One of Sigmund Freud’s most well-known ideas was his theory of personality, which proposed that the human psyche is composed of three separate but interacting parts: the id, the ego, and the superego. The three parts develop at different times and play different roles in personality, but work together to form a whole and contribute to an individuals’ behavior. While the id, ego, and superego are often referred to as structures, they are purely psychological and don’t exist physically in the brain.
Freud’s work wasn’t based on empirical research, but on his observations and case studies of his patients and others, so his ideas are often viewed with skepticism. Nonetheless, Freud was an enormously prolific thinker and his theories are still considered important. In fact, his concepts and theories are the foundation of psychoanalysis, an approach to psychology that’s still studied today.
Freud’s personality theory was influenced by earlier ideas about the mind working at conscious and unconscious levels. Freud believed that early childhood experiences are filtered through the id, ego, and superego, and it is the way an individual handles these experiences, both consciously and unconsciously, that shapes personality in adulthood.
The earliest part of the personality to emerge is the id. The id is present at birth and runs on pure instinct, desire, and need. It is entirely unconscious and encompasses the most primitive part of the personality, including basic biological drives and reflexes.
The id is motivated by the pleasure principle, which wants to gratify all impulses immediately. If the id’s needs aren’t met, it creates tension. However, because all desires can’t be fulfilled right away, those needs may be satisfied, at least temporarily, through primary process thinking in which the individual fantasizes about what they desire.
Newborns’ behavior is driven by the id—they are concerned only with meeting their needs. And the id never grows up. Throughout life, it remains infantile because, as an unconscious entity, it never considers reality. As a result, it remains illogical and selfish. The ego and the superego develop to keep the id in check.
The second part of the personality, the ego, arises from the id. Its job is to acknowledge and deal with reality, ensuring that the id’s impulses are reigned in and expressed in ways that are socially acceptable.
The ego operates from the reality principle, which works to satisfy the id’s desires in the most reasonable and realistic ways. The ego may do this by delaying gratification, compromising, or anything else that will avoid the negative consequences of going against society’s norms and rules.
Such rational thinking is referred to as secondary process thinking. It’s geared towards problem-solving and reality-testing, enabling the person to maintain self-control. However, just like the id, the ego is interested in seeking pleasure, it just wants to do so in a realistic way. It’s not interested in right and wrong, but in how to maximize pleasure and minimize pain without getting into trouble.
The ego operates at conscious, preconscious, and unconscious levels. The ego’s consideration of reality is conscious. However, it may also keep forbidden desires hidden by unconsciously repressing them. Much of the ego’s functioning is also preconscious, meaning it happens below awareness but takes little effort to bring those thoughts into consciousness.
Freud initially used the term ego to reference one’s sense of self. Often, when the term is used in everyday conversation—such as when someone is said to have a “big ego”—it’s still used in this sense. Yet, the term ego in Freud’s theory of personality is no longer referring to the self-concept but to functions like judgment, regulation, and control.
The superego is the final part of the personality, emerging between the ages of 3 and 5, the phallic stage in Freud’s stages of psychosexual development. The superego is the moral compass of the personality, upholding a sense of right and wrong. These values are initially learned from one’s parents. However, the superego continues to grow over time, enabling children to adopt moral standards from other people they admire, like teachers.
The superego consists of two components: the conscious and the ego ideal. The conscious is the part of the superego that forbids unacceptable behaviors and punishes with feelings of guilt when a person does something they shouldn’t. The ego ideal, or ideal self, includes the rules and standards of good behavior one should adhere to. If one is successful in doing so, it leads to feelings of pride. However, if the standards of the ego ideal are too high, the person will feel like a failure and experience guilt.
The superego not only controls the id and its impulses towards societal taboos, like sex and aggression, it also attempts to get the ego to go beyond realistic standards and aspire to moralistic ones. The superego works at both conscious and unconscious levels. People are often aware of their ideas of right and wrong but sometimes these ideals impact us unconsciously.
The Mediating Ego
The id, ego, and superego interact constantly. Ultimately, though, it’s the ego that serves as the mediator between the id, the superego, and reality. The ego must determine how to meet the needs of the id, while upholding social reality and the moral standards of the superego.
A healthy personality is the result of a balance between the id, ego, and superego. A lack of balance leads to difficulties. If a person’s id dominates their personality, they may act on their impulses without considering the rules of society. This can cause them to spin out of control and even lead to legal troubles. If the superego dominates, the person can become rigidly moralistic, negatively judging anyone who doesn’t meet their standards. Finally if the ego becomes dominant, it can lead to an individual who is so tied to the rules and norms of society that they become inflexible, unable to deal with change, and incapable of coming to a personal concept of right and wrong.
Many critiques have been leveled at Freud’s theory of personality. For example, the idea that the id is the dominant component of personality is considered problematic, especially Freud’s emphasis on unconscious drives and reflexes, like the sexual drive. This perspective minimizes and oversimplifies the intricacies of human nature.
In addition, Freud believed that the superego emerges in childhood because children fear harm and punishment. However, research has shown that children whose greatest fear is punishment only appear to develop morals—their real motivation is to avoid getting caught and prevent harm. A sense of morality actually develops when a child experiences love and wants to keep it. To do so, they engage in behavior that exemplifies their parents’ morals and, therefore, will gain their approval.
Despite these criticisms, Freud’s ideas about the id, the ego, and the superego have been, and continue to be, highly influential in the field of psychology.