Freud’s Id, Ego, and Superego

(Last Updated On: July 20, 2021)

Sigmund Freud suggested that human personality was made up of three key elements. He called these the id, the ego, and the superego. According to Freud, it was the interaction of these three parts of personality that influence how people behave. 

The id is what drives our needs and desires and the superego strives for morality and perfection. The ego is the mediator between the two that tries to fulfill the needs of both the id and the superego while accounting for the demands of reality.

In order to understand Freud’s theory, it is important to understand how he described each of these components of personality.

What Is the Id?

Freud believed that the id was the most basic and primal part of personality. It is the only part of personality that is present at birth. It controls all of a person’s instinctual behaviors. 

Since the id is primitive and instinctual, it operates on an unconscious level. 

Also, it is guided by what Freud referred to as the pleasure principle. The pleasure principle works to pursue the immediate gratification of any need or desire that a person has. For example, feelings of hunger produce an immediate desire for food. When these needs are not met, people may experience feelings of anxiety, tension, or unease. 

Not every need or want that a person experiences can be satisfied immediately. If you were to try to satisfy an urge at the wrong time in the wrong setting, you might find yourself behaving in ways that are inappropriate or socially unacceptable. 

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What Is the Ego?

Freud described the ego as a part of personality that allows the id’s desires to be expressed in a way that is realistic and acceptable. The ego develops from the id, but has been modified by the influence of the real-world.

It operates on what Freud described as the reality principle. Where the id’s demands are unconscious,  unrealistic, or at times unacceptable, the ego’s goal is to fulfill those desires in a way that accounts for reality. This means assessing the situation and weighing the pros and cons of taking an action. 

Freud compared the relationship of the ego and id to that of a rider and horse. The horse is the powerful force that propels the two forward, but it is the rider that controls the direction and course that they follow.

In some cases, this might simply mean waiting to fulfill a need until you are in the right time and place, a process known as delayed gratification. For example, if you are tired, the ego would keep you from taking a nap until you are at home in a bed instead of drifting off in the middle of the work day.

What Is the Superego?

The superego is part of personality that strives for moral behavior. It is made up of all the internalized beliefs, values, and morals that people learn from their parents and from their society. It is the last component of personality to form and usually begins to emerge sometime between the ages of three and five. 

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The superego plays an important role in decision-making and judgments.

Freud suggested that the superego is made up of two components:

  • The conscience: This is the part of the superego concerned with things that are considered bad, inappropriate, or immoral. Doing things that go against the conscience can trigger negative consequences such as being punished or experiencing a sense of guilt.
  • The ego ideal: This is the idealized self that an individual aspires to. In other words, it is what we believe we should be doing, how we feel that we should behave, and how we think we should treat others.

The goal of the superego is to suppress the primitive urges of the id. If the superego had its way, you would live up to the high idealistic standards without ever giving into the urges and demands of the primal id.

How the Id, Ego, and Superego Interact

The id, ego, and superego don’t function separately and independently. Instead, they overlap and interact in a variety of ways to influence how people think, feel, and behave. 

These forces are also dynamic and always shifting. Sometimes the demands of the id might take precedence. In other cases, it might be the superego that takes the lead. In every situation, the ego serves as the mediator trying to strike a balance between the demands of the id, the superego, and reality. 

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Ego strength is what Freud called the ego’s ability to effectively manage these competing forces. Having poor ego strength means that you might give in to your impulses more frequently, while having too much might mean and inability to adapt and compromise.

Key Points:

It is important to recognize that Freud’s concept of the id, ego, and superego is a theory and not actual physical regions of the human brain. 

Freud’s theories are generally viewed as interesting but flawed by today’s standards. However, researchers have also pointed out that the id, ego, and superego described by Freud are closely aligned to the concepts of the unconscious, conscious, and metacognition structure of the mind that is currently studied in the field of neuroscience. 

Sources:

Bargh JA, Morsella E. The unconscious mind. Perspect Psychol Sci. 2008;3(1):73-9. doi:10.1111/j.1745-6916.2008.00064.x

Churchill R, Moore TH, Davies P, et al. Psychodynamic therapies versus other psychological therapies for depression. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2010;(9):CD008706. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD008706

Freud S. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. SE.  1920;18:1-64.

Freud S. The Ego and the Ed. SE. 1923;19:1-66.

Schalkwijk F. A new conceptualization of the conscience. Front Psychol. 2018;9:1863. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01863