Freud: The Id, Ego and Superego

This article is exploring some of Freud’s most famous work; the theory of the unconscious and the topographical model of the mind. Understand individually the id, ego and superego and how they are interconnected.

Freud’s clinical investigations (1900; 1905) led him to propose that there are three models of the mind; the conscious, preconscious and unconscious.

For every conscious thought, feeling, hope, fear or motive that appears in the conscious mind, there is a corresponding latent (unconscious) thought, feeling, hope, fear or motive that we have locked away. Unconscious forces act to determine personality and behaviour; individual’s actions, thoughts and feelings are influenced by factors outside awareness.

There are feelings, thoughts, urges and memories that are outside conscious awareness; a repository for primitive desires and events that are too painful to be acknowledged.

Essentially we don’t really know ourselves at all. The goal of psychoanalysis is to make the unconscious conscious.

  • Everything we are aware of
  • The small amount of mental activity we know about
  • Thoughts, perceptions
  • Things we could be aware of if we wanted to or tried hard enough
  • Memories
  • Stored knowledge
  • Things we are unaware of and cannot become aware of
  • Fears, unacceptable sexual desires, violent motives, irrational wishes, immoral urges, selfish needs, shameful and traumatic experience

The basic premised holds that we are animals driven by biological impulses and the emergence of society requires us to bring our animal instincts under control.

“Psychic Apparatus” holds three entities, the id, ego and superego, these are not physical areas within the brain, but hypothetical conceptualizations of important mental functions.


Id is latin for ‘It’ and operates at an unconscious level, therefore the id is irrational. The id has two inherited biological drives:

  • Eros or survival instinct: directs life sustaining activities (respiration, eating, sex) and the energy is created by life instincts known as libido
  • Thanatos or death instinct (destructive force): is aggressive towards others and the self
  • Eros stronger than Thanatos; people survive rather than self destruct

The id operates according to the pleasure principle and gains gratification from satisfying basic instincts. If a desire is not met the individual creates a fantasy that it has been met (wish fulfilment). As the id is entirely irrational there is no difference between the fantasy version and the real version and acts immorally in terms of conventional morality.


Latin for ‘I’ and operates on the morality principle; its goal is to satisfy the demands of the id in a socially acceptable way.

  • Operates under the reality principle; sees the outside world as it really is
  • Operates in both the conscious and unconscious mind
  • Uses reason to attempt to obtain pleasure
  • Is amoral in terms of conventional morality

Latin for ‘over – I’ and operates on the morality principle, the superego motivates us to behave in a socially responsible and acceptable manner.

  • Conscience and ‘ego-ideal’
  • Is moral in terms of conventional morality

Read next: ‘A brief history of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)

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