Little Hans – Freudian Case Study

Saul Mcleod, PhD

Educator, Researcher

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education.

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Olivia Guy-Evans

Associate Editor for Simply Psychology

BSc (Hons), Psychology, MSc, Psychology of Education

Olivia Guy-Evans is a writer and associate editor for Simply Psychology. She has previously worked in healthcare and educational sectors.

Case Study Summary

In This Article

Freud was interested in the role of infant sexuality in child development. He recognised that this approach may have appeared strange to people unfamiliar with his ideas but observed that it was inevitable for a psychoanalyst to see this as important. The case therefore focused on little Hans’s psychosexual development and it played a key role in the formulation of Freud’s ideas within the Oedipus Conflict , such as the castration complex.

‘Little Hans’ was nearly five when has was seen by Freud (on 30th March 1908) but letters from his father to Freud provide the bulk of the evidence for the case study. These refer retrospectively to when Hans was less than three years old and were supplied to Freud through the period January to May 1908 (by which time little Hans was five years old).

The first reports of Hans were when he was 3 years old when he developed an active interest in his ‘widdler’ (penis), and also those of other people. For example, on one occasion he asked ‘Mummy, have you got a widdler too?

Throughout this time, the main theme of his fantasies and dreams was widdlers and widdling.  When he was about three and a half years old his mother told him not to touch his widdler or else she would call the doctor to come and cut it off.

When Hans was almost 5, Hans’ father wrote to Freud explaining his concerns about Hans. He described the main problem as follows:

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 went on to provide Freud with extensive details of conversations with Hans. Together, Freud and the father tried to understand what the boy was experiencing and undertook to resolve his phobia of horses.

Freud wrote a summary of his treatment of Little Hans, in 1909, in a paper entitled “ Analysis of a Phobia in a Five-year-old Boy. “

Case History: Little Hans’ Phobia

Since the family lived opposite a busy coaching inn, that meant that Hans was unhappy about leaving the house because he saw many horses as soon as he went out of the door.

When he was first asked about his fear Hans said that he was frightened that the horses would fall down and make a noise with their feet.  He was most frightened of horses which were drawing heavily laden carts, and, in fact, had seen a horse collapse and die in the street one time when he was out with his nurse.

It was pulling a horse-drawn bus carrying many passengers and when the horse collapsed Hans had been frightened by the sound of its hooves clattering against the cobbles of the road.  He also suffered attacks of more generalized anxiety . Hans’ anxieties and phobia continued and he was afraid to go out of the house because of his phobia of horses.

When Hans was taken to see Freud (on 30th March 1908), he was asked about the horses he had a phobia of. Hans noted that he didn’t like horses with black bits around the mouth.

Freud believed that the horse was a symbol of his father, and the black bits were a mustache.  After the interview, the father recorded an exchange with Hans where the boy said ‘Daddy don’t trot away from me!

Over the next few weeks Hans” phobia gradually began to improve.  Hans said that he was especially afraid of white horses with black around the mouth who were wearing blinkers.  Hans” father interpreted this as a reference to his mustache and spectacles.

Freud’s Interpretation of Hans’ Phobia

After many letters were exchanged, Freud concluded that the boy was afraid that his father would castrate him for desiring his mother. Freud interpreted that the horses in the phobia were symbolic of the father, and that Hans feared that the horse (father) would bite (castrate) him as punishment for the incestuous desires towards his mother.

Freud saw Hans” phobia as an expression of the Oedipus complex . Horses, particularly horses with black harnesses, symbolized his father. Horses were particularly suitable father symbols because of their large penises.

The fear began as an Oedipal conflict was developing regarding Hans being allowed in his parents” bed (his father objected to Hans getting into bed with them).

Hans told his father of a dream/fantasy which his father summarized as follows:

‘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 and the father interpreted the dream/fantasy as being a reworking of the morning exchanges in the parental bed.  Hans enjoyed getting into his parent’s bed in the morning but his father often objected (the big giraffe calling out because he had taken the crumpled giraffe – mother – away).

Both Freud and the father believed that the long neck of the giraffe was a symbol for the large adult penis.  However Hans rejected this idea.

The Oedipus Complex

Freud was attempting to demonstrate that the boy’s (Little Hans) fear of horses was related to his Oedipus complex .  Freud thought that, during the phallic stage (approximately between 3 and 6 years old), a boy develops an intense sexual love for his mothers.

Because of this, he sees his father as a rival, and wants to get rid of him.  The father, however, is far bigger and more powerful than the young boy, and so the child develops a fear that, seeing him as a rival, his father will castrate him.

Because it is impossible to live with the continual castration-threat anxiety provided by this conflict, the young boy develops a mechanism for coping with it, using a defense mechanis m known as identification with the aggressor .

He stresses all the ways that he is similar to his father, adopting his father’s attitudes, mannerisms and actions, feeling that if his father sees him as similar, he will not feel hostile towards him.

Freud saw the Oedipus complex resolved as Hans fantasized himself with a big penis like his father’s and married to his mother with his father present in the role of grandfather.

Hans did recover from his phobia after his father (at Freud’s suggestion) assured him that he had no intention of cutting off his penis.

Critical Evaluation

Case studies have both strengths and weaknesses. They allow for detailed examinations of individuals and often are conducted in clinical settings so that the results are applied to helping that particular individual as is the case here.

However, Freud also tries to use this case to support his theories about child development generally and case studies should not be used to make generalizations about larger groups of people.

The problems with case studies are they lack population validity. Because they are often based on one person it is not possible to generalize the results to the wider population.

The case study of Little Hans does appear to provide support for Freud’s (1905) theory of the Oedipus complex.  However, there are difficulties with this type of evidence.

There are several other weaknesses with the way that the data was collected in this study. Freud only met Hans once and all of his information came from Hans father. We have already seen that Hans’ father was an admirer of Freud’s theories and tried to put them into practice with his son.

This means that he would have been biased in the way he interpreted and reported Hans’ behavior to Freud. There are also examples of leading questions in the way that Hans’ father questioned Hans about his feelings. It is therefore possible that he supplied Hans with clues that led to his fantasies of marriage to his mother and his new large widdler.

Of course, even if Hans did have a fully-fledged Oedipus complex, this shows that the Oedipus complex exists but not how common it is.  Remember that Freud believed it to be universal.

At age 19 the not-so Little Hans appeared at Freud’s consulting room having read his case history.  Hans confirmed that he had suffered no troubles during adolescence and that he was fit and well.

He could not remember the discussions with his father, and described how when he read his case history it ‘came to him as something unknown’

Finally, there are problems with the conclusions that Freud reaches. He claims that Hans recovered fully from his phobia when his father sat him down and reassured him that he was not going to castrate him and one can only wonder about the effects of this conversation on a small child!

More importantly, is Freud right in his conclusions that Hans’ phobia was the result of the Oedipus complex or might there be a more straightforward explanation?

Hans had seen a horse fall down in the street and thought it was dead. This happened very soon after Hans had attended a funeral and was beginning to question his parents about death. A behaviorist explanation would be simply that Hans was frightened by the horse falling over and developed a phobia as a result of this experience.

