What is... psychology series

What Is… The Anal Triad

graphic of a head with cogs turning inside

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms.  This week’s term is the anal triad.

This was originally intended to be a 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 a concern with cleanliness
  • obstinacy: aka stubborn moosiness
  • parsimoniousness: a chapter author for the book Psychology In The Bathroom (๐Ÿง) 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…

These are also sometimes referred to as the 3 P’s: pedantry, parsimony, and petulance. I like the word petulance almost as much as I like parsimoniousness.

Theoretical background

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 โ€˜holding backโ€™. These signs of intensified โ€˜erotogenic significanceโ€™ of the anus do not persist into adulthood and Freud inferred that anal character traits form as sublimations of the childโ€™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.

Haslam, 2012

Freud’s viewed the anal triad traits as developing in the context of morality in determining how erogenous zone excitation was 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.”

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.

Back to 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 the traits actually had anything to do with the anus and potty-training. However, there are a number of modern-day personality types that have considerable overlap. These include perfectionism, authoritarianism, type A personalities, and obsessive compulsive personality disorder, 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?

Sources:

  • 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 psychology15(4), 351-360.
  • Kline, P. (2013). Obsessional traits, obsessional symptoms and anal erotismThe 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
Psychology resources: What Is insights into psychology series and psychological tests

You can find a directory of the psychology terms covered in the what is… series here.

There’s also a collection of psychological tests here.

78 thoughts on “What Is… The Anal Triad”

  1. Interesting how feelings of physical touching can develop our personality. I was always confused by Freud when he talked about this. So, would a child who is over enthusiated become anal later in life?

  2. People have not described me as “anal.” However, I think I have a bit of obstinacy. If I am very focused on a task — especially in the instance of needing to correct some error — I often will have a lot of difficulty leaving the task at any time to take a healthy break, and I will insist on remaining with the task until it’s done. I’m definitely NOT parsimonious.

      1. Yes. I seem to sometimes operate according to a kind of fear. It’s a fear that I will “forget my place” or “lose my roll” if I stop. I’ve noticed that if I take 15 minute breaks every 45 minutes (in MY kind of work anyway), I actually get more accomplished over any given period of time.

  3. Oh goodness, what a fascinating theory! I actually got a mini brain freeze seeing the title of this post and wondered if I badly misread something. ๐Ÿ˜€
    I don’t think I’m particularly anal at all, in either way. ๐Ÿ˜€ I can be quite stubborn when I have a good reason and feel reasonably confident, but I wouldn’t say it’s a main or distinctive trait of my personality at all. I have a little tendency for parsimoniousness but it’s definitely an acquired thing, rather than something that’s in my nature, it’s hard not to become at least a little parsimonious growing up with one parent being parsimonious and the other on the borderline of compulsive spending. But this parsimonious tendency is mostly something that comes out in my thinking rather than acting, I don’t really listen to that parsimonious voice in my brain and my actual attitude to money and spending is pretty healthy and balanced I believe.
    I generally tend to think Freud was not doing that well mentally himself when creating all these fascinating theories, though he certainly may have been very right about some things.
    As for the anal triad, I reckon it is a coincidence rather than this theory actually working, but it struck me how much this whole thing has in common with one member of my immediate family, I’d rather not say who exactly and what’s their relation with me, as it could have some harmful potential and I don’t want to point a finger or anything like this as I don’t think this person deserves it at all, just show that there are people out there actually fitting the description, lol. They are all of these P traits, plus… I don’t know how to put it so I better put it as it is – they seem to truly enjoy farting! – ๐Ÿ˜€ They don’t do it usually publicly or anything, but they really enjoy farting out loud in the cosiness of their home, polluting the nature or even in loud enough places where it won’t attract too much attention. They also like talking about it in quite a lot of detail if they find a companion who’s happy with such an exchange of information and experiences, or is listening actively enough, the subject of farting is very amusing to them the way it could be for a child in early teens, and they are in their fifties. Feces can be also of interest as a light conversation topic. And they spend ages and ages in the loo, and no, they don’t have any gastrointestinal disorders.
    It sounds awful and generally they’re a pretty normal person, though perhaps not the easiest to get along with long-term, even when not farting. ๐Ÿ˜€ They’re not obsessed with it or anything and you can have very interesting conversations with them on vastly different topics.
    But there’s something unusual going on with the farting thing, so I think they could be an excellent study case for Freud.

