Psychology 405: Theories of Personality, The Concept of Humanity of Karen Horney in Psychoanalytic Social Theory

Updated on February 11, 2017

What Is the Concept of Humanity?

How does Karen Horney's concept of humanity shape her theories of personality?
How does Karen Horney's concept of humanity shape her theories of personality? | Source

Concept of Humanity

This article was originally written for Psychology 405, Theories of Personality. It examines the subject of the Concept of Humanity. It also discusses the subject of Karen Horney and her psychoanalytical social theory regarding how her approach to psychology reveals her personal concept of humanity. While Freud and Jung have long been household names, Horney was a contemporary of these men. She was a pioneer in psychology and social issues. Her theories developed largely due to disagreements with Freud. Horney took Freud to task on several issues developing arguments that which in many ways furthered the growth of psychology and helped shape the understanding of human personalities.

Measuring Concept of Humanity

When looking at the concept of humanity we have to examine things such as whether the theorist believes that people have free will or that a person's life and actions are somehow determined for them. This is usually not seen as an either/or question but more of a spectrum between two extremes. The other spectrum we consider are; biological causes versus social, causality versus teleology, optimism versus pessimism, conscious motives versus unconscious ones, and uniqueness versus similarities.

Psychoanalytic Social Theory

Psychoanalytic social theory was developed by Karen Horney. Horney's theory emerged in a large part due to her responses and disagreements to many of the ideas of Freud (Clonginger, 2008; Feist & Feist, 2009). Horney was not attempting to replace Freudian psychoanalysis but to improve on it (Clonginger, 2008; Feist & Feist, 2009). The theory which was born from these disagreements mirror the personal beliefs that Horney held about the nature of humanity. By breaking down the element of psychoanalytic social theory it may be possible to deconstruct the dimensions of Karen Horney's concept of humanity.

Biological or Social?

Psychoanalytic social theory, as the name implies is based on the belief that social factors rather than biological factors are more influential to the development of personality. The central assumption in psychoanalytic social theory is that a person's personality is shaped through social and cultural conditions (Clonginger, 2008; Feist & Feist, 2009). The most important social and cultural conditions are those experienced during childhood (Clonginger, 2008; Feist & Feist, 2009). These conditions shape personality and through personality effectively shape the course of the individual's life.

Basic Hostility and Basic Anxiety

Part of the process of shaping an individual's personality is caused by the individual during the course of childhood; developing what Horney described as basic hostility in the absence of needs such as feelings of safety and affection (Clonginger, 2008; Feist & Feist, 2009). Basic hostility when left unresolved spawns what Horney described as basic anxiety or feelings of insecurity, apprehension and feeling of helplessness (Clonginger, 2008; Feist & Feist, 2009). Basic hostility and basic anxiety have a intertwined relationship, feeding each other and causing each other to grow (Feist & Feist, 2009).

Determinism or Free Will?

The image of personality being shaped through childhood experience and through cultural and social conditions suggest that Horney held a deterministic view of life. Within the framework of psychoanalytic social theory people do not choose who they become. People become the person that their culture and social interactions dictate that they become. This point of view at least partially excludes the concept of free will. It may be argued that a person can choose who they become by changing their environment and exchanging one set of cultural and social influences for another. However this would not disguise the fact that any resulting change in personality due to such a shift in environmental influences would still imply that the resulting changes in personality were determined by those new environmental influences and not by the individual's self imposed determination to change.

Not Freudian Determinism

Although Horney's view of personality is socially deterministic, when compared to Freud's psychoanalysis, Horney's psychoanalytic social theory leans much more toward the concept of free will. Horney's “view of human beings allowed much more scope for development and rational adaptation than Freudian determinism permitted” (Horney, 1998, para. 3). This stems from Horney's emphasis on the environmental context of neurotic behavior as opposed to Freud's emphasis on the biological context of the individual (Clonginger, 2008; Feist & Feist, 2009; Horney, 1989). Horney's views were less deterministic than Freud's because her theory revolved around the social and cultural environment which can at least be changed where Freud's theory was tied to biological factors which can not be changed.

The Importantance of Childhood Development

The emphasis on the experiences of childhood in shaping personality suggest that Horney believed that to some extent an adult's personality was fixed and unchangeable. This would suggest that even in the event that an adult could exchange the influences of one cultural and social environment for another that any resulting change in personality would be slight. Those experiences which determine the majority of who the person is occurred during childhood. This however is only a partial view of Horney's theory and is one of the few instances where she agreed with Freudian thought. In Horney's view childhood was extremely important to personality development but it was not the end of personality development. Clonginger (2008) asserts that "although orthodox in her acceptance of the importance of childhood experience in developing personality, Horney did not believe all psychoanalytic treatment required delving into childhood recollections" (Horney and Relational Theory. Interpersonal Psychoanalytic Theory, Therapy, para. 4).