Gross cites an article by Slap (an American psychoanalyst) who argues that Hans’ phobia may have another explanation. Shortly after the beginning of the phobia (after Hans had seen the horse fall down) Hans had to have his tonsils out.

After this, the phobia worsened and it was then that he specifically identified white horses as the ones he was afraid of. Slap suggests that the masked and gowned surgeon (all in white) may have significantly contributed to Hans’ fears.

The Freud Archives

In 2004, the Freud Archives released a number of key documents which helped to complete the context of the case of little Hans (whose real name was Herbert Graf).

The released works included the transcript of an interview conducted by Kurt Eissler in 1952 with Max Graf (little Hans’s father) as well as notes from brief interviews with Herbert Graf and his wife i n 1959.

Such documents have provided some key details that may alter the way information from the original case is interpreted. For example, Hans’s mother had been a patient of Freud herself.

Another noteworthy detail was that Freud gave little Hans a rocking horse for his third birthday and was sufficiently well acquainted with the family to carry it up the stairs himself.

It is interesting to question why, in the light of Hans’s horse phobia, details of the presence of the gift were not mentioned in the case study (since it would have been possible to do so without breaking confidentiality for either the family or Freud himself).

Information from the archived documents reveal much conflict within the Graf family. Blum (2007, p. 749) concludes that:

“Trauma, child abuse [of Hans’s little sister], parental strife, and the preoedipal mother-child relationship emerge as important issues that intensified Hans’s pathogenic oedipal conflicts and trauma. With limited, yet remarkable help from his father and Freud, Little Hans nevertheless had the ego strength and resilience to resolve his phobia, resume progressive development, and forge a successful creative career.”

Support for Freud (Brown, 1965)

Brown (1965) examines the case in detail and provides the following support for Freud’s interpretation.

1 . In one instance, Hans said to his father –“ Daddy don”t trot away from me ” as he got up from the table. 2 . Hans particularly feared horses with black around the mouth.  Han’s father had a moustache. 3. Hans feared horses with blinkers on. Freud noted that the father wore spectacles which he took to resemble blinkers to the child. 4 . The father’s skin resembled white horses rather than dark ones.  In fact, Hans said, “Daddy, you are so lovely. You are so white”. 5 . The father and child had often played at “horses” together.  During the game the father would take the role of horse, the son that of the rider.

Little Hans Case Study (Freud)

Ross (2007) reports that the interviews with Max and Herbert Graf provide evidence of the psychological problems experienced by Little Hans’s mother and her mistreatment of her husband and her daughter (who committed suicide as an adult).

Ross suggests that “Reread in this context, the text of “A Phobia in a Five-year-old Boy” provides ample evidence of Frau Graf’s sexual seduction and emotional manipulation of her son, which exacerbated his age-expectable castration and separation anxiety, and her beating of her infant daughter.

The boy’s phobic symptoms can therefore be deconstructed not only as the expression of oedipal fantasy, but as a communication of the traumatic abuse occurring in the home.

Blum, H. P. (2007). Little Hans: A centennial review and reconsideration . Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 55 (3), 749-765.

Brown, R. (1965). Social Psychology . Collier Macmillan.

Freud, S. (1905). Three essays on the theory of sexuality . Se, 7.

Freud, S. (1909). Analysis of a phobia of a five year old boy. In The Pelican Freud Library (1977), Vol 8, Case Histories 1, pages 169-306

Graf, H. (1959). Interview by Kurt Eissler. Box R1, Sigmund Freud Papers. Sigmund Freud Collection, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

Graf, M. (1952). Interview by Kurt Eissler. Box 112, Sigmund Freud Papers. Sigmund Freud Collection, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

Ross, J.M. (2007). Trauma and abuse in the case of Little Hans: A contemporary perspective . Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 55 (3), 779-797.

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The Case Of Little Hans

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At this point, you have probably heard of Freud’s psychosexual developmental theory. Although the theory was well-known, the research in favour of it was not as abundant. It has lost much of its credibility throughout the years. One notable piece of evidence that Freud provided was the case of Little Hans. ‘Little Hans’ is a pseudonym for Herbert Graf, the son of the critic musician Max Graf, a follower of Freud’s theories. Little Hans presented a fear of horses that Freud aimed to understand and treat.

Little Hans: Psychology

Sigmund Freud did not only contribute to our current knowledge of psychology through the development of therapeutic techniques and strategies. Freud also devoted great effort to the explanation of child psychosexual development. The Little Hans Case Study was used as evidence of such psychosexual development theory that Freud had stated.

The Little Hans case study (1909) is one of Freud’s most famous case studies. The case deals with the fears and traumas of a five-year-old boy. Hans’ father requested Freud’s support in dealing with the boy’s fear of horses.

From the age of three, little Hans showed interest in his own and other males, including animals’ penis. In this research, a penis is referred to as a ‘widdler’.

His mother had threatened to call the doctor and get him castrated unless he stopped playing with it. When Little Hans was four years old, he went through a traumatic experience .

Little Hans witnessed an accident with a heavily loaded horse that collapsed in front of him. After the accident, his parents noticed that he became afraid of horses, especially those carrying a heavy load and those with darker circles around the eyes or wearing blinkers.

He feared seeing other horses and didn’t want to leave his home due to his phobia of horses.

A phobia causes an intense fear response when exposed to or thinking about the thing; it is categorised as a clinical mental health illness.

Little Hans Case Study

Since Freud had demonstrated interest in the role of sexual drives concerned children’s development, Little Hans’ father contacted him for help. Up to the age of five, the contact between the family and Freud was in a written manner. When little Hans was five years old, Freud and Little Hans first met face-to-face.

Freud focused on Little Han’s psychosexual development to resolve the mystery of Hans’ fear of horses . He believed Little Hans was going through the phallic stage in which the children’s libido centres around the genitals.

The psychosexual stage of development is Freud’s theory, which states that as children develop, they go through a series of stages that centre around receiving pleasure from different bodily parts. And if children become fixated on a stage, it can cause the onset of psychological issues.

Freud presumed that his focus on male genitals was connected to th is fear of horses and the fear caused by his mother threatening her son with calling a doctor to get him castrated if he did not stop this obsession.

Approaches in psychology, The Case of Little Hans, Picture of a horse loading hay exemplifying what Hans might have seen in the accident, StudySmarter.

The father reported it to Freud, describing the worry about male genitals. Little Hans’ father, Max Graf, shared with Freud several conversations he had with his son.

The Case Of Little Hans: Analogies

One specific conversation between Little Hans and his father revolved around a dream or fantasy he had, in which he described two giraffes entering a room. Hans described his dream to his father:

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 1

This was interpreted as a morning routine involving Little Hans and his father and mother waking up (the father was the big giraffe and the crumpled one was his mother). Freud and the father also suggested that the giraffe’s neck could also be interpreted as a phallic symbol.

When Hans was three and a half years old, his mother gave birth to his younger sister. Hans began competing for his mother’s attention and showing signs of jealousy. He said he wished his mother would drown his younger sister in the bath. However, Hans also developed a fear of drowning.

