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Silverman, L.H. (1967). An Experimental Approach to the Study of Dynamic Propositions in Psychoanalysis—The Relationship Between the Aggressive Drive and Ego Regression—initial Studies. J. Amer. Psychoanal. Assn., 15:376-403.

(1967). Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 15:376-403

An Experimental Approach to the Study of Dynamic Propositions in Psychoanalysis—The Relationship Between the Aggressive Drive and Ego Regression—initial Studies

Lloyd H. Silverman, Ph.D.


An experimental technique has been described for systematically studying the effects of drives on ego functioning. In the current paper, the focus has been on a hypothesis developed in part from the writings of Hartmann and Bak. It stated that when aggressive drive derivatives are triggered without the individual's being able to ascribe the triggering to something external, regressive thinking can result. Using a subliminal aggressive stimulus as the "trigger," a number of experiments have been described which have yielded strong support for this proposition as far as particular types of regressive thinking are concerned. These have consisted of image fusions and various kinds of loss of control over the thought processes. These reactions were found for both schizophrenics and nonschizophrenics, and among the latter they were often accompanied by defensively motivated libidinal reactions. With regard to the necessary and sufficient conditions for their appearance, while a complete and more definitive formulation must await the accumulation of many additional data, the following findings have relevance. Among

the schizophrenics aggressive triggering produced these regressive manifestations with some consistency only in those who did not have paranoid response modes available to them. Among the nonschizophrenics these reactions were most apt to occur when two prior conditions were fulfilled: (a) some degree of relatively unneutralized aggression was present; (b) aggressive drive derivatives had attained preconscious status. Finally, while other kinds of ego pathology became exacerbated when libidinal derivatives were triggered, the types of regressive thinking referred to above gave evidence of being highly specific reactions to aggression.

A final word on the place of experimental methods in the development of psychoanalytic theory. In studying the dynamics of clinical phenomena, the psychoanalytic situation has proven to be ideally suited for determining the intrapsychic forces at work and the way these forces interact. One of the great strengths of psychoanalysis as a research tool has been its ability to do justice to the complexly overdetermined motivations that underly such phenomena. But if the necessary and sufficient conditions for the appearance of a clinical manifestation are to be determined, one must reduce this complexity, artificial as such reduction may be. A situation must be created in which one can systematically alter certain conditions, both singly and in combination, while keeping others constant. This is precisely what experimental procedures are designed to do. Thus, it is in the area of establishing necessary and sufficient conditions that the experimental approach holds its greatest promise for psychoanalysis. It also should be kept in mind that this approach has other strengths that can be capitalized on. It makes possible the study of large numbers of individuals, including those who either could not or would not be subjected to a psychoanalysis; it allows for relatively easy replication; and it provides means by which observer bias can be eliminated. All this, I believe, warrants its use as a supplementary means by which the clinical theory of psychoanalysis can be further developed and refined.

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