What Is the Ego?

Conceptualizing the ego
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According to Sigmund Freud, the ego is part of personality that mediates the demands of the id, the superego and reality. The ego prevents us from acting on our basic urges (created by the id), but also works to achieve a balance with our moral and idealistic standards (created by the superego). While the ego operates in both the preconscious and conscious, its strong ties to the id means that it also operates in the unconscious.

The ego operates based on the reality principle, which works to satisfy the id's desires in a manner that is realistic and socially appropriate. For example, if a person cuts you off in traffic, the ego prevents you from chasing down the car and physically attacking the offending driver. The ego allows us to see that this response would be socially unacceptable, but it also allows us to know that there are other more appropriate means of venting our frustration.

Freud's Observations on the Ego

In his 1933 book New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, Freud compared the relationship between the id and the ego to that of a horse and rider. The horse represents the id, a powerful force that offers the energy to propel forward motion. The rider represents the ego, the guiding force that directs the power of the id toward a goal.

Freud noted, however, that this relationship did not always go as planned.

In less ideal situations, a rider may find himself simply along for the ride as he allows his horse to go in the direction the animal wants to go. Just as with the horse and rider, the id's primal urges may sometimes be too powerful for the ego to keep in check.

In her own 1936 book The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense, Anna Freud that all of the ego's defenses against the id were carried out behind the scenes.

These measures against the id are known as the defense mechanisms, which are carried out silently and invisibly by the ego.

While we cannot observe the defenses in action, Anna Freud suggested that they could be observed in retrospect. Repression is one example. When something is repressed from awareness, the ego is not aware that the information is missing. It is only later, when it become obvious that some piece of information or a memory is gone, that the actions of the ego become apparent.

Quotations About the Ego

Freud wrote extensively about the ego as well as its relationship to other aspects of personality. Here are just a few of his more famous quotes about the ego:

  • "The ego is not master in its own house."
    (Sigmund Freud, 1917, A Difficulty in the Path of Psycho-Analysis)
  • "It is easy to see that the ego is that part of the id which has been modified by the direct influence of the external world."
    (Sigmund Freud, 1923, The Ego and the Id)
  • "The ego represents what we call reason and sanity, in contrast to the id which contains the passions."
    (Sigmund Freud, 1923, The Ego and the Id)
  • "Towards the outside, at any rate, the ego seems to maintain clear and sharp lines of demarcation. There is only one state — admittedly an unusual state, but not one that can be stigmatized as pathological — in which it does not do this. At the height of being in love the boundary between ego and object threatens to melt away. Against all the evidence of his senses, a man who is in love declares that "I" and "you" are one, and is prepared to behave as if it were a fact."
    (Sigmund Freud, 1929, Civilization and Its Discontents)
  • "The poor ego has a still harder time of it; it has to serve three harsh masters, and it has to do its best to reconcile the claims and demands of all three... The three tyrants are the external world, the superego, and the id."
    (Sigmund Freud, 1932, New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis)

More Psychology Definitions: The Psychology Dictionary


Freud, A. (1966/1936). The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense. London: Karnac Books.

Freud, S. (1965/1933). New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, SE. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

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