Back To CoursePsychology 101: Intro to Psychology
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Ellie holds a B.A. with Honors in English from Stanford University. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University.
So we're going to talk about the id, the ego and the superego. And they're basically the three parts of the structure of personality that was developed by Sigmund Freud. And he's also probably someone you might of heard of; he's a pretty famous psychologist from the early 20th century/late 19th century. And like a lot of things that he did, it's basically, simultaneously kind of outdated, and also really, really important for the way that we think about personality.
Now, you're not going to roll into therapy and lie down on a couch, telling your therapist about your problems, he's not going to say, 'Oh my God, aha! It's the id, ego and the superego; they're just not talking to each other right.' That's not gonna happen when you go into therapy.
But, what does happen is that these three personality parts have really kind of entered the mainstream understanding of how we think about internal conflict. So you think about a person who's kind of pushed and pulled in lots of directions by lots of different drives, like maybe, I don't know, sex and food, and maybe they really like TV. These things are all pushing them and pulling them in different directions and maybe they're not aware. That idea is basically based off of this idea of internal conflict between the id, ego and superego.
So first let's start with the id. Now, this is basically the childish and impulsive part of you. So it's the part that kind of just does what it wants, and it wants things really intensely and doesn't really think about the consequences. And Freud describes this as operating basically on a pleasure principle, which essentially means kind of what it sounds like, which is that it's always seeking to try to increase pleasure and decrease pain.
Now, as an example of this, let's say you come home and you find to your delight that your roommate has baked a cake. 'Like, oh man, I want that cake, that looks delicious.' Now let's say that you know your roommate's not going to be happy if you eat it, so first you eat a little piece of the corner and then you kind of have to cut yourself a slice so it doesn't look disgusting, and then soon enough you've eaten the whole thing; it's gone.
That is your id; that's all id. That's what your id aims to do in life. It wants you to eat whole cakes because it wants you to increase pleasure. Cakes are going to make you feel good - why not eat the whole thing? Now, what it also wants to do is decrease pain. So let's say you wake up the next morning and you think, 'Oh God, I just ate a whole cake. That's really bad, maybe I'll get some exercise.' I don't know, let's put him on a mountain - he's hiking. 'Alright, let's get some exercise!' No, your id says, 'That's not gonna happen; that's gonna hurt. We don't want to do that.' So if you're totally id driven, you'd basically eat the whole cake and then you would not go hiking the next day to burn off the calories. That's the pleasure principle.
Now, what kind of controls this a little bit is the other part of your personality that's also unconscious, or mainly unconscious, and it's the superego. And the superego is basically the part of you that's super judgmental and moralizing. And what the superego is gonna do is if you come home and you find the cake...
Now, if you had a really, really strong superego, you probably just wouldn't eat the cake at all. You know, you'd see it, you'd think it looks delicious, but you'd' say, 'No, it's my roommate's; I'm not gonna eat this cake' because the superego is always trying to get you to behave in a socially appropriate way and it's not that socially appropriate to eat other people's baked goods; that's not something that we do.
But, let's say instead that you're still a little id driven, so you do... the same thing happens - you eat a little bit, you eat a little bit more, oh well, you might as well just eat it all. There it goes into your stomach. But in this case, if you've got some superego action, what it's gonna do... it's gonna make you feel... it's gonna take... that cake it gone into your belly and it's been replaced with guilt. Your superego makes you feel really guilty when you do things that are not socially appropriate.
So guilt... so if you do something that's not socially appropriate, you get rewarded with guilt, and this keeps you in check. So maybe what you do, you know if you ate a whole cake, you'd certainly go jogging, but you'd also maybe apologize to your roommate. It gets you to do things that are good and right. And it controls our sense of right and wrong by... we fell bad when we do things that are wrong and we feel better when we do things that are right, and that's what the superego controls.
Now, what the ego does is pretty related to the id and the superego. So the id and the superego... From what I've described before you can imagine their kind of always fighting. The id is trying to get you to do things like eat cake and you know not go jogging and the superego is basically trying to get you to be a good person; it's trying to get you to be an upstanding citizen. 'There I am; I'm high-fiving the world and I'm happy because I'm upstanding.' What the ego does is it basically mediates between the two. The ego is a mediator between these two parts of your personality that are always gonna be fighting with each other.
Now, the ego is really the only one of these three that's kind of fully conscious, so you're aware. What you think of as 'you' is what Freud would call your ego. And the ego operates on something that's called the reality principle. And what the reality principle basically means is that you are taking these unconscious drives - you're taking your id's desire to eat cake and your superego's desire to make you not be a horrible person and you're interpreting that and making those into real actions.
So, like I said before, what the superego would make you do... it would make you maybe apologize to your roommate, you know, 'I'm sorry I ate your cake.' What's really making you write that note is your ego; your ego is taking the input of guilt... so the ego is basically taking bad action, which is what the id did plus guilt and it's coming up with a solution; it's coming up with an action, which is to write a note.
So that's basically how the id, the ego and the superego interact with each other in Freud's theory. Now, I said before that while it's kind of outdated, it's actually really important to the way that we think about ourselves. And the sense in which that's true is that they're really... it's not... this isn't real; there's not sections of your brain that are these things. You can't look at your brain and see that when you make impulsive decisions that part lights up, and when you're mediating this part lights up, and when you feel guilty this part lights up. That's not what's going on.
But what does happen is that we really do think of our internal conflicts and of our sort of working out problems in general in terms of these parts - in terms of the impulsive part, the guilty, judgmental, I know what's right and wrong part and the part in the middle that has to deal with that. And one way that we see this - that it's really seeped into our culture is that a lot of books and movies have basically character trios that do this, and just, I mean, as an example just take Harry Potter.
You know you've got Harry and you've got Ron and you've got Hermione for the two people out there who haven't read the books or seen the movies, and Ron is kind of hot-headed, kind of emotional - he's sort of an id figure; he doesn't really do that well in school, he doesn't think that much. Hermione is like... she thinks way too much. She always knows what to do; she's definitely the superego.
And then Harry is basically the mediator between Ron and Hermione, and they literally... they fight, they fight a lot in the books; it's kind of annoying and he's kind of... he literally plays the mediator role quite often and tries to come up with an action - a realistic action that's the reality principle. And we see this over and over again in narrative and it's because it's really sort of a productive way of thinking about how we work things out.
So that's sort of Freud's lasting legacy on the way that we think about ourselves. Again, it's not exactly right, or it's not based in neuroscience; it's not something that's fundamentally true about our personalities, but it's a model of thinking about personality that's really kind of made its way into our cultural consciousness. So, yeah, that's the id, ego and superego.
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Back To CoursePsychology 101: Intro to Psychology
13 chapters | 104 lessons