The Return of the Anal Character

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The anal character is a central concept in the psychoanalytic theory of personality. It was originally described in the first decade of the 20th century, and quickly applied to the analysis of clinical cases, psychobiographies, and cultural phenomena. In midcentury a generation of psychoanalytically oriented psychologists found some evidence that anal traits cohere and that they are related to attitudes toward excreta. Subsequently, the concept of the anal character lost currency as studies failed to support the psychoanalytic explanation of its origins and enthusiasm for psychoanalysis dwindled. However, although the concept might seem to have met its demise, it has resurfaced under different names as a diverse assortment of characteristics that have inspired active research programs. These characteristics—authoritarianism, conscientiousness, detail focus, disgust sensitivity, hoarding, obsessive–compulsive personality disorder, perfectionism, and Type A—have a rarely remarked family resemblance that the anal character illuminates. I argue that the anal character has not so much been consigned to the scrap heap of bad ideas, but has been recycled into several smaller but better ones.

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