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What is sigmund freud’s psychoanalytic theory of personality

Sigmund Freud’s Psychoanalytic Theory

Sigmund Freud was the creator of psychoanalysis, a treatment for mental illness, and the developer of human behavior theories. Sigmund Freud’s Psychoanalytic Theory states that human personalities evolve through a series of phases: the Id, the Ego, and the Superego. According to Freud, these phases are developed by the unconscious mind’s inner struggles; he theorized that there are three levels of consciousness: consciousness, preconsciousness, and unconsciousness. He believed these three levels also influenced the Id, the Ego, and the Superego. Most of his research was based on his observations in the field of hysteria, now called post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Freud’s Psychoanalytic Theory of Personality

Sigmund Freud’s Psychoanalytic Theory of Personality states that there are three separate aspects of human personality that work together to form its substance: the Id, the Ego, and the Superego. These Freudian personality types form the basis of human thoughts and emotions, beginning in the mind and emerging through psychoanalytic therapy and drawing on the patient’s expression of past experiences that may have been repressed. Freud’s process of delving into the minds of his patients included such techniques as inkblots, dream analysis, free association, and parapraxes, also known as Freudian Slips.

Rorschach Test

Rorschach inkblot tests are used in some psychoanalytic evaluations.

The Mind

Freud believed that a person’s ego operates in three states of the mind: conscious, presconscious, and unconscious. The conscious consists of the meager amount of mental activity of which humans are aware. The preconscious is made up of things we could be aware of if we made the effort. The unconscious is comprised of things we are not aware of and do not have the capability to become so.

Freud’s model of the mind as an iceberg places the conscious at the iceberg’s tip; it includes the thoughts and events that are our current focus. The preconscious consists of everything we can recover from our memories; it is the level below the conscious. Below that lies the unconscious, where everything we can never be aware of is stored: memories, instincts, and a variety of fears. At the base of the iceberg, the Id resides, an extension of the unconscious mind that is home to the two types of instincts: Eros (life instinct) and Thanatos (death instinct). These two instincts battle one another in the psyche’s battle to survive and to self-destruct, coming into play in Freud’s Drive Theory.

The Id

The Id is the part of the human mind that contains all of the human mind’s psychic energy, forming the personality’s main component and residing in the human mind since birth. The Id is completely unconscious, based on the drive to survive, and encompasses all of a person’s behaviors, both primitive and instinctive. An infant and its refusal to quiet until its needs are met, particularly hunger or thirst, is a solid example of the Id, its derivation from the pleasure principle, and its impact on daily life.

The Ego

According to Freud, the Ego is derived from the Id and bears the responsibility of providing the mind’s ability to cope with reality. The Ego’s operation is based on the reality principle, which attempts to quench the Id’s desires in realistic ways by weighing both the pros and cons of impulses before deciding to either satisfy or discard them. The Ego also contains defense mechanisms, which are ways that it safeguards the mind from anxiety. The Ego might present itself while a person is sick and in the hospital. The patient might want to go home, believing there is nothing wrong, so the Ego would decide that the patient should remain in the hospital to get well instead of leaving and prolonging the illness.

The Superego

Emerging at five years of age, the Superego a person’s sense of right and wrong as learned from parents and society. It contains two parts: the conscience and the ego ideal. The conscience contains thoughts of unacceptable behavior, possible punishments, and guilty feelings. The ego ideal is made up of the behavioral standards that the ego aims to exhibit. The ego acts as a suppressant for those behaviors, attempting to civilize human thoughts and actions. If a person is in a hurry and is tempted to drive through a red light, the Superego would work to influence that person to stop by reminding them of the potential for an accident by disobeying the traffic light’s command to stop.

Freud’s Theory of Development

What is Freud’s Psychoanalytic Theory of Development? Freud believed that there are five stages of psychosexual development:

  • Oral (from birth to one year of age)- the period when the Id asserts itself through oral behaviors driven by the libido and leading to future habits: sucking the thumb, biting the fingernails, and smoking.
  • Anal (ages 1-3)- behavior is centered on the anus through defecation and asserted by the Ego; toilet training techniques may lead to obstinacy, obsessive neatness, swearing, stubbornness, and issues with authority.
  • Phallic (ages 3-6)- due to the Oedipus Complex, the libido revolves around the genitals and may lead to jealousy, fears of rejection, and erotic attractions.
  • Latency (ages 6-puberty)- the Ego and the Superego are active during this passive period, ushering in thoughts and behaviors that channel sexual energy into friends, hobbies, and studies.
  • Genital (puberty-adulthood)- the Superego reigns during this time of sharing sexual pleasure with others, developing sexual perversions, and discovering the right sexual partner.

