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An empirical study of the fundamental rule of free association

Jacobson, S. H. (2006). An empirical study of the fundamental rule of free association. (Unpublished Doctoral thesis, City, University of London)


Freud devised the fundamental rule - the order given to patients to free associate - over a century ago. He considered it to be a pivotal and explicit part of psychoanalytic treatment, but the literature reveals contrasting views. This study seeks to clarify the debate by examining current psychoanalysts’ views and approaches to the rule.

Forty practising psychoanalysts took part in semi-structured interviews - twenty from the American Psychoanalytic Association and twenty from the British Psychoanalytical Society. Grounded theory methods and statistical calculations were used to analyse the data.

The study found that free association is still an important part of psychoanalysis. Most participants give an initial introduction to free association at the outset of treatment. There seems to be two main approaches to the fundamental rule. Followers of approach A tend to accept the idea of free association as a ‘rule’, give lengthy or extensive introductions with many elaborations, use a firm tone, assist patients, and are motivated to offer clarity or to provide a framework. Followers of approach B reject the idea of free association as a ‘rule’, give a brief introduction with few elaborations (or give no introduction at all), use a gentle tone, give little assistance, and are motivated to create a spirit of mutuality or to avoid the authoritarian impact. American participants tend to adopt more elements from approach A than B and British participants adopt more elements from approach B than A.

In some ways the introduction has changed since Freud’s conception: it is less authoritarian in tone, it may encourage self-reflection about resistances and may include references to dreams and images. The fundamental rule can be viewed as ‘ongoing’; it is frequently alluded to via repetition, prompts and the work of resistance analysis. In some cases free association entails a degree of education.

Publication Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BF Psychology
Departments: School of Health & Psychological Sciences > Psychology
School of Health & Psychological Sciences > School of Health & Psychological Sciences Doctoral Theses
Doctoral Theses
[thumbnail of Jacobson thesis 2006 PDF-A.pdf]
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