The Curious Case of Little Hans

Have you ever heard about the curious case of Little Hans? This was one of Sigmund Freud’s most famous cases. Keep reading to learn more.
The Curious Case of Little Hans

Last update: 01 June, 2021

Have you ever heard about the curious case of Little Hans? This intriguing case is perhaps the best known of Sigmund Freud’s case studies. In other words, it details the life of a five-year-old boy who feared horses. The boy’s father sought help from Freud due to his fear of horses. Most importantly, the psychoanalyst believed that Little Hans’ behavior provided much-needed evidence to support his theory. 

In fact, Freud’s theory discusses how infants proceed through five stages of psychosexual development. He published the case in his 1909 brilliant paper Analysis of a Phobia in a Five-Year-Old Boy. The name ‘Little Hans’ is a pseudonym for Herbert Graf, the son of Viennese music critic Max Graf. Likewise, he was a family friend of Freud and a follower of his theories. 

Herbert was born in 1903 in Vienna. Believe it or not, there were 70,000 horses in Vienna when the boy developed his phobia. Freud usually didn’t treat the boy directly. His father did so through a series of letters with Freud. In them, he detailed his son’s behavior and quoted their conversations. Only on one occasion did Freud hold a session with the boy in person.

“What a distressing contrast there is between the radiant intelligence of the child and the feeble mentality of the average adult.”

-Sigmund Freud-

A brief biography of Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud was an Austrian neurologist best known for developing psychoanalytic theories and techniques. He was a 20th-century physiologist, medical doctor, psychologist, and influential thinker. The world now considers him the father of psychoanalysis, which is a method through which an analyst unpacks unconscious conflicts. But the analyst bases the conflicts on the patient’s free associations, dreams, and fantasies.

Freud was born in the Austrian town of Freiberg, now the Czech Republic, on May 6, 1856. When he was four years old, his family moved to Vienna. Likewise, his theories on child sexuality, libido, and the ego were the most influential concepts. 

Working in collaboration with Joseph Breuer, he elaborated the theory that the mind is a complex energy system. For instance, the structural investigation of which is the proper province of psychology. Lastly, Freud proposed a tripartite account of the mind’s structure, as part of a radically new conceptual and therapeutic frame of reference. 

This was done for the understanding of human psychological development and the treatment of abnormal mental conditions. Notwithstanding the multiple manifestations of psychoanalysis as it exists today. We can trace almost all fundamental respects directly back to Freud’s original work.

Traumatic event

When he was four years old, a traumatic accident affected Little Hans’ life. Sadly, a horse carrying a heavily loaded cart collapsed in the street. After the event, the boy’s parents noticed that he had begun developing a fear of horses, particularly those carrying a load or those with black around their eyes. 

Therefore, Freud believed that phobia linked to the sight of the large genitalia of the animals. And a fear of horses led to the boy avoiding leaving his home in case he encountered the animals. In Graf’s letters to Freud, he described his worry with the male genitals. His wife threatened the boy with calling a doctor to castrate him if he didn’t stop.

Secondly, Max told Freud about numerous conversations he had had with his son. These were utterly significant to the case. On one occasion, Little Hans described two giraffes entering the room that he was in. He imagined one of the giraffes to be crumpled, taking away from the second giraffe, who called out to him. Likewise, sibling jealousy was a problem for the boy. 

When he was three years old, his mother gave birth to a baby sister. So, his mother’s attention was now on the newborn child, depriving the boy. Of course, the boy felt jealous of her. He truly wished that his sister would drown in the bath. In fact, the boy himself also feared such misfortune occurring to him. 

His sister’s birth led Little Hans to question the process of childbirth. But, unwilling to explain this to their son, his parents offered him a story. For example, a traditional story of stork birds delivering newborn babies in boxes.