Hans’ sisters’ birth led him to question the process of conception and childbirth. The parents answered, telling Hans that a stork bird delivers babies in bags.

Freud’s Interpretation of Little Hans’ Traumas

Considering Freud did not personally interact with Little Hans until he was five years old, we have to consider the following interpretations with that in mind. Most of Freud’s theories about Little Hans’ fear and trauma revolve around Little Hans’ father.

The Oedipus Complex is one of Freud’s most infamous conceptualised theories, which he suggests to be a crucial stage in child development.

The Oedipus Complex is a psychoanalytic theory revolving around the idea of a sexual desire for the parent, which is the opposite sex to the child, and insists that a natural rivalry with the same-sex parent develops to win the attention of the opposite-sex parent.

Freud described Little Hans’ interest in ‘widdlers’ as an unconscious motive. He also added that Hans had experienced repression through his mother’s threats, which developed into his fear of castration.

Further, Freud thought Ha ns was j ealous of his sister because it reminded him of his pleasure during the earlier stages of development. He wanted his sister to drown in the bath so he could have his mother to himself.

When Little Hans wanted his father to go away and be alone with his mother, Freud explained that Hans desired his mother and related this to the Oedipus complex. According to Freud, Hans wanted a large penis to compete with his father and marry his mother, as he had entered the phallic stage of development.

Freud also associated Hans’ fear of white horses as part of the Oedipus Complex, as the horses represented his father and the fear that he could harm him. Freud interpreted this as Hans’ fear that his father would castrate him as a punishment for his incestuous desire for his mother.

This was associated with a defence mechanism known as identification with the aggressor. By adopting the father’s mannerisms, a child’s identification with the aggressor reduces the chances of conflicts occurring as they appease the father figure.

The fear s tarted as an Oedipal conflict and developed due to the mother allowing Hans in the parents’ bed and his father opposing him from getting into bed with them.

Strengths and Weaknesses of the Little Hans Case Study

We need to consider the strengths and weaknesses of the case study to analyse the legitimacy of Freud’s claims.

The Case Of Little Hans: Weaknesses

In what relates to generalisability, the case study was based on one child, and for this reason, the results may not be generalised or applicable to others. Little Hans had specific experiences, so whilst the case study revolves around him and is specifically relevant to him, the interpretations can only be related to him as well. It is a lack of population validity .

In terms of subjectivity, the case study requires a subjective interpretation, which could vary from analyst to analyst. Others could see Hans’ phobia differently , which means that the study case is unreliable. However, Freud collected very detailed data from Hans and his parents. Because of the rich data collection, the study can be re-analysed on an interpretative level relating specifically to Hans.

Jerome Wakefield (2007) used Bowlby’s attachment theory to Little Hans’ giraffe experience. The outcome was a symbolic way to compete for the mother’s attention with his toddler sister. Therefore, Bowlby’s findings rejected Freud’s conclusion linking it to the Oedipus complex.

It’s known that Little Hans’ parents were Freud’s followers, and the information provided to Freud may be considered biased. They may have asked Hans leading questions based on Freud’s theories and looked at Hans’ case through the lens of Freud’s interpretations.

The case study is not considered scientific as the unconscious castration fears are not testable, and Freud’s Oedipus Complex cannot be measured.

The Case Of Little Hans: Strengths

Freud’s studies and theories are focused on sexual and unconscious qualities, which has led to a new path for psychotherapy and psychoanalysis to be further studied. The case study was initially proposed to understand and treat Hans’ fear of horses and see whether there was any support for the Oedipus complex. It also helped track the development of a child aged between four to five.

Years later, when Little Hans became an adult, he paid a visit to Freud, who found he was a healthy man with a successful career, suggesting there was a long-term resolution.

Other interventions, such as medication, are often criticised for not getting rid of the root of the problem; instead, they just mask the problem. The findings suggest that the same can’t be said concerning Freud’s approach.

Based on the study, applying Freud’s concept and evidence for psychosexual stages and theory of gender development revealed the unconscious drives, which resulted in Hans’ cured phobia of horses. Suggesting the research has high utility, and psychodynamic principles should be applied to therapeutic settings.

Ethics of the Little Hans: Freud Case

There are several reasons why such a case study would not be feasible today.

One of these reasons relates to protection from harm. Freud investigated little Hans, but no specific treatment was provided. The case study was used by Freud as evidence of his own ideas but did not provide emotional support for Little Hans.

The study also conflicts with today’s ethical standards regarding informed consent and the possibility of withdrawing from the study. Although in today’s research, underage individuals cannot provide consent, in the case of Little Hans, it is different. The father was a follower and supporter of Freud’s ideas, which may have encouraged him to contact Freud, which could have motivated his father to stay on board with the research despite Hans’ needs.

Further, given the lack of a therapeutic outcome for Little Hans, the real aim of the case study is questioned.

Little Hans Case Study: Short Summary

In short, Little Hans was used in a case study to investigate his fear of horses after witnessing an accident. Freud’s interpretation was based on his psychosexual theory of child development, and thus, Freud explained Little Hans’ fears in terms of the Oedipus Complex.

Although the study was relevant at the time, it can widely be criticised today due to generalisability and validity issues. Furthermore, the case study presents ethical standards that would not be accepted today.

The Case Of Little Hans - Key takeaways

Frequently Asked Questions about The Case Of Little Hans

--> what was the case with little hans.

The Little Hans case study (1909) concerned the study of the fear and traumas of a five-year-old boy.

--> What happened to Little Hans?

Little Hans was going through the phallic stage when he had a traumatised event that caused a fear of horses. 

--> What was the method of the Little Hans study?

The method Freud employed was a case study to investigate Little Hans' phobia.

--> How many times did Freud meet Little Hans?

--> how long was freud’s study of little hans.

The data provided by Hans's parents started when he was three years old, and the experiment lasted until he reached the age of five. 

Final The Case Of Little Hans Quiz

The case of little hans quiz - teste dein wissen.

How did Freud intend to resolve the Little Hans case?

Show answer

Freud demonstrated interest in the role of sexual drives concerned children’s development. He focused on Little Han’s psychosexual development when finding the key to resolving the mystery. 

Show question

How did Freud associate Little Hans with the Oedipus complex?

When he analysed that Hans was five years old, the association was inevitable. He realised that the Little Hans was going through the phallic stage within the Oedipus conflicts, fearing castration. 

What had called Freud’s attention to Little Hans’ interests when he was three years old?

From the age of three years, his parents reported little Hans showing interest in ‘widdlers’. i.e., his penis and those of other males, including animals.

How did Little Hans’ mother try to stop him from playing with his penis?

His mother used to threaten to call the doctor and get him castrated.

How old was Little Hans when he witnessed the horse accident?

When Little Hans was four years old, he went through a traumatic event. He witnessed an accident with a heavily loaded horse that collapsed in front of him. 

What happened to Little Hans after witnessing the horse accident?

After the accident, his parents noticed he started becoming afraid of horses, especially those carrying a heavy load or those with darker circles around the eyes. He feared seeing other horses and thus didn’t want to leave home. 

What was involved in the phobia that Little Hans developed?

