Dora the Explorer and Motivational Systems

Dora has a rich and controversial history in psychoanalysis. As one of Freud’s first patients, she was accused of having suffering related to unconscious relational fantasies as opposed to real abuse. Psychoanalysis has come a long way since then and although Freud is identified as the father of psychology, and made a number of important contributions some of which still hold true today, his work with Dora set the field back. His countertransference included his own exploration of Dora in hot pursuit of conformation of his own theories.  She left treatment, tired of Freud’s focus on her “hysterical cough” and feeling misunderstood.

Contemporary psychoanalysis has moved away from some of the traditional theory of Freud towards the unique relationship needs of the individual. The internal Id has been replaced by some of the purposeful pursuits for validation and self-cohesion related to attachment.  Modern analytic child developmental theory is supported by empirical data and clinical vignettes. The example below examines the contemporary Dora as well as the motivation of exploration.

A little girl protested spending the day at the zoo, an idea suggested by her parents. In her state of objection frustration, she seemed to find a sense of efficacy and control through her efforts. When the topic of Dora the Explorer was haphazardly mentioned by one of the parents, the little girl started to shift from objection to curiosity and was open to the possibility of seeing the different animals as if she were her favorite television character. Like Dora, she (and her side-kick Boots) would explore her world with passion.

The shift from adversarial to exploration  is an example of the power of natural motivational systems.  Joseph Lictenberg’s and his colleagues postulated categories of what they called motivational systems based on empirical data from their infant research.

The Motivational Systems theory revealed five primary motivations for the self (Lichtenberg, Lachmann, & Fossage, 1992). The paradigm allows for an understanding of the reciprocal relationship between motivation and the self. Each system is an entity with probable neurological correlates.

  • The need for physiological regulation (physical health).
  • The need for attachment and later affiliation.
  • The need for exploration and assertion.
  • The need to react aversively through antagonism or withdrawal.
  • The need for sensual enjoyment

The motivational systems offer a way of moving between theoretical models and clinical phenomena. These systems often playout throughout the lifespan and can be understood through the narriative of each individual. The authors purpose that the five Motivational Systems function to develop, maintain, and restore the cohesiveness of the self and self-organization.

Perhaps Dora would have been proud.

Chad Alcorn, Psy.D.