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The reality principle enables people to function in a world with boundaries and acceptable behaviors. This principle satisfies both the id’s desire to feel good and the ego’s desire to function appropriately in the world.

Psychology and Freud

When people talk about psychologists, often they think of couches and long therapy sessions where the psychologist talks very little and takes lots of notes.

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This is an accurate representation of classical psychotherapy. The founder of psychotherapy, Sigmund Freud, is one of the best-known pioneers of psychology. Many of Freud’s contributions to this science are still important to modern practitioners. This lesson will discuss the reality principle, a result of the tension between a person’s id and ego.

Reality and Pleasure

Freud’s work in psychology divides the mind into three basic parts: the id, the ego and the superego.

The id represents a person’s basic survival drives, such as food, sex and sleep. The ego represents a person’s sense of self and grasp of the outside world. The superego is the part of the mind that handles higher moral concepts, such as the concepts of right or wrong.The reality principle is based upon the tension between the id and the ego. The reality principle is a development of the ego. Through an understanding of how the world functions, the individual accepts that not all rewards occur immediately. This ability to defer gratification is a mark of maturity over the pleasure principle, which is the drive to avoid pain and prolong pleasure.

As the ego develops, the reality principle begins to replace the pleasure principle. The person learns that pleasure cannot always occur immediately but must often be postponed. The reality principle also helps the person to understand what rewards are appropriate to the situation.

Again, both principles still involve the acquisition of pleasure and avoiding of discomfort. The id’s urges are still important to the reality principle, as pleasure is still the bottom line. The pleasure principle is less rational. The id cannot take reality into account and thus the pleasure principle only uses the simplest emotional drives of desire and want.

The ego is devoted to understanding and interacting with the outside world. Thus, the ego develops a way to relate to the world through understanding reality and how pleasure works in context. Essentially, the drives of the id are unattainable in the real world and the individual concentrates on desires that are attainable.

Example of the Reality Principle

Let’s look at a young person named Jack for a moment.

As an infant, the only things Jack really cared about were avoiding discomfort (like a soiled diaper) and asking for food and company. He pretty much did all of these things by crying for someone to do these things for him. Babies are not very good at doing all of those things for themselves. So as a very young child, Jack depended on others to provide his needs. Without an understanding of how those needs are attained, a baby cries for its caretakers to care for it.Let’s say Jack gets somewhat older. At around four years old, Jack’s brain is working at a prodigious rate, soaking up information about the world around him.

Jack still operates mainly on the pleasure principle but he’s begun to associate some things with comfort and discomfort. For instance, he knows that while crying and demanding something may work sometimes, he knows parents may also see this behavior as deserving only negative attention. For example, when Jack cries and stomps his feet in the store while shopping with his mom, he almost never gets anything but a swat on the butt. Jack is working on his own reality principle at this point, but it’s not something that develops overnight. He understands that some things aren’t available for his immediate satisfaction, but is still working on exactly what these things are.

Years pass, and Jack grows older still. At 12 years old, Jack still would like some comforts in his life and would prefer to avoid discomfort altogether. However, he has realized that some things require some discomfort. For instance, he gets a modest allowance from his parents; however, if he wants a new video game, he has been told he needs to save up for it. Jack makes an arrangement with neighbors to cut their lawns a couple of times a month, netting his even more spending money. Jack doesn’t enjoy cutting lawns, he just realizes that a few hours of sweat could mean many hours of digital enjoyment. At this point, Jack is motivated to act rationally and appropriately to achieve most of his needs.

Lesson Summary

The concept of Freud’s reality principle is that a person learns that pain and pleasure often function together in certain contexts in the world. A more refined development of the pleasure principle of the id, the reality principle is derived from the ego. The reality principle enables people to defer pleasure and seek kinds of positive experiences that are afforded through reality. In most cases, people develop their reality principle in childhood as they begin to understand how the world works.

As a person matures, they learn what experiences are appropriate to expect and how to attain those experiences.

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