His phobia was presumed connected to the view of the horse’s large genitalia. The fear of horses has led Little Hans to avoid leaving his home because he did not want to encounter any horses. 

What did Hans report dreaming of?

Hans described that he dreamed about being in a room, and two giraffes entered the room. One of the giraffes started to crumple the other and led the second giraffe to call out to him.

Was Hans an only child?

No. Hans had a younger sister born when he was three and a half years old.

How did Little Hans see the mother’s relationship with the sister?

He was competing for the mother’s attention, showing jealousy when he said he wished the mother would drown the baby in the bath.

When Hans had questions about conception and birth, how did his parents respond to him?

The parents would tell him a story about a stork bird delivering babies in boxes.

Freud and Graff believed that the giraffe’s long neck was a symbol of the large adult penis. What did Little Hans think about it?

Hans rejected this idea.

Did Little Hans' case study provide supporting evidence of the psychosexual stages of development?

What is one strength of the case of Little Hans?

The application of Freud’s studies and theories focused on sexual and unconscious qualities, which has led to a new path to psychotherapy and psychoanalysis to develop further.

What is one weakness of the case of Little Hans?

The studies were based on one child. For this reason, they may not be generalised or applicable to others.

How did Bowlby’s theory of attachment support the studies?

Jerome Wakefield employed Bowlby’s attachment theory to Little Hans’ giraffe experience. The outcome was that it was a symbolic way to compete for the mother’s attention with his toddler sister.

Who was 'Little Hans'?

‘Little Hans’ is a pseudonym for Herbert Graf, the son of the critic musician Max Graf, a follower of Freud’s theories.

Freud tried to treat Little Hans directly. Is this true or false?

When did Freud interact with Little Hans directly?

3 years old.

How did Freud try and resolve Little Hans' fear of horses?

He focused on Little Han’s psychosexual development to  resolve the mystery of Hans’ fear of horses . 

What did Freud believe about Little Hans in terms of the psychosexual stage of development theory?

He believed that Little Hans was going through the  phallic stage  of the Oedipus complex, which means he feared castration.  

What was the traumatic event that Little Hans witnessed?

He witnessed an accident with a heavily loaded horse that collapsed in front of him.

How did Little Hans' focus on male genitals connect to his fear of horses?

Freud presumed  Hans was traumatised by the view of the horse’s large genitalia, which led Little Hans to avoid leaving his home because he did not want to encounter any horses.  

How was Little Hans' dream about giraffes interpreted?

It was interpreted as a morning routine involving Little Hans and his father and mother waking up (the father was the big giraffe and the crumpled one was his mother).  

Hans stated that he wished his mother would drown his younger sister in the bath. Is this true or false?

What is the oedipus complex?

It is  a   psychoanalytic theory  revolving around the idea of a sexual desire for the parent, which is the opposite sex to the child, and insists that a natural rivalry with the same-sex parent develops to win the attention  of the opposite sex parent.

According to Freud, Hans experienced repression   through his mother’s threats, which developed into his fear of castration. Is this true or false?

According to Freud, why did Little Hans want his sister to drown in the bath?

According to Freud, Little Hans  wanted his sister to drown in the bath so he could have his mother to himself. 

Hans wanted a large penis to compete with his father and marry his mother, as he had entered the phallic stage of development. Is this true or false?

How did Freud interpret Hans' fear of horses?

Freud also associated Hans’ fear of white horses as part of the Oedipus Complex, as the horses represented his father and the fear that he could harm him.

What does identification with the aggressor mean in the case of Little Hans?

By adopting the father’s mannerisms, a child’s identification with the aggressor reduces the chances of conflicts occurring as they appease the father figure.

Why is the case of Little Hans unreliable?

This is because Hans' phobia could be seen differently by others and can't be replicated.

Bowlby’s findings accepted Freud’s conclusion linking it to the Oedipus complex. Is this true or false?

There was nothing ethically wrong with the case of Little Hans. Is this true or false?

How could the case of Little Hans show bias?

Little Hans’ parents were Freud’s followers, so th ey may have asked Hans leading questions based on Freud’s theories and looked at Hans’ case through the lens of Freud’s interpretations.

Why was the study not considered scientific?

This is because  the unconscious castration fear is not testable, and Freud’s Oedipus Complex cannot be measured.

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Case Studies: Little Hans – Sigmund Freud

Little hans.

In the early 20th century Sigmund Freud was under pressure to provide evidence to support his theories from client cases. With Dora, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Daniel Paul Schreber, Freud explored similar themes including bisexuality moving between heterosexuality and homosexuality where both environmental challenges, hormonal changes and sexual opportunities availed themselves. And for males, Freud described an intimidation or castration complex where sexuality is affected by traumas of pride. His emphasis on these themes continued with Little Hans, The Ratman, and The Wolfman. With Little Hans, Herbert Graf, Freud was at a disadvantage because he had not yet developed the skills to be a great child Psychoanalyst, so he relied on notes from parents to record their kid’s thinking and behaviour patterns. “While I myself supervised the overall plan of treatment and also intervened personally on one occasion by talking to the lad myself, the treatment itself was carried out by the little boy’s father.” Freud admitted that “…no one else could have persuaded the child to admit so freely to his feelings and nothing could replace the expertise with which the father was able to interpret the utterances of his 5-year-old son: the technical difficulties of carrying out the psychoanalysis of so young a patient would have been insurmountable.” Herbert was the son of Max Graf, the music critic, and Olga Hönig who provided most of the material for the analysis. “His parents, who were both among my closest followers, had agreed to bring up their first child with no more constraint than proved necessary to maintain decent behaviour, and as the child developed into a cheerful, good-natured and bright little boy, they proceeded quite happily with their attempt to let him grow and express himself without intimidation.”

Infantile Sexuality – Freud:

Sexual theories of children

One of the theories that Freud had to defend was his theories of how children developed sexually before puberty. In Freud’s time it was more common to believe that sexuality only begins with puberty.  Analysis of a Phobia in a Five-year old Boy , was published a few years after his  Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality . Freud’s Oral Phase coincides with breast feeding and an early sexual organization. The review of Little Hans takes place in the period of the Phallic phase, around ages 3 – 4, when children obsess about the penis, sexual differences between men and women and early sexual theories, like that of the stork. Children can be direct with their questions, with parents in most cases misdirecting them with inaccurate answers. Freud recounts notes from Hans’s parents:

Hans, aged 3 3/4:  ‘Daddy, have you got a widdler too?’

Father: ‘Of course I have.’

Hans: ‘But I’ve never seen it when you get undressed.’

On another occasion he watches with fascination while his mother undresses at bedtime. She asks ‘Whatever are you looking at?’

Hans: ‘I’m just looking to see if you’ve got a widdler too.’

Mummy:  ‘Of course I have. Didn’t you know that?’

Hans:  ‘No, I thought because you’re so big you must have a widdler like a horse’s.'”

Freud then moves to the castration complex where early masturbation is punished. “At the same time [Hans’s] interest in widdlers is not just theoretical: as we might surmise, it stimulates him to touch that organ as well. At the age of 3 1/2 his mother catches him with his hand on his penis. She threatens him: ‘If you do that, I’ll tell Dr. A. to come and he’ll cut off your widdler. What will you do then when you have to widdle?’