Freud’s stages of psychosexual development

By the time Max Graf sought Freud’s help, he had already established his theory of psychosexual development. In other words, Freud believed that infants experience five stages during which the primary erogenous zone changes. To summarize, the five stages are:

  • Oral stage. Firstly, this stage’s from birth to around one year of age. However, during which the need to feed is satisfied by oral means. Freud said oral stimulation could lead to an oral fixation in later life.
  • Anal stage. This stage is between the ages of one and three. During the anal stage of psychosexual development, the libido focuses on the anus. Toilet training brings a focus on the satisfaction derived from defecation.
  • Phallic stage. From the age of three to six years, a child’s self-awareness brings about an interest in the genitals. In other words, the genitals are the main erogenous zone during this stage. The stage’s most important aspect is the Oedipus or Electra complex, rejected by many.  
  • Latent stage. This stage spans from six years to puberty. Here, libido is dormant and no further psychosexual development takes place. According to Freud, children and teens repressed the most sexual impulses during this stage.
  • Genital stage. This stage is from puberty two adulthood. It’s a time of adolescent sexual experimentation. Likewise, its successful resolution’s settling down in a loving relationship with another person in our 20’s.

Oedipus complex

His sister’s birth and odd behavior described by Max Graf occurred in Little Hans’ phallic stage. According to Freud’s theory, his preoccupation with male genitals at this age was normal. Therefore, we can understand it in terms of the focus that they attracted during this stage. Freud also believed the boy demonstrated signs of an Oedipus Complex in the phallic stage. 

In other words, the child resented his father thanks to his mother’s love and attention. Since he threatened to steal the affection away from them, he feared his father would eliminate him. For example, castrating them, leading to castration anxiety. Likewise, Freud interpreted the boy’s fantasy involving the two giraffes symbolically. As his father was absent for periods of time, the boy slept in his parents’ bed. 

Most importantly, Freud saw the crumpled giraffe as representing the boy’s mother. He attempted to steal her away from the other giraffe, who denoted his father. A boy’s conversion was referred to his father as “grandfather” further supported the view. Therefore, the boy replaced him as the paternal figure and the focus of the mother’s affection.

We can also understand the boy’s fear of horses in symbolic terms. According to Freud, the large genitals of the animals led to him experience fear displacement. So, instead of fearing his father, he feared horses. The black surrounding their eyes reminded Little Hans of his father. Anna Freud, the psychoanalyst’s daughter, also published a genius piece discussing father and son conflict.

Anna was also a writer and a psychoanalyst. Her 1936, The Ego and the Mechanism of Defence discusses father and son competing for the mother’s affection. However, they can solve this via the defense mechanism process “identification with the aggressor”. In this process, the child believes that they can appease the father. For instance, adopting his behavior hoping a similarity between the two will reduce any potential conflict.

From troubled child to opera director

Firstly, Freud and Graf noted how Little Hans’ fear of horses reduced with his description of a fantasy. For instance, the fantasy suggested the resolution of his castration anxiety and his acceptance of an Oedipus Complex, with his admission in another fantasy. In other words, he’d like to replace his father and have children with his mother. The patient visited Freud at the age of nineteen.

Most importantly, Freud described him as healthy, suggesting the long-term resolution of his fear. Herbert Graf would go on to develop a successful career as an opera director. Sadly, he died in Geneva in 1973. However, many criticized Freud’s interpretation of the case and his use of the boy’s experiences to support his theories. For example, by psychologists more recently. 

Jerome Wakefield applied John Bowlby’s attachment theory to Little Hans’ giraffe fantasy. Proposing that it was symbolic of his parents. But also of the competition between him and his younger sister for the attention of their mother. People also question the process by which Freud obtained evidence to support his ideas. In fact, they base it on letters from a person who Freud believed the boy feared and raising questions as to the case’s success.

To sum it up, the curious case of Little Hans is open to criticism. However, it also shows that Freud was thinking extremely carefully about the emotional worlds of children. Is Freud’s case an example of bad psychology or was Freud onto something?

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  • Borgogno, F. (2006). El pequeno Hans revisado: homenaje a un hombre invisible. Psicoanálisis APdeBA, 28(1), 45-63.