Sigmund Freud

Freud’s Instincts Theory

Freud’s Aggression Instinct Theory Freud’s view was that all human behavior originated from Eros, the life instinct that assists with reproduction; he later added Thanatos, the death instinct, to his theory. He believed that human aggressive behavior was necessary to human survival and reproduction. He also thought that aggression was biologically inherited and expressed both internally and externally.

Freud’s Drive Theory, also called the Theory of Instinctual Drive, was developed by Sigmund Freud to help people understand aggressive behavior. According to Freud, the human body is constantly in search of a homeostatic state and, when that state of being is upset, the body then develops appetites for sexual and aggressive urges and searches for the satisfaction of those urges to return to the homeostatic state. The stages of these drives come into play in those of Freud’s Psychoanalytic Theory of Development.

Neo-Freudian Theories of Personality

Several pioneers in the field of psychoanalysis subscribed to Freud’s theories and modified them to create their original ideas of psychoanalytic development and the human personality. These followers were known as Neo-Freudians, of which the following four are the most notable:

  • Alfred Adler- best known for his introduction of the inferiority complex, focusing on how humans attempt to make up for their feelings of inadequacy.
  • Erik Erikson- differed from Freud in that he believed humans developed throughout the lifespan instead of during childhood: (0-1) Trust vs. Mistrust, (1-3) Autonomy vs. Shame, (3-6) Initiative vs. Guilt, (7-11) Industry vs. Inferiority, (12-18) Identity vs. Confusion, (19-29) Intimacy vs. Isolation, (30-64) Generativity vs. Stagnation, and (65+) Integrity vs. Despair.
  • Carl Jung- unlike Freud, he did not believe that sexual desire was the primary motivator of human behavior and focused on the collective conscience instead of its individual components. He developed such concepts as introversion, extroversion, and the persona.
  • Karen Horney- differed from Freud in that she believed people should move forward to develop their personalities as opposed to Freud’s direction of exploring the past.

Criticism of Psychoanalytic Theory

There have been criticisms of both Freud’s Psychoanalytic Theory and Psychoanalytic Theory in general. As one of the primary objectives of psychological science is to predict human behavior, Freud falls short in that he only explains but does not predict human behavior. Because the human mind is hard to test and measure objectively, Freud’s theory is considered to be unfalsifiable, meaning that it can be neither proven nor refuted. It is believed that Freud did not broaden his base of studies, mostly studying middle-aged women and only one child; it is also theorized that Freud only gleaned information from his studies that supported his theories. While evidence has been found that supports some of Freud’s ideas concerning oral and anal personalities and depression and paranoia, there has been very little evidence to support his Oedipus Complex theory and none at all to support his views on the differences in the sexual development of males and females.

Lesson Summary

Sigmund Freud is considered the father of psychoanalysis and has contributed many theories concerning human behavior and personality development. Although his work has given rise to both supporters and critics alike, his significant additions to the field of psychology have inspired others in the same field to both study his work and put it into practice for the assistance of people in need of psychological help. His creation of psychoanalysis remains a legacy in the exploration of the human mind.