Hans: ‘I’ll use my botty.'”

“He responds without any sense of guilt as yet, but acquires on this occasion the ‘castration complex’ that is so often to be inferred from the analysis of neurotics, even though without exception they strenuously resist any acknowledgement of it.”

Hans continued noticing penises everywhere including on giraffe’s, a cow’s udder, and horses.

“I draw a giraffe for Hans… He says to me, ‘You must draw his widdler.’ I reply, ‘Draw it on yourself.’ At this he adds a new line to the picture of the giraffe, which at first he leaves short but then adds another line to it, remarking, ‘His widdler is longer than that.’ Hans and I walk past a horse which is urinating. He says, ‘The horse’s widdler is down below, like mine.’ He watches his 3-month-old sister being bathed and says pityingly, ‘Her widdler is really really tiny.’ He is given a doll to play with, and undresses her. He looks at her carefully and says, ‘Her widdler is only really tiny.'”

Sibling rivalry

“…brothers ought not to pursue honours or powers from the same sources but from different ones. ~ Peter Walcot paraphrasing Plutarch (Moralia 486 B & C)

Hans’s father Max describes the reactions of his little Herbert with a new inclusion to the family. “ Hans is very jealous of the new arrival and as soon as anyone praises her, finds her pretty, etc., he replies scornfully: ‘But she hasn’t got any teeth yet.’ For when he saw her for the first time he was astonished that she was unable to speak and assumed that the reason she could not speak was because she did not have any teeth. In the early days after the birth he finds himself having to play second fiddle, of course, and suddenly comes down with a very sore throat. In his fever he is heard to say: ‘But I don’t want a little sister!’ It takes about six months for him to get over his jealousy, after which he becomes as affectionate towards Hanna as he is conscious of his own superiority.”  Here we have the sources of jealousy being insecurity over sources of pleasurable attention and the cure coming from the older sibling being able to find their own superiority to regain security. As long as the child cannot find their own distinctive superiority there will be continued resentment based on the feeling of being replaced by the younger sibling. Conflict is reduced when different talents are developed within different siblings then the conflict can only be escalated again if parents stupidly refuse to acknowledge the value of those different talents and start picking favourites. This lesson extends outwards beyond family to the economy. A peaceful society is one where all the world’s cultures are able to trade differences with each other in such a way that as many individuals in society gain a sense of security. Economic crashes and limited varieties of industries can create jealous and envious tensions in the world. These tensions can create war, revolution, and even more subtle problems like chronic unemployment and psychological problems. Freud quotes another older child in his notes in the paper as saying of his younger brother that “the stork can take him back again.”

Envy and the Greeks: A study of Human Behaviour by Peter Walcot:

Jealous Pets:


“Hans’s 5-year-old cousin is here on a visit. Hans, now 4, embraces him continually and during one of these tender embraces and says, ‘Oh, I do love you.’  This is the first instance of homosexuality that we shall encounter in Hans, but certainly not the last. Our little Hans is apparently the epitome of all the vices!  We have moved to a new apartment. (Hans is 4.) A door leads from our kitchen to a narrow balcony, from which one can see into the apartment on the opposite side of the courtyard. Here Hans has discovered a little girl of 7 or 8. Now he sits on the step leading to the balcony waiting to adore her, and will sit there for hours. At 4 O’Clock in particular, when the little girl comes home from school, we cannot keep him in the room, nor stop him from taking up his observation post. On one occasion, when the little girl does not appear at the window at the usual time, Hans becomes very agitated and plagues the servants with questions: ‘When is the little girl coming home? Where is she?’, etc. When she finally appears he is ecstatic and cannot take his eyes off the apartment opposite. The passion with which Hans embarked on this ‘love at a distance’ can be explained by the fact that Hans has no little playmate, boy or girl. Frequent contact with other children is obviously a necessary part of a child’s normal development.”

“Shortly afterwards we leave to spend the summer in Gmunden and Hans (4 1/2) now has company. His playmates are our landlord’s the next-door children, Anna (10) and two other little girls whose names I cannot recall, who are about 9 and 7. His favourite is Fritzl, whom he often embraces and assures of his love. On one occasion he is asked, ‘Which of the little girls do you like best?’ and answers ‘Fritzl’. At the same time he is very aggressive towards the girls, swaggers and acts the man, embraces them and smothers them with kisses, which Berta for one very much enjoys. One evening, as Berta is coming out of the room he puts his arms round her neck and says in the sweetest of voices, ‘You’re so lovely, Berta’; however, this does not stop him from kissing the others and assuring them of his love too. He is also very fond of Mariedl, another of the landlord’s daughters who plays with him; she is about 14, and one evening as he is being put to bed he says, ‘I want Mariedl to sleep with me.’ When he is told, ‘She can’t do that’, he says, ‘I want her to sleep with Mummy or Daddy, then.’ He is told, ‘She can’t do that either, Mariedl must sleep downstairs with her parents’.”

“On the following occasion, too, Hans said to his Mummy, ‘You know, I should so like to sleep with that little girl.’ The occasion gives rise to great amusement, for Hans behaves just like a grown-up in love. For some days a pretty little girl, about 8 years old, has been coming into the restaurant where we have lunch, and Hans has of course immediately fallen in love with her. He is constantly turning round on his chair to look at her out of the corner of his eye; he goes over to stand near her and flirt as soon as he has eaten, but goes bright scarlet if anyone catches him at it. If the little girl returns his glance he immediately looks in the opposite direction, covered in shame. His behaviour occasions hilarity, of course, in all the restaurant guests. Every day when we take him into the restaurant he asks, ‘Do you think the little girl will be here today?’ When she finally comes he goes as red as any adult in the same situation. On one occasion he comes over to me, quite blissful, and whispers in my ear: ‘I know where the little girl lives. I’ve seen her go up the steps in such and such a place.’ While he may behave aggressively towards the little girls at home, here he is altogether the platonically languishing beau. This may have something to do with the fact that the girls at home are village children, while this one is a lady of refinement. I have already mentioned that he once said he would like to sleep with her.”

Freud’s male homosexual theory

Freud continued his theory of male homosexuality by connecting early sexual theories of children where everyone is expected to have a penis. When the penis is then made the prime importance of sexual pleasure, associated with the loving connection of the mother, later discoveries of the vagina and clitoris lead to a disappointment. The desire for a “woman with a penis”, as Freud puts it, moves to the new object which is feminine looking male. Of course Freud is in the early days of sexual orientation psychology, but some clues to biology appear in his review of Daniel Paul Schreber’s book that show that stress and age related hormonal changes can also affect an adult’s sexual orientation even if they were married to a woman and had regular sex with the desire to have a baby. [See: Daniel Paul Schreber: ] The complexity of sexual orientation is only starting to be unraveled. There are patterns but many people have very individual experiences with their choice of sexual objects and some of confusion has to do with ignorance of biology. At this point in time Freud sticks with his theory of the fluidity of objects and doesn’t posit a homosexual drive, or instinct. Instincts for Freud are biological drives to action. “It is quite inappropriate to single out one particular homosexual drive; it is not a peculiarity of his drives that distinguishes the homosexual, but his choice of object.” Here Freud pushes a desire for better sexual education of children. Freud says “Hans is homosexual, as all children may very well be, quite in accordance with the undeniable fact that he only knows of one kind of genitalia , genitalia like his own.”

