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Understanding Freud’s Pleasure Principle

In classic Freudian psychoanalytic theory, the pleasure principle is the libidinal force behind the id that seeks the immediate gratification of basic urges and needs. If such demands are not met, people may find themselves in a state of anxiety, tension, or discomfort.

According to Freud, this is the part of personality that seeks pleasure and attempts to avoid pain or discharge the tension caused by discomfort. It is also sometimes referred to as the pleasure-pain principle.

During early childhood, the pleasure principle is a primary drive behind behavior. After all, children are more likely to act on their immediate desires regardless of whether fulfilling them at that moment is appropriate. 

As people grow older and the ego and superego become more developed, the reality principle becomes more of a driving force when it comes to behavior.

How the Pleasure Principle Works

In Freud’s theory, there are three key elements of personality: the id, ego, and superego.

The Id and the Pleasure Principle

The id is the reservoir of unconscious urges and desires that makes up the deepest, most primal part of personality. Such urges are largely unconscious, but exert a powerful force over behavior. 

This is particularly true during childhood when behavior is lately ruled by the id. Infants and children tend to want the immediate gratification of their basic desires for food, hydration, comfort, and other things they find fulfilling or pleasurable. 

During the first years of life, kids tend to want instant gratification for their wants and needs. The goal is to maximize their pleasure while avoiding as much pain or discomfort as possible. 

At this stage of development, the pleasure principle serves an important purpose; it drives children to seek the things they need for survival. However, it can also lead to immature behaviors that wouldn’t be considered acceptable if they were exhibited by adults.

As children develop, other parts of their personalities begin to emerge. It is the emergence of the ego that helps people begin to behave in ways that are more socially appropriate. As kids mature, they are better able to understand that they can’t always get whatever they want whenever they want.

The Ego and the Reality Principle

The emergence of the ego is what begins to temper the demands of the id. Where the id is ruled by the pleasure principle, the ego is driven by the reality principle. 

The reality principle pushes the ego to consider the consequences of actions. Instead of simply seeking the things you want immediately, the reality principle is focused on subduing that urge so that it can be expressed in ways that are socially acceptable and in line with reality.

The pleasure principle and the reality principle are opposing forces. The ego works to strike a balance between the urges generated by the pleasure principle and the reality of any given situation.

For example, imagine you are in the middle of a work meeting and you start to feel hungry. The pleasure principle pushes the id to leave the meeting immediately and find the nearest food source, whether it’s the food cart on the corner or the snack drawer in your co-worker’s desk. Obviously, walking out of an important work meeting to raid your colleague’s candy stash wouldn’t be an appropriate (or professional) choice.

Fortunately, this is where the ego and the reality principle come in. Acting on the reality principle, the ego moderates the urges of the id, leading you to manage your feelings of hunger until the meeting adjourns. Once it is appropriate, you can then head to the closest restaurant to get something to fulfill your need for food.

How the Pleasure Principle Affects Behavior

So what happens if the needs of the pleasure principle are not met? A person may experience feelings of discomfort, anxiety, depression, and other problems if their needs are continuously left unmet. 

The pleasure people can also lead people to engage in maladaptive behaviors as a way to produce feelings of pleasure that they may not be adequately experiencing. Unhealthy relationships, addictions, and other risky behaviors are a few examples.


The pleasure principle may urge you to act on your more hedonistic urges, but Freud suggested that it does play an important part in motivation. Such urges are often the force that leads you to seek nourishment, companionship, and other things that are important for your survival and happiness.

However, acting on these drives at the wrong time can be counterproductive and can lead to maladaptive behavior and social problems. Fortunately, the ego, acting on the reality principle, is able to reign in these urges until they can be expressed at the right time and place.


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