Vocabulary Terms

  • psychoanalysis- the exploration of human thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and their treatment throughout the journey
  • Sigmund Freud- prominent theorist in the field of psychoanalysis
  • identity crisis- questioning one’s significance in the world
  • lifespan of human development- development of human behavior during a period of life from birth to death
  • Sigmund Freud’s Psychoanalytic Theory- there are three separate aspects of human personality that work together to form its substance: the Id, the Ego, and the Superego
  • post-traumatic stress syndrome- mental or emotional stress as a result of trauma
  • Id- the part of the human mind that contains all of the human mind’s psychic energy, forming the personality’s main component
  • Ego- bears the responsibility of providing the mind’s ability to cope with reality
  • Superego- a person’s sense of right and wrong
  • inkblots- a pattern of inkblots on paper developed by Hermann Rorschach to be used in psychological interpretation
  • dream analysis- using psychoanalysis to interpret dreams
  • free association- unrestricted use of unrelated words used to interpret psychological issues
  • Freudian Slip- an accidental revelation of subconscious feelings
  • conscious- the meager amount of mental activity of which humans are aware
  • preconscious- made up of things we could possibly be aware of if we made the effort
  • unconscious- comprised of things we are not aware of and do not have the capability to become so
  • Eros- the life instinct
  • Thanatos- the death instinct
  • Pleasure Principle- instinctive search for pleasure to satisfy demands
  • Reality Principle- attempts to quench the Id’s desires in realistic ways by weighing both the pros and cons of impulses before deciding to either satisfy or discard them
  • defense mechanisms- ways that the Ego safeguards the mind from anxiety
  • conscience- contains thoughts of unacceptable behavior, possible punishments, and guilty feelings
  • ego ideal- made up of the behavioral standards that the ego aims to exhibit
  • Neo-Freudians- subscribed to Freud’s theories and modified them to create their original ideas of psychoanalytic development and the human personality
  • Inferiority Complex- a feeling of inadequacy
  • introversion- concern for personal thoughts and feelings as opposed to external happenings
  • extroversion- primarily concerned with happenings outside the body
  • persona- the personality that a person shows to others, which differs from the real personality
  • unfalsifiable- can be neither proven nor refuted
  • Oedipus Complex- a young male’s subconscious sexual desires toward his mother

According to Sigmund Freud, human personality is complex and has more than a single component. In his famous psychoanalytic theory, Freud states that personality is composed of three elements known as the id, the ego, and the superego. These elements work together to create complex human behaviors.

Each component adds its own unique contribution to personality and the three interact in ways that have a powerful influence on an individual. Each element of personality emerges at different points in life.

According to Freud’s theory, certain aspects of your personality are more primal and might pressure you to act upon your most basic urges. Other parts of your personality work to counteract these urges and strive to make you conform to the demands of reality. 

Here’s a closer look at each of these key parts of the personality, how they work individually, and how they interact.

id ego and superego


The Id

  • According to Freud, the id is the source of all psychic energy, making it the primary component of personality.
  • The id is the only component of personality that is present from birth.
  • This aspect of personality is entirely unconscious and includes instinctive and primitive behaviors.

The id is driven by the pleasure principle, which strives for immediate gratification of all desires, wants, and needs. If these needs are not satisfied immediately, the result is a state of anxiety or tension. For example, an increase in hunger or thirst should produce an immediate attempt to eat or drink.

The id is very important early in life because it ensures that an infant’s needs are met. If the infant is hungry or uncomfortable, they will cry until the demands of the id are satisfied. Young infants are ruled entirely by the id; there is no reasoning with them when these needs demand satisfaction.

Examples of the Id

Imagine trying to convince a baby to wait until lunchtime to eat their meal. The id requires immediate satisfaction, and because the other components of personality are not yet present, the infant will cry until these needs are fulfilled.

However, immediately fulfilling these needs is not always realistic or even possible. If we were ruled entirely by the pleasure principle, we might find ourselves grabbing the things that we want out of other people’s hands to satisfy our cravings.

This behavior would be both disruptive and socially unacceptable. According to Freud, the id tries to resolve the tension created by the pleasure principle through the use of primary process thinking, which involves forming a mental image of the desired object to satisfy the need.

Although people eventually learn to control the id, this part of personality remains the same infantile, primal force throughout life. It is the development of the ego and the superego that allows people to control the id’s basic instincts and act in ways that are both realistic and socially acceptable.

The Ego

  • According to Freud, the ego develops from the id and ensures that the impulses of the id can be expressed in a manner acceptable in the real world.
  • The ego functions in the conscious, preconscious, and unconscious mind.
  • The ego is the personality component responsible for dealing with reality.

Everyone has an ego. The term ego is sometimes used to describe your cohesive awareness of your personality, but personality and ego are not the same. The ego represents just one component of your full personality.

The ego operates based on the reality principle, which strives to satisfy the id’s desires in realistic and socially appropriate ways. The reality principle weighs the costs and benefits of an action before deciding to act upon or abandon impulses.

In many cases, the id’s impulses can be satisfied through a process of delayed gratification—the ego will eventually allow the behavior, but only in the appropriate time and place.

