Being driven or thriving? Sigmund Freud versus Carl Rogers on human motivation

Mathias Sager
4 min readFeb 7, 2019


Sigmund Freud suggests inborn mental processes, the id, which represents an unconscious and irrational force along the sexual development from childhood to grown-up personality (Ziegler, 2002). Freud used the term ‘drive’ to explain the unconscious triggers causing the variety of human behavior (Gillespie, 2014). It is the superego’s function to consciously guide socially compatible actions in a person’s hedonistic pursuit of pleasure (Cooper, 2010). If drive appetite is not satisfied (Shuman, 2016), psychopathological symptoms in manifestations linkable to childhood background may arise as the result of the ego’s defense against the demands of the id (Cooper, 2010). Freud’s therapeutic approach bases on therapist-led analysis that are making such unconscious discrepancies conscious to the client (Mogg, Stopa, & Bradley, 2001).

In contrast to Freud, Carl Rogers explains motivation as an innate tendency of a person to self-actualize, i.e. self-determine its personality towards bringing together the real and the ideal self as close as possible (Finke, 2002). Although the self-actualization tendency, like Freud’s id, is considered to be a constitutional factor, Rogers’ self-concept theory assumes that humans are rationally reasoning (Ziegler, 2002). The increased emphasis on characteristics such as values, will, and self-realization are constituents of humanistic psychology (Walsh & Vaughan, 1980). For humanists like Rogers, “the purpose of one’s life rests in becoming the self that one truly is” (Winston, 2016, p. 150). Rogers’ self-concept aligns to positive psychology’s concept and motives of life (Finke, 2002). These stand for the human motivation to strive for personal development and achieve well-being, for example by successfully studying, crafting, and relating (Joseph, 2013). Such activities for Freud, including wishful thinking (Elster, 2010), can only satisfy the original drives as temporary and partial substitutes though (Boag, 2017).


Both Freud’s and Rogers’ clinical approach cannot rely on evidence of large samples and statistical analysis that could be seen as scientifically preferable (Giordano, 2014). Both use self-report data of clients (Mogg et al., 2001) whereby for Rogers’ work recordings are available allowing a certain verifiability (Goldfried, 2007).

Dream analysis as a therapeutic technique to read the unconscious (Ziegler, 2002) implies that dreams are motivated. Indeed, according to Boag (2017), dopamine and motivation play a role in dreams and therefore are in support of this aspect of Freud’s psychoanalysis. However, Freud’s theory of the unconscious mind does not describe in more detail what is known from contemporary neuroscience and behavioral research regarding how instincts, feelings, and reasoning are networking together (Levine, 2017). Mogg et al. (2001) states that Freud’s concept of unconsciousness is not scientifically falsifiable.

According to Coopers (2010), Freud’s psychoanalysis has not proven to be effective. On the other side, the clinical and empirical data from Rogers’ therapies are supporting the person-centered approach related to his concept of the self (Goldfried, 2007). Empirical positive psychology studies have backed Rogers self-concept theory, and a psychologically healthy and thriving person, in fact, has been found to relate to the concept of self-actualization (Proctor, 2016).


Rogers theory seems to be a more holistic concept. Freud’s reductionistic (Walsh, 1980) approach to personality development is limited to childhood years (Ziegler, 2002). Rogers’ motivations do not focus on a narrow definition of personality (Cooper, 2010) like Freud’s central assumption of sexuality and aggression as the sole human primary motivations (Shuman, 2016). Freud’s psychoanalysis may have tapped only a fraction of the unconscious mind (Levine, 2012) and the concept of pleasure alone may be a too simplistic explanation for a human life’s purpose (Behrani, 2017). In contrast to Freud (Ziegler, 2002), according to Rogers, a person is capable of autonomously increasing his or her well-being during a lifetime (Proctor, Tweed, & Morris, 2016).


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Mathias Sager

Awareness Intelligence research and application since 1975. It’s humantime., Thanks and all the best!