In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms This week’s term is the anal triad.
I originally intended to do this post on stubbornness. I couldn’t find much interesting on that, but it led me to obstinacy, which in turn led to the anal triad. We have Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory to thank for that.
The anal triad personality traits
The anal triad consists of:
- orderliness: includes conscientiousness, reliability, and concern with cleanliness
- obstinacy: aka stubborn moosiness
- parsimoniousness: a chapter author for the book Psychology In The Bathroom (🧐) wrote that parsimony “amounted to a tight and miserly way with money, which, Freud, argued, is often symbolically equated with faeces, especially when it takes the form of gold.” Ah, Freud. Just when you think he can’t get any weirder…
Another description of the triad is the 3 Ps: pedantry, parsimony, and petulance. I like the word petulance almost as much as I like parsimoniousness.
I have to include this whole paragraph from Psychology In The Bathroom, because paraphrasing it just wouldn’t do it justice.
“Freud observed that these traits co-occur not only with one another, but also with a pattern of concern with defecation. He observed that people with the traits tended to recall having derived pleasure as infants from emptying their bowels and also from ‘holding back’. These signs of intensified ‘erotogenic significance’ of the anus do not persist into adulthood and Freud inferred that anal character traits form as sublimations of the child’s earlier wishes or as reaction-formations against them. That is, the obsessive cleanliness and scrupulous morality of anal characters are reactions against their unseemly childhood interest in filth and their wilfulness and tightness with money are socially acceptable expressions of their earlier struggles over toilet training and faecal retention.“
Freud believed that the anal triad traits develop within the moral context that influences how erogenous zone excitation gets deflected. A paper in the British Journal of Medical Psychology wrote “It is claimed, of course, that these traits are defense mechanisms against anal eroticism repressed in early childhood by over-enthusiastic toilet-training.” It seems to always be about the sex for Freud!
Later psychoanalytic theorists ran with the idea and described people with the anal triad traits as difficult to get along with at work, procrastinators, taking things too seriously, socially incompetent, joyless, and boring.
The anal triad in the present
The anal triad seems to have faded into the realm of psychoanalytic history, and it doesn’t sound like there was ever any indication that the traits actually had anything to do with the anus and/or potty training. However, there are a number of modern-day personality descriptors that have considerable overlap. These include perfectionism, authoritarianism, type-A personalities, and obsessive compulsive personality disorder (OCPD), as well as hoarding tendencies.
I’ve mentioned before that I’m a stubborn moose. I’m also parsimonious, and not just because I like the word. I’d say I’m moderately orderly. So I suppose I fit right in with the anal triad. I have no idea what my toilet training history was like, but I am very much convinced that my personality has nothing to do with my ass or what comes out of it.
How anal are you?
- Haslam N. (2012) The anal character. In: Psychology in the Bathroom. Palgrave Macmillan, London.
- Haslam, N. (2011). The return of the anal character. Review of General Psychology, 15(4), 351-360.
- Kline, P. (2013). Obsessional traits, obsessional symptoms and anal erotism. The Experimental Study of Freudian Theories (Psychology Revivals), 86.
- Lewis, H.B. (ed.). (2012). Freud and Modern Psychology: The Emotional Basis of Human Behavior.
- Oxford Reference: Anal triad
The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.
Ashley L. Peterson
BScPharm BSN MPN
Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.