Freud then observes Hans’s exploration of other girls where he’s more bold in some cases, or remains at a distance with yearning. His desire to sleep with them connects with his desire to be in bed with his mother, and Freud even equates the term to “sleep with someone” as an adult term that comes from childhood connections of sleeping in bed with mummy.

Baby wants Blue Velvet – Isabella Rosselini and Dennis Hopper:

Little Oedipus

Freud also asserts that when there is a “paucity of other objects of love” children can revert, for example, back to their mother. This hints that Freud’s theory views sexuality as something that looks for convenient objects. If parents are the only ones around, then children target their desires towards them. When other children are around, then new targets are made. For example, during summer months in “Gmunden, when his father’s alternating presence and absence drew his attention to the conditions that determined that longed-for intimacy with his mother. Later…when Hans could no longer count on his father’s going away, the wish was intensified until its content was that his father should go away for good, should be ‘dead’.” Yet there was some ambivalence toward his father as Freud describes. “Hans feels an intense love for the father against whom he harbours a death-wish, and while his intelligence may lead him to query this contradiction, he is still obliged to demonstrate its reality by hitting his father and then immediately kissing the place where he had hit him.” His father recounts…

“Hans, 4 1/4 years old. This morning his mummy gives Hans a bath, as she does every day, then dries him and pats him with talcum powder. As she puts talcum powder around his penis, taking care not to touch it, Hans says, ‘Why don’t you touch me there?”

Mummy: ‘Because that’s dirty.’

Hans: ‘What? Dirty? Why?’

Mummy: ‘Because it’s not decent.’

Hans (laughing): ‘It’s fun, though.'”

“Being helped to do a widdle, which involves unfastening the child’s trousers and taking out his penis, is obviously a pleasurable activity for Hans. When they are out on a walk it is of course mainly his father who helps Hans in this way, which provides an opportunity for his homosexual tendencies to become fixed on his father.”

“Yesterday, when I took Hans for a wee he asked me for the first time to take him behind the house so that no one could see, and added, ‘Last year, when I did a widdle, Berta and Olga watched me.’ I take this to mean that last year he enjoyed it when the girls watched him, but doesn’t any more. The pleasure of exhibitionism is now being repressed. The repression in real life of his desire to be seen – or helped – by Berta and Olga when he is doing a widdle, explains why it has turned up in his dreams…Since then I have repeatedly observed that he does not wish to be seen when doing a widdle.”

“Hans (4 1/2) is again watching his little sister being bathed and starts to laugh. Asked, ‘Why are you laughing?’ he replies, ‘I’m laughing at Hanna’s widdler.’ ‘Why?’ – ‘Because her widdler’s so lovely.’ Obviously this is not what he means. Hanna’s widdler actually struck him as funny. This is incidentally the first time he acknowledges the difference between male and female genitals, instead of denying it.”

Cat showing ambivalence with licking and biting (3:28) :


As the analysis continued Hans’s father noticed a phobia begin in his son. “Sexual over-excitement caused by his mother’s caresses is no doubt at the root of the problem, but I am at a loss to identify the immediate cause of the disorder. The fear that a horse will bite him on the street seems connected in some way to fear of a large penis – you will recall from my earlier notes that he was aware at a very early stage of the horse’s large penis and came to the conclusion that, as she is so big, his mother must have a widdler like a horse’s.” Freud makes some connections to a dream of Hans’s where he loses his mother and is not able to nuzzle with her. This is conflated with the large widdler he assumes his mother has and his hope that “when I get bigger my widdler will grow too.” Freud concludes “that he has constantly made comparisons in the course of his observations and remains deeply dissatisfied with the size of his own widdler. He is reminded of this defect by the big animals, which he dislikes for that reason. Since he is probably unable to become fully conscious of this whole train of thought, the painful feeling is transformed into anxiety, so that his present anxiety builds as much on his earlier pleasure as on his present aversion. When once a state of anxiety has been created, anxiety devours all other feelings; as repression takes its course and those once-conscious ideas to which strong feelings have become attached move more and more into the unconscious mind, all the associated emotions may be transformed into anxiety.” The repression to not think about the distressing thoughts is motivated by the desire to stop the anxiety. Reminders in the world that connect back to thoughts of a small widdler, including the memory of the threat of castration by the mother, and more recently his first knowledge that girls have different genitalia, and the possibility that he could be widdler-less like them, creates a phobia over any reminder of inferiority. The horse becomes a trigger for anxiety related to inferiority.

Further questioning led to a memory of a horse collapsing while shopping with this mom. Hans imagined that the horse could both bite him or collapse. Freud interpreted the collapsed horse being the father dying so Hans could take his place, but at the same time there was an ambivalence because he also loves his father. Mixed with memories of seeing children hop up on horse driven carts and onto loading ramps, Hans fantasized a danger of the cart moving away just as he hopped onto one and send him crashing down. The horse, or the father, is the incest barrier to the mother. “Behind the original expression of anxiety, the fear that horses will collapse, and both of these, the biting horse and the falling horse, are the father who will punish him because of the wicked desires he harbours against him.”

The End – The Doors:

Freud talked to Hans and laid out the characteristics of the horse compared to his father. “…I offered him a partial interpretation of his fear of horses: his father must be the horse, which he had good internal reason to fear. Certain details that aroused fear in Hans, the black around this mouth and in front of his eyes (moustache and spectacles, the prerogatives of the adult male), seemed to me to have been transferred directly from the father to the horses. With this explanation I vanquished the most powerful resistance in Hans to conscious recognition of his unconscious thoughts, since it was his own father who was taking the role of his physician. From this moment on we had conquered the summit of his condition, the material flowed abundantly, the young patient showed courage in communicating the details of his phobia and soon intervened independently in the course of the analysis.”

Fecal birth

The parents finally gave in and provided a basic sexual education talk to Hans. “On 24 April my wife and I enlighten Hans up to a point by explaining that babies grow inside the mummy and then are brought into the world like a ‘plop’ by pushing them out, and that this causes great pain. In the afternoon we go out in the street. He is clearly much relieved, running after carts and carriages, and his residual anxiety is betrayed only by the fact that he does not dare to venture far away from the main entrance, and cannot be persuaded to go for a longer walk at all.” Afterwards Hans showed an interest in being a mummy and having children. He imagined his friends being his children, including an imaginary friend Lodi. His play eventually changed his role to become the father and then eventually he bestowed the honor of grandfather and grandmother to his parents. The heavy weight of the cart being pulled by the horse in Hans’s memory had further symbolic significance for Freud. “We learn that Hans used to insist on accompanying his mother to the lavatory and that he did the same thing with Berta, who represented his mother at the time, until this was discovered and forbidden. The pleasure derived from watching a beloved person perform such functions corresponds to the ‘confluence of drives’ / instincts of which we have already seen one example in Hans’s behaviour. Hans’s father finally turns his mind to the symbolism of plop, and recognizes an analogy between a heavily laden cart and a body weighed down by faecal matter, between the way a cart drives out of the gateway and the way a stool is released from the body.” The birth of the baby is treated as a “plop” like when defecating. By use of imagination towards his parents Hans resolved his conflict with his father and mother. Later after puberty Hans will have to take his dream of being a parent and choose an object outside of the family now that he accepts that different people have to be chosen.