Causality or Teleology?

The emphasis on childhood is a perspective of causality. It suggest that who a person is was determined by events that have already happened. Within psychoanalytic social theory the concept of teleology is not completely overshadowed by causality. It may seem at first that psychoanalytic social theory is a pessimistic view. This is not entirely accurate. While the problems associated with neurosis support causality the solutions of neurosis actually lay in teleology.

Optimistic or Pesimistic?

People do not enjoy suffering. Once a person realize that a problem exist they will naturally want to remedy that problem. The trouble with neurotic behavior is that each of the neurotic trends of behavior are actually methods the neurotic individual uses to solve problems in their daily life (Feist & Feist, 2009). Knowing that there is a problem the natural inclination of a neurotic person is to attempt to solve that problem using the methods which they have become accustomed to. With neurotic trends the method of problem solving the individual uses becomes the problem they ultimately must figure out how to solve (Clonginger, 2008; Feist & Feist, 2009). This seems both paradoxical and pessimistic however Horney did not believe that the situation was without hope. Psychoanalytic social theory holds that change can and does occur but that the process is slow and gradual (Clonginger, 2008; Feist & Feist, 2009). There is no quick cure for neurosis there is only the lengthy process of developing self-awareness and self-understanding which involves both the gaining of knowledge and the occurrence of emotional experience (Feist & Feist, 2009). The process of gaining self-understanding and using self-analysis does gradually allow an individual to gradually move toward the ultimate goal of becoming healthy which Horney described as self-realization (Clonginger, 2008; Feist & Feist, 2009). While the overall view of neurosis seems pessimistic the fundamental belief that self-realization is achievable through years of hard work is ultimately an optimistic view. According to Viney and King (2003) Horney believed that "self-realization decreases conflict and anxiety and helps individuals strive for truth, productivity, and harmony with others and themselves" (Basic Anxiety and Neurosis, para. 7).

Conscious or Unconscious?

While moving toward self-realization and away from neurotic behavior requires a conscious effort, Horney believed that most people were only partially aware of their own motivations and that much of what determines and individual's actions occurs unconsciously (Feist & Feist, 2009).

Unique or Similar?

Psychoanalytic social theory is limited in it's scope because Horney focused her observations almost entirely on the neurotic behavior of her patients (Feist & Feist, 2009). She made broad generalizations concerning neurotic behavior depositing neurotic individual's into one of three categories based on whether their methods of interaction with others were primarily moving toward people, away from people or against people (Clonginger, 2008; Feist & Feist, 2009). This method of classification leaves little room for observation of the unique characteristics of neurotic individuals but classifies them solely based on their similarities.


In many instances it appears that a first impression of Horney's theory and how it relates to her beliefs about the nature of humanity is contradicted by the opinions of others. Most of these reversals though come primarily through a comparison of her work to Freud's. The most clear statement that can be made concerning Horney's beliefs about human nature and the shaping of personality is that she believed in the power of social and cultural influences more than biological influences. Biological influences reside outside of the reach of a person's ability to change. This is the deterministic view which Freud held. Social and cultural influences are still partly deterministic because they shape personality externally but initially without the individual's conscious awareness of being influenced. Social and cultural influences are not completely outside of the individual's reach though. They can be manipulated, altered and changed. An individual over time can also change his reactions to these external influences. Psychoanalytic social theory is then at least partially deterministic and partially supportive of the concept of free will. Her theories do not look into what makes each person individually different but into the similarities that we may hold. The theory also suggest that Horney held a perspective of causality concerning how personality is initially shaped and how personality would continue to be shaped without conscious effort to change but that there is the potential for change through the process of learning and developing goals. This implies that both unconscious and conscious motives can affect an person's behavior. Though change is difficult it is also possible from the psychoanalytic social perspective. Horney was not without hope for those who wished to improve their lives. She was ultimately optimistic in her view of the nature of humanity. Horney's psychoanalytic social theory reflects these beliefs she held about humanity.


  • Cloninger, S (2008). Theories of Personality: Understanding Persons. Retrieved from the University of Phoenix eBook Collection database.
  • Feist, J and Feist, G (2009). Theories of Personality (7th ed.). Retrieved from the University of Phoenix eBook Collection database.
  • Horney, Karen (1885 - 1952). (1998). In The Penguin Biographical Dictionary of Women. Retrieved from
  • Viney, W and King, B (2003). A History of Psychology. Ideas and Context (3rd ed.). Retrieved from the University of Phoenix eBook Collection database.

© 2012 Wesley Meacham


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    • profile image


      2 years ago

      Thanks for the article!

    • MartieCoetser profile image

      Martie Coetser 

      7 years ago from South Africa

      This is a very-very interesting hub about the theories of personality and the concept of humanity. Voted up and awesome!


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