The concept of the complex has been used by a number of theorists associated with the psychoanalytic movement. It was introduced by Carl Jung, who is largely responsible for the development of the concept. Jung borrowed the term and the original formulation of the concept from Theodor Ziehen. In studying word association, Ziehen had observed that an individual's reaction time was often long when a stimulus word relating to something unpleasant was presented. He reasoned that such a stimulus was associated with a feeling-toned complex of representations.
In 1900 Jung went to work at the Burgholzli Hospital, where his chief, Eugen Bleuler, introduced the word association test and asked Jung to do research with it. Jung soon came to see his task as the detection and study of complexes. He believed that complexes could be inferred not only from long reaction times but also from physiological reactions, such as the galvanic skin response and changes in respiratory pattern, to certain stimulus words. Jung regarded the complex as a constellation of associated ideas, affects, and images. The constellation can often be viewed as centering on an image corresponding to the idea or situation at the core of the complex—in some cases, an image of a traumatic event that created the complex. The central idea or image tends in some way to be incompatible with the habitual attitude of consciousness. Since we are inclined to repress such contents or avoid awareness of them, these contents remain largely unconscious. At the same time, they possess a certain wholeness and inner coherence. Because the complex is relatively unconscious, and because some of the energy that would otherwise be available to consciousness is bound up in it, it acts as a somewhat autonomous part of the psyche. In a sense, it can act as a separate subpersonality or splinter personality within the psyche, at odds with the conscious personality.
In the word association test, Jung observed the interference of the complex with the performance of a task undertaken in consciousness. He conjectured that the complex could have similar effects on action and physiological processes in other situations. Thus, he viewed the complex as responsible for slips of the tongue, for gaps in our memory, for the forgetting of names, for accidents—in short, for the various phenomena that Sigmund Freud described as evidence for the operation of unconscious motives.
Traumatic events are evidently one source of complexes. The formative experience might consist of either a single painful incident or repeated episodes of criticism, rejection, or embarrassment in childhood. Jung believed complexes might also arise as a result of moral conflict, a clash between instinctual impulses and acquired values. As he developed the concept of the archetype in his later writings, he came to regard the complex as having an archetypal core as well as ingredients stemming from present-lifetime experience.
Jung regarded neurosis as a dissociation of the personality due to complexes and contended that the symptoms of the neurotic can be understood as the expression of complexes. He recognized, however, that complexes are not necessarily pathological and that they may have both harmful and beneficial effects. He believed that every personality, or psyche, contains a number of semi-independent systems that can be considered complexes.
Jung developed the concept of the complex before his involvement in the psychoanalytic movement. After he became familiar with Freud's work, he sought to relate his own ideas about the complexes to Freud's views of the unconscious. In the subsequent work of Freud, the concept was assimilated into a theoretical system that emphasizes sexuality. Alfred Adler also adopted the concept, but his writings emphasize the striving for power and the sense of inferiority that results from a lack of power. The one complex of importance to Adler was the inferiority complex, which he regarded as a characteristic feature of neurosis.
Richard Welton Coan See also: Analytical Psychology; Archetypes
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