Influence through the power of suggestion

The main controversy with Freud’s analysis of Hans is the use of his parents as mediators. Shockingly, Freud opens up a can of worms in his paper that goes even beyond it. He makes the excuse that children are less likely to lie than adults, but his main reservation is damaging. “The analysis of a child by his own father, who is steeped in my theoretical views and tainted with  my prejudices,  is altogether lacking in objective value. A child is of course suggestible to a very high degree, as regards his father, perhaps, more than any other figure; he will allow any words to be put in his mouth out of gratitude to a father who pays him so much attention.” The power of suggestion can hardly be better described than that. It presages Freud’s later work and object psychology. The reason why most people have voices in their minds is from the rewards and punishments, the giving and withholding of attention from parents, caregivers and powerful people. It’s a form of conditioning where suggestions are imitated by children, and adults, to secure attention from others as a reward. This is a weakness that can be exploited by predators, confidence tricksters, cults and advertising. Any attachment wound or emptiness is open for exploitation. With enough repetition children and adults follow the family culture and the wider culture of the world. Even when the original influences are gone, the conditioning remains in the person, motivating actions unconsciously until these attachment needs are brought to consciousness and healthy sources of satisfaction are pursued. If you want to know why you are talking to people in your mind? It’s because you want to get agreement and positive attention from them in real life. Real life requires an unreal world to think in, rehearse and strategize in order to make decisions in the actual world. There are also terrible people imitated in our minds and the mind creates stress as if they are really there. They inhibit our choices and we can become like them if we believe their behaviours are rewarding enough to imitate. This is the dark side we all have to fight with and defeat. The real ghosts are impressions in our mind. A fifth column that doesn’t always have your best interest at heart.

Luke Skywalker’s vision of himself as Darth Vader:

Cult psychology:

Breaking the cycle of abuse:

Thankfully the observer awareness in meditation can heal these influences, desires for attention, and can help to remove the identification with old cultural habits. It can provide, what Freud would later call the “I” or Ego, opportunities to make choices with a sense of play and authenticity in different directions. When people are conscious of their attachment weaknesses, they are more likely to vet choices and compare them to decide which is better, creating a more independent mind. Any basic meditation pursued for a period of time will have interruptions showing the types of objects imitated in the mind. This includes just being mindful while walking and seeing triggers and memories happen in real time. Being able to breathe through them, relax them and release them will be important to create more independence. The importance of this insight is that cults can appear anywhere there is exploitation. Followers need leaders and leaders need followers. Religious or secular sources of these suggestions that leaders provide, including psychoanalysis, all can fall under cult-like appeals to authority, where a leader is always to be believed and a follower obeys. Watching our attachment wounds and deficits can protect us from predators, especially the friendly looking ones, who are watching from a distance.

Slow boat to China: The Master – Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix:

How to motivate yourself – Freud and Beyond :

The Wolfman and other cases – Sigmund Freud: Kindle: Paperback:


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Freud (1909)

Last updated 10 Feb 2023

Analysis of a Phobia of a Five-Year Old Boy.

Background & Aim

Little Hans’ father was a supporter of Freud and when his son developed a phobia, he referred him to Freud. Freud agreed to help and believed Hans’ phobia was due to things going on in his unconscious mind. Freud used the study of Little Hans to support his views on the origins of phobias, childhood sexuality and the Oedipus complex , as well as his belief in psychoanalysis as an effective therapy. Freud believed Hans’ fears, dreams and fantasies were symbolic of his unconscious passing through the phallic stage of psychosexual development .

sigmund freud case study little hans

As this was a detailed study of a single individual (Little Hans was Herbert Graf) over a period of time, we can classify it as a longitudinal case study . The study describes Hans’ fears from when he was three years old until he was five. He was five years old at the time of this study, but historical information from when Little Hans was three years old was also used. Qualitative data was gathered by Little Hans’ father through observations of and conversations with his son. This information was then sent to Freud by letter, who replied with interpretations of Hans’ behaviour and with advice.

During his correspondences with Freud, Hans’ father reported some of the following information about his son: Just before the age of three, Hans started to develop an active interest in his ‘widdler’ and he started to masturbate. This caused his mother to threaten to send for Dr A. to cut it off. At three and a half Hans’ sister Hanna was born; he resented her and hoped she would drown in the bath. A short time afterwards Hans developed a fear of white horses and being bitten by them. This seemed to relate to two key incidents: Firstly, overhearing a man say to his child “Don’t put your finger to the white horse or it will bite you”; secondly, seeing a horse that was pulling a carriage fall down. As a result, Hans’ phobia was generalised to carts and buses.

It was also reported that before and after the development of the phobia, Hans was anxious that his mother would leave and he experienced fantasies including one about a giraffe, two plumber fantasies and finally a parenting fantasy. The analysis/ investigation of Little Hans ended soon after the final fantasy when the phobia stopped due to the help he was given by Freud.

The information about Little Hans was analysed by Freud and he came up with the following findings: Because Han’s was experiencing the Oedipus complex (a sexual desire for his mother and rivalry with his father) he was subconsciously scared of his father. This fear was manifested in a fear of horses, particularly those with dark around the mouth (representing his father’s beard) and blinkers (which represented his glasses). Hans’ obsession with his ‘widdler’ was another sign of being in the phallic stage of development and experiencing the Oedipus complex. Other behaviours relating to the Oedipus Complex also included the giraffe fantasy which represented the desire to take his mother away from his father; the plumber fantasy was interpreted as him identifying with his father, as was the fantasy of becoming a father. The final family fantasy was interpreted as the resolution of the Oedipus Complex.


Freud concluded that the study of Little Hans provided support for his theory of psychosexual development and childhood sexuality, including the idea that boys in the phallic stage experience the Oedipus complex. He also concluded that phobias are caused by unconscious anxiety being displaced onto harmless external objects. Furthermore, Hans is an example of unconscious determinism which suggests that people are not consciously aware of the causes of their behaviour. Finally, Freud claims that psychoanalysis was an effective treatment for Little Hans because it identifies the unconscious cause of the abnormality which is then brought into the conscious to be discussed and resolved.

A strength of the case study method is that in-depth qualitative data can be gained through various methods such as observations and interviews. This allowed Freud to make detailed conclusions. However, as the data was gained by Hans’ father, who was also a fan of Freud, it may lack objectivity. There may also have been bias in the questions that were asked and in the recording of the data.

Furthermore, as the sample was only a single individual the study lacks population validity and therefore it is questionable as to whether the findings concerning the Oedipus Complex and psychosexual development can be generalised to all children. This is especially true as Hans was a middle class European boy in the early 20 th Century. It can be suggested that this study and much of Freud’s other research is ethnocentric.

