The Myth of Freud’s Iceberg Model

Originally published on February 29, 2012

The 1933 illustration Freud used to depict the psyche.

About ten years ago I was heading to teach a class in introductory psychology at a small liberal arts college in Pennsylvania. As I walked passed the social sciences office I encountered a box of books marked “free”. Little did I know that the box contained an out of print gem, Robert C. Bolles’ The Story of Psychology: A Thematic History.

The late Professor Bolles managed to present some of the most insightful and sensitive critical depictions of the history of psychology I have encountered. One of the concepts that Dr. Bolles describes is called textbookery.
One of the aspects of Textbookery is a complicated phenomenon that results in myth making -a falsehood taking on the appearance of factual truth in textbooks and classrooms. Recently I found an example that hasn’t yet been discussed outside of circle of specialists of psychoanalysis.
It is nearly impossible to find an introduction to psychology textbook without the well-known “iceberg” model of Sigmund Freud. In every textbook that I have researched the iceberg diagram was labeled as “Freud’s,” and some quoted Freud as comparing the structure of the psyche to an iceberg. It would be difficult to find a professor of psychology who does not know of “Freud’s iceberg model”.
The problem is that Freud never compared the psyche to an iceberg. Translator James Strachey compiled a topical index, as well as an index of analogies in the Standard Edition of the Complete Writings of Sigmund Freud. The word iceberg does not appear in either. Scholars have searched the 24 volumes and cannot find the statement in any of Freud’s writings. So where did it come from and why has it become accepted truth that Freud said it?
The quote seems to have originated in Freud’s biographer, Ernest Jones’ 1953-57 texts The Life and Works of Sigmund Freud. In this work Jones quotes Gustav Fechner as likening the soul to an iceberg, which he cites in a footnote to Fechner’s 1860 Elements of Psychophysics, but does not attribute this quote to Freud. It seems that Jones was drawing a comparison between Fechner and Freud, and using Fechner’s analogy as an illustration of Freud’s idea. In addition, The only diagrams that Freud provided in his texts are similar to the one reproduced above -not an iceberg.
So how did the iceberg model come to be printed, taught, and accepted as Freud’s own? Dr. James Loewen, in Lies My Teacher Told Me, develops the idea of what Bolles described as textbookery. The myth begins as an error, or a misreading that appears in one textbook. After an entire generation of students learn this “fact” they accept it and teach it to their students as verified information. Suddenly the error becomes a social truth. Subsequent textbook authors typically consult successfully published textbooks as models, and include much of the same information without consulting primary sources. Authors who consult the old textbooks encounter the “fact” that they learned form their professors (who learned it from the textbook) producing a self-sustaining, circular model of fact checking!
In the case of Freud’s iceberg, it seems that it was first mentioned in an American textbook in the early 1970s and quickly spread as publishers competed for the textbook markets. Today, every introduction to psychology textbook that I consulted, all 15 published over the past decade, included “Freud’s iceberg model”. Whether or not Freud or Fechner developed the iceberg model might not be important to many in the field. However, it illustrates the problem with textbook and classroom homogenization. How accurate are the mass-produced textbooks that we hold as the authority of our arguments?