The term ego is often used informally to suggest that someone has an inflated sense of self. However, the ego in personality has a positive effect. It is the part of your personality that keeps you grounded in reality and prevents the id and superego from pulling you too far toward your most basic urges or moralistic virtues. Having a strong ego means having a strong sense of self-awareness.

Freud compared the id to a horse and the ego to the horse’s rider. The horse provides power and motion, while the rider provides direction and guidance. Without its rider, the horse would wander wherever it wished and do whatever it pleased. The rider gives the horse directions and commands to get it where it wants it to go.

The ego also discharges tension created by unmet impulses through secondary process thinking, in which the ego tries to find an object in the real world that matches the mental image created by the id’s primary process.

Examples of the Ego

Imagine that you are stuck in a long meeting at work. You find yourself growing increasingly hungry as the meeting drags on. While the id might compel you to jump up from your seat and rush to the break room for a snack, the ego guides you to sit quietly and wait for the meeting to end.

Instead of acting upon the primal urges of the id, you spend the rest of the meeting imagining yourself eating a cheeseburger. Once the meeting is finally over, you can seek out the object you were imagining and satisfy the demands of the id realistically and appropriately.

The Superego

The last component of personality to develop is the superego.

  • According to Freud, the superego begins to emerge at around age five.
  • The superego holds the internalized moral standards and ideals that we acquire from our parents and society (our sense of right and wrong).
  • The superego provides guidelines for making judgments.

The superego has two parts:

  1. The conscience includes information about things that are viewed as bad by parents and society. These behaviors are often forbidden and lead to bad consequences, punishments, or feelings of guilt and remorse.
  2. The ego ideal includes the rules and standards for behaviors that the ego aspires to.

The superego tries to perfect and civilize our behavior. It suppresses all id’s unacceptable urges and struggles to make the ego act upon idealistic standards rather than on realistic principles. The superego is present in the conscious, preconscious, and unconscious.

Examples of the Superego

For example, if you give in to the urges of the id, the superego is what will cause you to feel a sense of guilt or even shame about your actions. The superego may help you feel good about your behavior when you suppress your most primal urges.

Other examples of the superego include:

  • A woman feels an urge to steal office supplies from work. However, her superego counteracts this urge by focusing on the fact that such behaviors are wrong. 
  • A man realizes that the cashier at the store forgot to charge him for one of the items he had in his cart. He returns to the store to pay for the item because his internalized sense of right and wrong urge him to do so.
  • A student forgot to study for a history test and feels an urge to cheat off of a student sitting nearby. Even though he feels like the chances of getting caught are low, he knows that cheating is wrong, so he suppresses the urge.

The Interaction of the Id, Ego, and Superego

When talking about the id, the ego, and the superego, it is important to remember that these are not three separate entities with clearly defined boundaries. These aspects are dynamic and always interacting to influence an individual’s overall personality and behavior.

With many competing forces, it is easy to see how conflict might arise between the id, ego, and superego. Freud used the term ego strength to refer to the ego’s ability to function despite these dueling forces.

A person who has good ego strength can effectively manage these pressures, while a person with too much or too little ego strength can be unyielding or disruptive.

What Happens If There Is an Imbalance?

According to Freud, the key to a healthy personality is a balance between the id, the ego, and the superego.

If the ego is able to adequately moderate between the demands of reality, the id, and the superego, a healthy and well-adjusted personality emerges. Freud believed that an imbalance between these elements would lead to a maladaptive personality.

For example, an individual with an overly dominant id might become impulsive, uncontrollable, or even criminal. Such an individual acts upon their most basic urges with no concern for whether their behavior is appropriate, acceptable, or legal.

On the other hand, an overly dominant superego might lead to a personality that is extremely moralistic and judgmental. A person ruled by the superego might not be able to accept anything or anyone that they perceive to be “bad” or “immoral.”

A Word From Verywell

Freud’s theory provides one conceptualization of how personality is structured and how the elements of personality function. In Freud’s view, a balance in the dynamic interaction of the id, ego, and superego is necessary for a healthy personality.

While the ego has a tough job to do, it does not have to act alone. Anxiety also plays a role in helping the ego mediate between the demands of the basic urges, moral values, and the real world. When you experience different types of anxiety, defense mechanisms may kick in to help defend the ego and reduce the anxiety you are feeling.