What Are the Id, Ego, and Superego?

The Structural Model of Personality

The personality's id, ego, and superego interact.
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According to Sigmund Freud, human personality is complex and has more than a single component. In his famous psychoanalytic theory of personality, personality is composed of three elements. These three elements of personality—known as the id, the ego, and the superego—work together to create complex human behaviors.

Each component not only adds its own unique contribution to personality, but all three elements interact in ways that have a powerful influence on each individual.

Each of these three elements of personality emerges at different points in life.

According to Freud's theory, certain aspects of your personality are more primal and might pressure you to act upon your most basic urges. Other parts of your personality work to counteract these urges and strive to make you conform to the demands of reality. 

Take a closer look at each of these key parts of personality, how they work individually, and how they interact.

The Id

  • The id is the only component of personality that is present from birth.
  • This aspect of personality is entirely unconscious and includes the instinctive and primitive behaviors.
  • According to Freud, the id is the source of all psychic energy, making it the primary component of personality.

The id is driven by the pleasure principle, which strives for immediate gratification of all desires, wants, and needs. If these needs are not satisfied immediately, the result is a state anxiety or tension.

For example, an increase in hunger or thirst should produce an immediate attempt to eat or drink.

The id is very important early in life, because it ensures that an infant's needs are met. If the infant is hungry or uncomfortable, he or she will cry until the demands of the id are satisfied. Because young infants are ruled entirely by the id, there is no reasoning with them when these needs demand satisfaction.

Imagine trying to convince a baby to wait until lunchtime to eat his meal. Instead, the id requires immediate satisfaction, and because the other components of personality are not yet present, the infant will cry until these needs are fulfilled.

However, immediately fulfilling these needs is not always realistic or even possible. If we were ruled entirely by the pleasure principle, we might find ourselves grabbing the things that we want out of other people's hands to satisfy our own cravings.

This sort of behavior would be both disruptive and socially unacceptable. According to Freud, the id tries to resolve the tension created by the pleasure principle through the primary process, which involves forming a mental image of the desired object as a way of satisfying the need.

Although people eventually learn to control the id, this part of personality remains the same infantile, primal force all throughout life. It is the development of the ego and the superego that allows people to control the id's basic instincts and act in ways that are both realistic and socially acceptable.

The Ego

  • The ego is the component of personality that is responsible for dealing with reality.
  • According to Freud, the ego develops from the id and ensures that the impulses of the id can be expressed in a manner acceptable in the real world.

The ego operates based on the reality principle, which strives to satisfy the id's desires in realistic and socially appropriate ways. The reality principle weighs the costs and benefits of an action before deciding to act upon or abandon impulses. In many cases, the id's impulses can be satisfied through a process of delayed gratification—the ego will eventually allow the behavior, but only in the appropriate time and place.

Freud compared the id to a horse and the ego to the horse's rider. The horse provides the power and motion, yet the rider provides the direction and guidance.

Without its rider, the horse may simply wander wherever it wished and do whatever it pleased. The rider instead gives the horse directions and commands to guide it in the direction he or she wishes to go.

The ego also discharges tension created by unmet impulses through the secondary process, in which the ego tries to find an object in the real world that matches the mental image created by the id's primary process.

For example, imagine that you are stuck in a long meeting at work. You find yourself growing increasingly hungry as the meeting drags on. While the id might compel you to jump up from your seat and rush to the break room for a snack, the ego guides you to sit quietly and wait for the meeting to end. Instead of acting upon the primal urges of the id, you spend the rest of the meeting imagining yourself eating a cheeseburger. Once the meeting is finally over, you can seek out the object you were imagining and satisfy the demands of the id in a realistic and appropriate manner.

The Superego

The last component of personality to develop is the superego.

  • The superego is the aspect of personality that holds all of our internalized moral standards and ideals that we acquire from both parents and society—our sense of right and wrong.
  • The superego provides guidelines for making judgments.
  • According to Freud, the superego begins to emerge at around age five.

There are two parts of the superego:

  1. The ego ideal includes the rules and standards for good behaviors. These behaviors include those which are approved of by parental and other authority figures. Obeying these rules leads to feelings of pride, value, and accomplishment.
  2. The conscience includes information about things that are viewed as bad by parents and society. These behaviors are often forbidden and lead to bad consequences, punishments, or feelings of guilt and remorse.

The superego acts to perfect and civilize our behavior. It works to suppress all unacceptable urges of the id and struggles to make the ego act upon idealistic standards rather that upon realistic principles. The superego is present in the conscious, preconscious, and unconscious.

The Interaction of the Id, Ego, and Superego

When talking about the id, the ego, and the superego, it is important to remember that these are not three totally separate entities with clearly defined boundaries. These aspects of personality are dynamic and always interacting within a person to influence an individual's overall personality and behavior.

With so many competing forces, it is easy to see how conflict might arise between the id, ego, and superego. Freud used the term ego strength to refer to the ego's ability to function despite these dueling forces. A person with good ego strength is able to effectively manage these pressures, while those with too much or too little ego strength can become too unyielding or too disrupting.

What Happens If There Is an Imbalance?

According to Freud, the key to a healthy personality is a balance between the id, the ego, and the superego.

If the ego is able to adequately moderate between the demands of reality, the id, and the superego, a healthy and well-adjusted personality emerges. Freud believed that an imbalance between these elements would lead to a maladaptive personality. An individual with an overly dominant id, for example, might become impulsive, uncontrollable, or even criminal. This individual acts upon his or her most basic urges with no concern for whether the behavior is appropriate, acceptable, or legal.

An overly dominant superego, on the other hand, might lead to a personality that is extremely moralistic and possibly judgmental. This person may be very unable to accept anything or anyone that he or she perceives as "bad" or "immoral."

An excessively dominant ego can also result in problems. An individual with this type of personality might be so tied to reality, rules, and appropriateness that they are unable to engage in any type of spontaneous or unexpected behavior. This individual may seem very concrete and rigid, incapable of accepting change and lacking an internal sense of right from wrong.

A Word From Verywell

Freud's theory provides one conceptualization of how personality is structured and how these different elements of personality function. In Freud's view, a healthy personality results from a balance in the dynamic interaction of the id, ego, and superego.

While the ego has a tough job to do, it does not have to act alone. Anxiety also plays a role in helping the ego mediate between the demands of the basic urges, moral values, and the real world. When you experience different types of anxiety, defense mechanisms may kick in to help defend the ego and reduce the anxiety you are feeling.

Sources

Carducci, B. The psychology of personality: Viewpoints, research, and applications. John Wiley & Sons; 2009.

Engler, B. Personality theories. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing; 2009.

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