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


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).



Behrani, P. (2017). Beyond the Freud’s pleasure principle: The Indian perspective to pleasure. Indian Journal Of Positive Psychology, 8(1), 73.

Boag, S. (2017). On dreams and motivation: Comparison of Freud’s and Hobson’s views. Frontiers In Psychology, 7doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2016.02001

Cooper, C. (2010). Individual differences and personality (3rd ed.). London: Hodder Education.

Elster, J. (2010). Self-poisoning of the mind. Philosophical Transactions Of The Royal Society Of London. Series B, Biological Sciences, 365(1538), 221-226. doi:10.1098/rstb.2009.0176

Finke, J. (2002). Aspects of the actualizing tendency from a humanistic psychology perspective. Person-Centered And Experiential Psychotherapies, 1(1-2), 28-40. doi:10.1080/14779757.2002.9688276Gillespie, P. (2014). Revisiting Freud’s drive theory in the psychoanalytic clinic. Issues In Psychoanalytic Psychology, 3621.

Giordano, P. J. (2014). Personality as continuous stochastic process: what Western personality theory can learn from classical confucianism. Integrative Psychological & Behavioral Science, 48(2), 111-128. doi:10.1007/s12124-013-9250-2

Goldfried, M. R. (2007). What has psychotherapy inherited from Carl Rogers?. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 44(3), 249-252. doi:10.1037/0033-3204.44.3.249

Joseph, S., & Murphy, D. (2013). Person-Centered Approach, Positive Psychology, and Relational Helping: Building Bridges. Journal Of Humanistic Psychology, 53(1), 26-51. doi:10.1177/0022167812436426

Levine, D. S. (2017). Modeling the instinctive-emotional-thoughtful mind. Cognitive Systems Research, doi:10.1016/j.cogsys.2017.05.002

Mogg, K., Stopa, L., & Bradley, B. P. (2001). ‘From the conscious into the unconscious:’ What can cognitive theories of psychopathology learn from Freudian theory?. Psychological Inquiry, 12(3), 139-143.

Proctor, C., Tweed, R., & Morris, D. (2016). The Rogerian Fully Functioning Person. Journal Of Humanistic Psychology, 56(5), 503-529. doi:10.1177/0022167815605936

Shuman, R. B. (2016). Motivation (psychology). Salem Press Encyclopedia Of Health,

Walsh, R. N., & Vaughan, F. (1980). BEYOND THE EGO: TOWARD TRANSPERSONAL MODELS OF THE PERSON AND PSYCHOTHERAPY. Journal Of Humanistic Psychology, 20(1), 5.

Winston, C. N. (2016). An existential-humanistic-positive theory of human motivation. The Humanistic Psychologist, 44(2), 142-163. doi:10.1037/hum0000028

Ziegler, D. J. (2002). Freud, Rogers, and Ellis: A comparative theoretical analysis. Journal Of Rational-Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, 20(2), 75-92. doi:10.1023/A:1019808217623

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About mathias sager

Independent researcher, artist, social entrepreneur, and leadership and strategy advisor I was born in Zurich in 1975 and grew up in Switzerland. The last six years I lived in Tokyo, and currently, I’m staying in Pune/India. I love open-minded people everywhere and the passion to working relentlessly for developing human potential, which is an overarching theme throughout all his work. I have extensive experience in leadership and management, organizational psychology research, and learning & development practice. I have worked as a teacher, a leadership trainer, as well as a senior manager responsible for client relationships, counseling, and virtual teams around the world. Also, I’m a social entrepreneur and serving as a strategy and leadership advisor in different ways. My goal is to inspire with interdisciplinary, innovative, and cross-cultural approaches to personal and professional development for the people’s individual well-being and common good alike. Continuously learning himself and keen to help, I appreciate any questions or feedback you may have at any time. Please connect here on any social media, as well as per direct email
  • Patty says:

    Rogers work was a more holistic view and concept. Eugene Gendlin, Mia Leijssen and others based a lot of their vision at his work. If I remember correct, there are more studies to find. After my recent study I lean more towards the direction of this holistic approach.
    Interesting article again, dear Mathias.

    • mathias sager says:

      Hi, Patty. Thank you for your reply, and I agree. Freud’s views, although still influential, often seem quite adventurous. However, in terms of childhood development, Freud assumes a quite complete theory, involving holistically biological (the id instincts), psychological (ego, super-ego), and social/environmental aspects. However, as you mention, I definitively also prefer looking beyond the sexual and aggressive motives stipulated by Freud’s theories, why Roger’s self-actualization theory has a lot of value, especially for topics like personal growth. Isn’t everything about personal growth?:-)