  4. This brings back good memories of my psych degree! The anal triad basically describes my dad, except for the whole defecation thing ๐Ÿ˜‚ It’s interesting when I think of it though as my life has revolved around bowels, and now the lack thereof! Great overview of this, Ashley, you manage to break it down so clearly and concisely. Wish you had written my old textbooks. xx

  5. Wow interesting! I know people who seem to have two of these traits together (one with all 3)… now I must speculate on their toilet training lol. Iโ€™m only blessed with the first one…

  6. Fascinating!! Oh my!!

    I think I was “spared” becoming anal because I wasn’t potty trained until age four!! That’s a blessing, I’d reckon, because I have enough mental issues already! I remember being potty trained alongside my brother, two years younger. I was sitting on one of those kiddy toilets, and there was a piece of pooh hanging off my rear, and I asked my mom if I could wipe it off, and she said no, I had to push it out. She didn’t understand it was already out, if that makes sense. Communications breakdown. I also remember having my diaper changed. Was I raised by wolves? ๐Ÿ˜€

    So I think I’m not anal (uptight, type-A, perfectionist, etc.) because I was given a few extra years of not having to be responsible for my bathroom habits. Go figure!!

    Dr. Freud was certainly ahead of the times! And sort of far out there! ๐Ÿ˜€

  7. My Dad is pretty rigid, upright, obsessive compulsive parsimonious etc towards others but notttt himself…

    I used to be pretty analytical, still am but less, and for me, it was to soothe my anxiety. “If I had myself and everything and everyone behaving perfectly, I would be safer…” was my logic. This didn’t make me fun to be around!

  8. “are socially acceptable expressions of their earlier struggles over toilet training and faecal retention”

    โ€ฆriiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiight. As ever, take anything that Freud says with about four gallons of salt lol.

    “I am very much convinced that my personality has nothing to do with my ass or what comes out of it”

    LOL. This post has some pretty good sentences in it! Although on the other hand, this sentence reminds me of the theorised link between gut bacteria and personality. And the research into treating e.g. autism by modifying gut bacteria?

    “Approximately 90% of the human body’s total serotonin is located in the enterochromaffin cells in the GI tract, where it regulates intestinal movements” (from Wikipedia)

    Possibly interesting that OCD/anxiety are specifically treated with serotonin!

              1. I took a peek at the abstract of the study this article links to, and the impression the article gives doesn’t match all that well with the abstract.

                Also, the serotonin deficiency hypothesis has actually be known for years to be untrue. Serotonin signalling plays a role, but PET scan studies haven’t found any deficit in absolute amounts of serotonin.

                    1. There seem to be a lot of angry white dudes causing a lot of damage in the world, and I’m sure that’s the kind of person that rises up to be the button-pusher in the Trump administration.

                    2. It does seem to me that the people in command in armed forces generally have quite good integrity. There’s a strong selection effect filtering for people who are somewhat considerate of the people they are commanding, under potentially dangerous situations. I do think that’s quite significant and it’s just a feeling I get. It’s partly based on experience (as well as exposure through normal channels), as I joined a University Officers Training Corps at university for a year, and the Sergeants Majors I met were all pretty nice people! xD

                      I’m not judging their morality or ‘niceness’, or intelligence, in an absolute sense, but compared to other people in positions of authority. E.g. I would have more respect for and trust in Sergeants Majors than my school teachers!

                      But saying all of that is quite ironic given they obviously also have a very strong sense of duty, so I could be totally wrong ๐Ÿ˜†.

  9. I am definitely a perfectionist and somewhat type A. I am anal about cleanliness and organisation. But, I’m very aware of it and I laugh at myself for it sometimes.

  10. “I am very much convinced that my personality has nothing to do with my ass or what comes out of it” must be my new favorite quote! But in seriousness, I agree. I used to be a bit more uptight, but ever since I stopped talking to my parents I feel that I’ve become more relaxed ๐Ÿ™‚

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