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
Let’s talk about the id, the ego and the superego, the three parts of the structure of personality and a theory that was developed by Sigmund Freud. He’s probably someone you’ve heard of; he’s a pretty famous psychologist from the late 19th early 20th centuries. While his theory of personalities is outdated, it was monumental in influencing how we think about personality today.
When you think of Freud, you might think about going into therapy and lying down on a couch, telling your therapist about your problems. But if someone goes into therapy today, the therapist isn’t going to say ‘Oh, of course! Aha! It’s the id, the ego and the superego. They’re just not talking to each other right. Nevertheless, these three personality parts have entered the mainstream understanding of how we think about internal conflict.Let’s think about an average person who’s pushed and pulled in lots of directions by different drives, like sex and food, but also ethics and a wish to maintain a healthy body.
These drives are pushing them and pulling them in different directions, and maybe they’re not even aware.This is the idea of internal conflict. It’s the conflict between basic desires (the id), morality and being a good person (the superego) and consciousness (the superego.)
So first let’s start with the id. This is an unconscious part of your personality.
It is basically the childish and impulsive part of you that just does what it wants, and it wants things really intensely and doesn’t really think about the consequences. Freud describes this as operating on a pleasure principle, which essentially means 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. Your id would think ‘Oh! I want that cake right now! That looks delicious!’ 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 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.
How did you manage to eat the whole cake? Blame your id for taking over. 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 no, I just ate a whole cake. That’s really bad, maybe I’ll get some exercise.’ You think to yourself about how you will go hiking in the mountains all day, and you tell yourself, ‘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, we usually don’t eat whole cakes and lay on the couch all day every day. What helps to control the rampaging id? There is another part of your personality that’s mainly unconscious, and it’s the superego. The superego is the part of you that’s super judgmental and moralizing and is always trying to get you to behave in a socially appropriate way. Now let’s see what the superego would do if you come home and you find the cake.If the superego is in charge, you wouldn’t eat the cake at all.
You’d still think it looks delicious and want to eat it, but the superego would say, ‘No, it’s my roommate’s cake. I’m not gonna eat this cake!’ Remember, the superego wants you to behave morally and appropriately, and it’s not that socially appropriate to eat other people’s baked goods.But, let’s imagine that your id takes over, so you do eat the cake. The same thing happens: you eat a little bit, you eat a little bit more, and somehow you end up eating it all. But now your superego jumps back into action.
What happens now that you already ate the cake? Guilt is what’s going to happen. Your superego makes you feel really guilty when you do things that are not socially appropriate.What do you do now? If your superego is in control again, you would certainly go jogging, but you would also apologize to your roommate and bake them a new cake, maybe an even better one than before. The superego controls our sense of right and wrong. We feel bad when we do things that are wrong, and we feel good when we do things that are right, and that’s what the superego controls.
Now let’s talk about the third part of your personality, the ego. The ego mediates between the id and the superego.
The id is trying to get you to do things like eat cakes and not go jogging, and the superego is trying to get you to make good decisions and be an upstanding person. So the id and the superego are always fighting with each other, and the ego steps in between the two.While the id and the superego are mainly the unconscious parts of your personality, the ego is fully conscious. 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 means is that your ego interprets the unconscious drives from your id and superego and turns those into real actions. So the ego is taking the id’s desire to eat cake and the superego’s desire to be a good roommate and finding the right solution.
Let’s go back to the example where your id takes over and you eat your roommate’s cake and then your superego makes you feel really guilty about this. What’s really causing you to apologize and to bake a new cake is your ego. Your ego takes the input of the uncontrolled desire of the ego and the guilt of the superego and comes up with a solution.
Internal Conflict Interaction
So that’s basically how the id, the ego, and the superego interact with each other in Freud’s theory. Now, there aren’t sections of your brain that we can identify as each structure of the personality. Neuroscientists can’t look at your brain and see that a certain part activates and lights up when you make impulsive decisions, or that another part lights up when you are feeling guilty, or that a special part lights up when you are mediating.
That’s not what’s going on.But what does happen is that we do think about our internal conflicts and can reflect on these feelings of impulsiveness and judgment when we are working out our problems. We might notice these internal conflicts in our daily lives. In fact, this three-part set of personality is so ingrained in our culture that a lot of books and movies have character trios that represent the parts of the personality.
As an example, let’s consider Harry Potter.You’ve got Harry and you’ve got Ron and you’ve got Hermione. Ron is the hot-headed one and the emotional one. He doesn’t think that much and doesn’t do that well in school.
He is an id figure. On the other side of personality, there is Hermione. You might say that she thinks way too much. She always knows what to do; she’s definitely the superego.Ron and Hermione fight a lot in the books, but that’s where Harry steps in.
He plays the mediator role quite often and tries to come up with a realistic action to solve the problem. Harry is an example of the ego and the reality principle. And we see this interaction of the id in Ron, the superego in Hermione, and the ego in Harry over and over again.
So, that’s Freud’s lasting legacy: his three-part personality of the id, the ego, and the superego. Again, it’s a bit outdated and it’s not based in neuroscience. It might not be a fundamentally true way of representing our personalities, but it’s a model of thinking about personality that’s made a big impact in psychology and our cultural consciousness. Remember, the id is the impulsive part of your personality that is driven by pleasure and repulsed by pain, the superego is the judgmental and morally correct part of your personality, and the ego is the conscious part of your personality that mediates between the id and the superego and makes decisions.