Freud's Theory of the Id, Ego & Superego: Definitions & Examples

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  • 0:01 Freud's Structure of…
  • 1:28 The Id
  • 3:10 The Superego
  • 5:00 The Ego
  • 6:45 Internal Conflict Interaction
  • 8:43 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ellie Green

Ellie holds a B.A. with Honors in English from Stanford University. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University.

Do you know who or what is behind the metaphorical angel and devil sitting on your shoulders, debating whether you should get up for a jog or hit the snooze button again? This lesson examines this type of internal debate by addressing Freud's work on the different sides of our conscious and unconscious selves - the id, the ego and the superego.

Freud's Structure of Personality

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 have 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 And like a lot of things that he did, it's basically, simultaneously kind of outdated, and also really, really important for the way that we think about personality.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.

The Id

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.

The Superego

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.

The Ego

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.

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