My first introduction to psychology was in a required social science class in college over 20 years ago, reading Sigmund Freud’s Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. The experience made me think I’d better be careful if I ever had kids: I didn’t want them telling their psychoanalysts how my misadventures in early parenting had scarred them. But while true Freudian psychoanalysts are becoming rarer with each passing year, one of the concepts he advocated has persisted for more than a century: transference.
Freud believed that transference was a fundamental part of the psychoanalytic process, sometimes achieved only after many years of careful therapy. Transference occurred when the patient substituted his or her relationship with the therapist for the troubling past relationship (often with a mother or father figure) that was the root of the patient’s problems. After transference occurred, the patient was much more inclined to remember the key moments that had caused their neurosis, leading eventually to a resolution and cure.
More recently, Susan Andersen and her colleagues have offered a new explanation for transference. Far from being the product of a difficult negotiation between patient and therapist, the application of transference is much more like a stereotype, and is experienced all the time by healthy individuals. For transference to occur, all that is necessary is to encounter a person that reminds you of a significant person in your life — a family member, friend, or lover. Transference in this view is simply the misapplication of the traits of your significant other to this new person.
In a typical study, Andersen’s team has a volunteer describe an important person in their life. Then after some delay, they read a description of a new person that has some similarities with their friend or loved one. In a subsequent memory test, they tend to misapply traits of their loved one to the new person — traits that were never present in the description they read.
Is Andersen’s transference the same as what Freud describes?
One possible difference is that Andersen’s transference appears to arise at moments of cognitive weakness, while Freud’s is said to be the product of intense cognitive effort. Arie Kruglanski and Antonio Perro have devised a clever experiment to test which explanation makes the most sense.
They asked 42 college students to indicate via a survey whether they were “morning people” or “evening people” — whether they functioned best in the morning or at night. They also asked them to describe a significant other as in Andersen’s studies, offering a list of 20 traits that apply to this person and 12 traits that were neutral or irrelevant. Two weeks later they invited the students back for a supposedly unrelated experiment. Half of the morning people were asked to show up at 8 a.m., and the other half at 7 p.m. The evening people were similarly divided. Next they read descriptions of “strangers” that either incorporated eight of the items from their own lists of traits of their loved ones, or instead included items from some other participant’s list.
After a break, they were tested with 15 items, some of which had been used to describe the stranger, some of which were traits they themselves had used to describe their loved ones (but were not included in the description of the stranger), and some of which they had said were irrelevant to their loved ones. Here are the results:
As you can see, when people were at their cognitive best — morning people being tested in the morning, or evening people in the evening — there was no significant difference in the number of false alarms, whether or not the stranger was similar to their loved one. However, when morning people were tested in the evening, or vice versa, a different pattern emerged. Now when the stranger was similar to their loved one, these people had significantly more false alarms, misattributing more of their loved one’s traits to the stranger.
So in this study, transference was found only when people were not cognitively at their peak. Morning people are likely to experience transference in the evening and evening people are likely to experience it in the morning, but the effect disappears when people are nearer to their cognitive peak. The authors argue that this casts doubt on the entire Freudian notion of transference. Transference is not something that occurs as a result of cognitive effort, but is instead a by-product of cognitive lapse. I’m not certain that this one study dismantles the entire concept of transference in psychoanalysis, but it is most definitely an interesting finding. And fortunately, up until now anyhow, we haven’t been saddled by inordinate psychoanalysis requirements from either of our children.
Kruglanski, A.W., Pierro, A. (2008). Night and Day, You Are the One: On Circadian Mismatches and the Transference Effect in Social Perception. Psychological Science, 19(3), 296-301. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02083.x