding of and awareness of our own personality, but is not exactly the same as either of these. but, like both body and personality, the ego changes over the lifespan, especially in reaction to dramatic changes in a person's life. (it may be seen from this that while Freud was most certainly more interested in structure than in process, the ideas of structure and process when applied to the human psyche are not diametrically opposed to each other but are more like different ends of a continuum. While this model of the ways in which the psyche is structured and how these various substructures interact with each other was developed by her father, it is also integral to Anna Freud's work as well.)
In addition to the ego, Freud believed that there were two other fundamentally important parts that make up the human psyche: The id and the superego. The id can be seen to be the "oldest" of the three, both in terms of an individual's development as well as (it is generally surmised) in terms of the evolution of the human species. The id is home to those elements of the human psyche that we sometimes consider to be primitive but more properly might call "ancient" - ideas and attitudes about sex, death and aggression. The id - which is simply the Latin word for "it" - is childlike in many ways, not understanding or attending to the passage of time, chaotic, not governed by rational thought processes or logic. The id prompts us to seek out pleasure - preferably immediate pleasure - although we are unaware of these promptings given that it works entirely on the subconscious level (Freud, 1965, lecture 26, 27).
Like the terms "ego" and "superego," the term "defense mechanism" has become so much a part of our normalized daily discourse about the dynamics of the human psyche that we may perhaps fail to consider its more technical definition. For Freud, a defense mechanism was any one of several different unconscious processes that work to provide the…