Analysis of a Phobia



Ah, here we are. The infamous case of Sigmund Freud, Little Hans and the Oedipus complex. This study was actually a very unique analysis so stop smirking and read on.

Freud is probably one of the most well-known psychologists in the world. He’s one of those names that crop up when you’re talking to someone (probably an A-level student) who wants to impress you with a bit of psychological trivia (cause, let’s face it, psychology is pretty hot stuff).

Sigmund Freud

Freud focused a lot on personality development, childhood experiences, the unconscious mind and adulthood. One of his arguments was that unresolved conflicts from our childhood years affect our future behaviour. He believed that these conflicts show up in our fantasies and dreams. Since our conscious mind cannot cope with these conflicts, they show up symbolically rather than explicitly.

Freud also talked a whole lot about sexuality (which was a bit controversial back then, apparently). He believed that children go through five “psycho-sexual stages” of development, namely: the oral stage, anal stage, phallic stage, latency period and genital stage. If a child did not pass through these stages successfully, Freud believed the child would grow up with a “fixation” on an erogenous (sensitive and pleasure-inducing) area that they should have outgrown.

Oral stage

  • Birth to 1 years old
  • Erogenous zone: mouth (tasting, eating, weaning)
  • If you fail to pass this stage, you would have issues with dependency and aggression.
  • Oral fixation means you might have a problem with drinking, eating, smoking or nail-biting.

Anal stage

  • 1 to 3 years old
  • Erogenous zone: bladder and bowel movement (toilet-training)
  • Parents’ reactions to toilet-training years have an effect on the future personality.
  • Parents who are too strict with toilet-training create an anal-retentive personality that is rigid, orderly and obsessive.
  • Parents who are too lenient with toilet-training create an anal-expulsive personality that is wasteful, messy and destructive.
  • Positivity, patience and praise during this stage result in a competent and productive personality.

Phallic stage

  • 3 to 6 years old
  • Erogenous zone: genitals (realising the difference between males and females)
  • This stages plays a role in gender identity development.
  • Freud used new terms here: the Oedipus complex, Electra complex and penis envy.
  • To put the above more bluntly: boys get jealous of dad and fancy mum, girls get jealous of mum and fancy dad, and girls are insecure about their lack of a penis.
  • Freud said penis envy is never resolved so girls don’t overcome this stage, but the psychologist Karen Horney kicked in here and said that no, shut up man, that’s false, it is menwho experience inferiority because they can’t give birth to children.

Karen Horney – German psychoanalyst and founder of Feminist Psychology – showing the men how it’s done

Latency period

  • 6 years old to puberty age
  • Erogenous zone: none (sexual feelings are inactive and suppressed)
  • Children become preoccupied with school, building peer relationships and hobbies.
  • Since sexuality takes a bit of a back seat here, most exploration is concerned with intellectual and social aspects of life.
  • This is where you develop self-confidence and various social skills, like communication.
  • If you become fixated in this stage, your sexual libido will be unfulfilled in the future.

Genital stage

  • Puberty onwards
  • Erogenous zone: genitals, but you’re now maturing
  • Your interest in sex matures from the previously infantile notions.
  • The person thinks of others as well as their own satisfaction, manifesting in the form of healthy relationships, family ties, friendships and adult responsibilities.

So, now that Freud has shown us how none of us actually had a successful childhood, we can learn about Little Hans and emphasise.

The “sample” was one five-year-old boy known as Little Hans whose father was a friend and supporter of Freud and his theories.

The procedure was very different to usual studies. Freud conducted a case study on this little boy but never actually met him more than once during the study. It was Hans’ father who talked to the little boy and noted down his attitude, fantasies, dreams and conversations which were then sent to Freud for analysis. Freud would give his interpretations and directed the father.

The first reports of Hans were written when he was three years old.

When Hans was almost five, his father wrote to Freud and expressed concern. He described the problem: “He is afraid a horse will bite him in the street, and this fear seems somehow connected with his having been frightened by a large penis.” The father provided Freud with detailed conversations between the father and Hans. Together, Freud and the father tried to understand and resolve Hans’ phobia (which Hans called his “nonsense”).

Freud and Hans, 1905

When Hans was three, he developed a fascination with his “widdler”, as well as those of other people. He is quoted as saying, “Mummy, have you got a widdler too?” Also, at the same time, the main theme of his fantasies and dreams were “widdlers” and “widdling”.

Hans was very interested in other children and formed emotional attachments with them, especially girls. When Hans was about three and half, his mother told him not to touch his widdler or she would call the doctor and tell him to cut it off. Around the same time, his mother gave birth to Hanna. Hans expressed jealously for a while.