As Little Hans was a five-year old boy he was unable to give informed consent; however, Hans’ father clearly did. Some of the questions Hans’ father asked his son may have caused psychological harm and the detailed description of Hans’ personal information within the research article would be invasion of privacy. On the other hand, Hans’ father was very open with his son and told him that notes he was taking were for the professor who was going to fix Hans’ ‘nonsense’, which he seemed to do!

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Freud (1909) – little hans.

Freud, S. (1909) Analysis of a phobia of a five-year old boy. The Pelican Library, Vol. 8, Case Histories, p. 169-306

This is the classic individual differences psychology study which you will look at for your H167 AS OCR Psychology exam. You will also need this study for your OCR H567 A Level Psychology core studies exam.

The theme of the individual differences psychology studies in the H167 exam is understanding disorders.  This study by Freud (1909) focuses on Little Hans’ Phobia.  

If you want to further your understanding of this case, consider reading the entire case history written by Freud: Case Histories I: ‘Dora’ and ‘Little Hans’ (The Penguin Freud Library, Vol. 8)

What theory is the research based on?

Freud’s Theory of Psychosexual development

Freud’s theory of psychosexual development considers both nature and nuture. Nature is considered because the stages of psychosexual development occur with maturation at specific ages and nuture because the individual reactions during these stages are affected by how the individual is treated.

Freud’s Psychosexual Stages

Freud proposed five stages of psychosexual development:

The Oedipus Complex

According to Freud the Oedipus Complex occurs in boys in the phallic stage. This complex is based on the play by Sophocles: Oedipus the King, wherein Oedipus falls in love with his mother and kills his father. According to Freud, the oedipus complex is the unconscious motivation to sexual possess one’s mother. Girls may be affected by the Electra complex, which is the unconscious motivation to sexual possess one’s father, which also occurs in the phallic stage.

Little Hans

Little Hans before his phobia developed was described as a cheerful and straightforward child. During this case study, Hans’ was between 3 and 5 five years old. Hans’ father first started documenting Hans’ behaviour when he was 3 years old and was starting to develop his theory.

Freud suggested that when Hans began to develop symptoms of his phobia, he started to develop a difference between what he said and what he thought. Freud suggested that Hans had unconscious thoughts which were causing his Phobia.

Aim of the Study

Freud aimed to both document the case of Little Hans’ and to provide support for his Psychoanalytic theory, especially to provide support for the phallic stage of his stages of psychosexual development.

Method and Design

Freud did not actually work with Little Hans in person, but instead Hans’ father wrote letters to Freud about Hans’ behaviour. Hans’ father acted as a proxy to Freud and observed Hans’ and asked him questions, all of which were the relayed to Freud via the letters.

This study is considered a longitudinal  case study,  but it also contains observations and elements of interviews.

It is important to note that Hans’ father was a supporter of Freud’s theories. Why might this affect the results?

Sample and Sampling Method

Freud (1909) was a study of one Austrian boy.

For the duration study when Freud was involved, Hans’ was five years old. Although, as mentioned previously, Hans’ father documented Hans’ behaviour from age 3.

Just before turning 3, Hans’ started showing interest in his ‘widdler’ (penis) and the presence/absence of this organ in others – human and non-human.

At this time he had a tendency to masturbate, bringing threats from his mother to send for Dr A. to cut it off.

When he was three and a half, Hans gained a baby sister, Hanna, whom he resented and subsequently, subconsciously, wished his mother would drop in the bath so she would drown.

Hans’ and his family lived opposed a busy place which had many coaches (drawn by horses, remember this is in the early 1900s in Vienna).

Later Hans developed a fear of being bitten by white horses. This seemed to be linked to two incidents:

His fear was then generalised to carts and buses.

Both before and after the development of the phobias (of the bath and horses), Hans was both anxious his mother would go away and prone to fantasies and daydreams. These included: – The giraffe fantasy. – Two plumber fantasies. – The parenting fantasy.

The Giraffe Fantasy

Hans told his father about his Giraffe fantasy, which involved two giraffes. One of the giraffes was big and the other one was crumpled (Freud suggests that the big giraffe was an unconscious manifestation of Hans’s father and the crumpled one was an unconscious manifestation of Hans’ mother).

In the fantasy, Hans’ took the crumpled giraffe away from the big one which caused the big one to call out. Then Hans sat on top of the crumpled Giraffe.

Two Plumber Fantasies 

The first plumber fantasy: Hans was in the bath and a plumber came and unscrewed it. The plumber took a big borer and stuck it in his stomach. A Borer is a tool used by plumbers which is similar to a corkscrew.

The second plumber fantasy: The plumber in this fantasy took away Hans’ behind and widdler (penis) with a pair of pliers and replaced both his behind and his widdler with bigger ones.

The Parenting Fantasy

The parenting fantasy: Hans’ describes a fantasy where he is married to his mother with children, but Hans’ father is now the grandfather as opposed to being Hans’ father. Think about how this relates to the Oedipus complex which was mentioned earlier.

Having received ‘help’ from his father and Freud, after the parenting fantasy, both the ‘illness’ and analysis came to an end.

Results – Freud’s Interpretations

Little Hans’ fear of horses was considered by Freud as a subconscious fear of his father. This because the dark around the mouth of a horse + the blinkers resembled the moustache and glasses worn by his father. He was fearful of his father because he was experiencing the Oedipus complex.

Hans’ fascination with his ‘widdler’ was because he was experiencing the Oedipus complex.

Giraffe Fantasy

Hans’ daydream about giraffes was a representation of him trying to take his mother away from his father so he could have her to himself – another feature of the Oedipus complex.

Parenting Fantasy

Hans’ fantasy of becoming a father with his mother, suggested to Freud (1909), further evidence of the Oedipus complex.

Hans’ fantasies about the plumber was interpreted as him now identifying with his father and the final family fantasy was interpreted as the resolution of the Oedipus Complex.


Freud concluded that his study of Hans provided support for:

Freud (1909) Evaluation

– Unfalsifiability – one of the biggest problems with Freud (1909) and Freud’s theories in general is they are unfalsifiable, which means they are not scientific, as they cannot be proved wrong.

+ Usefulness – Freud’s study of Little Hans and his theories have proved useful for helping people deal with issues and for developing psychology into the study of the mind as opposed to studying reaction times.

– Bias and subjectivity – All of the data in Freud (1909) was gathered by Hans’ father, who was a supporter of Freud’s work. As a result, he may have only documented Hans’ behaviours which provided support for Freud’s theory. Furthermore, Freud’s interpretation of Little Hans’ behaviour is highly subjective.

– Generalisability – as the sample of the study only consisted of one little boy from Austria, it is difficult to generalise the results of this study to other children with phobias.

+ Ethics – Hans was protected from harm during this study.

Freud Exam Tips

When answering any question on Freud in your H167 or H567 exam, try to use the word ‘unconscious’.

Further Reading

Case Histories I: ‘Dora’ and ‘Little Hans’ (The Penguin Freud Library, Vol. 8)

Psych Yogi’s Top Ten Psychology Revision Tips for the A* Student


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