Freud noted that Hans’ horse phobia developed just after he had experienced some anxiety dreams about losing his mother and around the time he was warned about touching himself. Freud argued that Hans has a repressed longing for his mother and had focused his libido (sexual energy) on her. Basically, Hans had the Oedipus complex.

One month after this, it was revealed that the phobia was deeper. Hans’ father made a connection between Hans’ phobia and his interest in his widdler. He said to Hans: “If you don’t put your hand to your widdler any more, this nonsense of yours’ll soon get better.” Hans’ anxieties continued and his phobia of horses made him afraid to leave the house. Hans told his father about a dream which his father summarised:

“In the night there was a big giraffe in the room and a crumpled one, and the big one called out because I took the crumpled one away from it. Then it stopped calling out and I sat down on top of the crumpled one.”

Freud interpreted this as being based on the morning exchanges in the parental bed at Hans’ house. Hans liked to climb into his parents’ bed but his father often objected (like the big giraffe calling out when Hans took away the crumpled giraffe – his mother!). The analysis went further to interpret the long giraffe of a neck as a symbol for the adult penis.

When Hans met Freud, he was asked about the horses he was scared of. Hans said he didn’t like horses with “black bits” around the mouth. Freud thought the horse symbolised Hans’ father and that the black bits represented his moustache. Later, Hans was noted as saying, “Daddy, don’t trot away from me!”

Hans was also scared about horses falling down. He described an incident where he went to the market with his mother and saw a fallen horse. He also became interested in toilet-related activities, particularly lumf which is the German word for ‘faeces’. Hans talked to his father about lumf, the birth of his sister, the colour of his mother’s underwear and his liking for going to the toilet with his mother or the maid. He also had an imaginary friend – like many other young children – whom he called Lodi. Lodi was derived from saffalodi, a German sausage.

Eventually, Hans horse phobia began to decline. Freud believed that two final fantasies marked a change in Hans and induced the beginning of conflict resolution and anxiety reduction. The first fantasy described by Hans involved him being married to his mother and playing with his own children. His father was given the role of a grandfather. In the second fantasy, Hans described a plumber who came to remove Hans’ bottom and widdler and gave him new ones that were larger.

When Hans was 19 years old, he read his case history (that must’ve been a bit awkward) and met Freud. Hans said that he had no issues during adolescence and was a healthy teenager. He could no longer remember the discussions with his father and his case history was something completely unfamiliar to him. Little Hans grew up to be an opera producer.

Type of research method
This was a case study conducted on one individual. Since it was not an experiment with variables, there are no independent or dependent variables. Case studies involve analysis and interpretation, not manipulation.


  1. In-depth data: The case study method produces a whole load of detailed data about the topic under investigation. In this case, Freud was able to gather a lot of qualitative data which led to new research ideas and rich information.
  2. Personal relationship: Hans discussed many different things, such as dreams and desires, with his father. Their existing close bond may have been the reason Hans was so comfortable with talking about such intimate details, resulting in a lot of details that a non-related researcher may have been unable to bring out.


  1. Not generalisable: The case study revolved around Hans, one five-year-old boy. The findings of this study cannot be applied to other people like adults, young girls and people from other countries.
  2. Demand characteristics: Hans may have kept certain information hidden because he thought his father might not approve or because his father unintentionally influenced him. Hans may have even said things simply because he thought it was the ‘correct’ answer for the situation.
  3. Researcher bias: The father was basically the ‘messenger’ between Hans and Freud. He may have interpreted things very differently to reality. Also, he was Hans’ father which brings an emotional aspect into the situation and lessens the objectivity of the study. Since Hans’ father was already a supporter of Freudian theories, that may have also been an extraneous factor in the interpretation process.
  4. Not replicable: The reliability of these results cannot be checked because there is no way to replicate the case study.

Ethical issues

  1. Informed consent: There was obviously consent from Hans’ parents here.
  2. Deception: There was no deception.
  3. Confidentiality: The identity of Hans is publicly known.
  4. Emotional or physical harm: No harm was inflicted on Hans.
  5. The right to withdraw: Hans was unaware that he was part of a study in the first place. There didn’t seem to be an option of withdrawing, especially because his father was part of the research process.
  6. Debriefing: There wasn’t really anything or anyone to debrief in the first place. However, Freud did meet Hans when he was older and they talked about the case study so Hans was aware of what happened.

Before we finish, here’s a bit of information on the origin of the ‘Oedipus’ complex.

Oedipus is a figure in Greek mythology who accidentally killed his biological father and ended up marrying his biological mother with whom he had children. When everyone realised what had happened, his wife/mother hanged herself in despair and disgust and Oedipus, when he saw her dead body, blinded himself with a brooch from her dress.

Oedipus, the king of Thebes

Reference: Freud, S. (1909). Analysis of a phobia of a five-year-old boy. Pelican Freud Library. Vol. 8. Case Histories