Freud’s Theory of Personality (Explained for Students)

Freud's Theory of Personality, explained below

Sigmund Freud developed a theory of personality which postulates that each individual’s personality is comprised of three entities: the id, the ego, and the superego.

Each of these entities can be thought of as psychological energies that operate within the human psyche. Each has its own objectives and ways of being expressed.

An individual’s overt behavior is a result of the three components of personality trying to fulfil their separate roles.

But what we see on the outside is really just a glimmer of what is happening behind the closed doors of the mind – our covert behavior.

According to Freud, the individual is often unaware of how their behavior is determined because the most primitive part of the personality, the id, usually operates outside of conscious awareness.

Freud’s Three Components of Personality

Freud believes the personality is made up of three components: the id, ego, and superego.

  • The Id: The id is the impulsive and instinctual component that operates on the pleasure principle. The id wants its needs satisfied as soon as possible (aka instant gratification), and is not concerned with consequences or ethics. The id is present from birth onward and exerts its influence on our behavior outside of conscious awareness. See more: Examples of the Id.
  • The ego: The ego is the pragmatic component of the personality and operates on the reality principle. The ego helps control the impulses of the id, but at the same time tries to find ways to satisfy those needs based on the constraints of the situation. The ego relies on the delay of gratification to control the id’s impulsive drives until a solution can be achieved.
  • The superego: The superego represents the standards and moral principles of the individual. These standards are internalized over time and come from one’s parents and society.  This part of personality emerges around the age of five. It consists of two components: the conscience and the ego ideal. The conscience, part of the superego, contains the rules learned about what is good and bad behavior. When a person does something they know is wrong, the conscience is where the feelings of guilt and shame come from. The ego ideal is what the ego strives to achieve. It represents the best example of what the person should become. The ego ideal can be defined by one’s parents or society. See more: Examples of the superego.

According to Freud’s theory of personality, a person’s behavior is a result of the competing influences of the three components of personality.

For example, when an individual acts impulsively, it is the result of the id. When an individual acts with restraint and discipline, it is the result of a strong ego and well-formed superego.

Here’s a comparative table of the three elements of Freud’s personality theory:

FunctionSeeks pleasureMediates reality and desiresImposes moral standards on behavior
OperatesUnconsciousConscious, Preconscious, UnconsciousConscious, Preconscious, Unconscious
PrinciplesPleasure principleReality principleMorality principle
DevelopmentPresent from birthDevelops during infancy and uses strategies such as sublimationDevelops around the age of five

Origins of Freud’s Theory of Personality Theory 

Sigmund Freud developed his theory of personality in the late 19th century. He was heavily influenced by his advisor at the University of Vienna, Ernest von Brücke.

Brücke believed that all living organisms were comprised of finite energy systems. This energy circulates around the various systems within the organism.

Freud postulated the concept of the libido based on this notion. According to Freud, the libido was primarily a sexual energy in the id that is expressed through behavior.

However, the actions of the libido are often inconsistent with the morals of society represented in the superego. This can lead to neurosis or psychosis if the ego is unable to resolve the conflicting demands of each.

Other scholars such as Alfred Adler (2002) and Carl Jung (2014) incorporated aspects of Freud’s thinking into their own theories of human behavior.

See Also: Examples of The Famous Freudian Slip

The Role of Defense Mechanisms in Freud’s Theory

Defense mechanisms are strategies that the individual uses to cope with anxiety (Freud, 1894, 1937). When confronted with disturbing thoughts or conflicting information about the self, defense mechanisms kick-in to help restore emotional balance.

They often involve a distortion of reality and operate outside of conscious awareness.

Although some people consider defense mechanisms to be negative and a sign of dysfunction, Freud believed that defense mechanisms serve a valuable purpose.

They reduce anxiety, help the individual cope, and are necessary for healthy human functioning.

Although at one point maligned as incapable of being scientifically tested, today’s perspective on the utility of defense mechanisms is quite different.

“More than half century of empirical research has demonstrated the impact of defensive functioning in psychological well-being, personality organization and treatment process-outcome” (Di Giuseppe & Perry, 2021, p. 1).

Real-Life Applications of this Theory

The most common application of Freud’s theory of personality is in the treatment of psychological disorders.

Freud’s version of therapy is referred to as psychoanalysis. It is used today primarily to treat depression and anxiety disorders.

The goal in psychoanalysis is to help the patient become more aware of the recurring dysfunctional thoughts and feelings that prevent them from leading a normal life and being happy.

This is accomplished through a variety of techniques, including: free association, inkblot interpretations, resistance and transference analysis, and the interpretation of dreams.

Psychoanalysis can take time because it seeks long-lasting change that results in altering the structure of the individual’s personality and patterns of reasoning.

In a review of the literature, Shedler (2010) states that:

“available evidence indicates that effect sizes for psychodynamic psychotherapies are as large as those reported for other treatments that have been actively promoted as “empirically supported” and “evidence based.” (p. 18).

Criticisms of Freud’s Theory of Personality

Freud’s theories, while groundbreaking in the field of psychology, have not escaped critical evaluation.

  • Lack of Empirical Evidence: One of the primary criticisms levied against his theories of personality concerns lack of empirical evidence. Freud’s concepts such as the id, ego, and superego, while interesting, are largely abstract, meaning that they are hard to measure and therefore to validate scientifically. Scientists like Karl Popper consider Freud’s theories as pseudoscientific for this reason, because they lack falsifiability (Popper, 1959).
  • Lack of Consideration of Environmental Context: critics point out Freud’s theory disregards the effects of the environment on personality development. Albert Bandura’s social cognitive theory, for example, underscores the importance of observational learning, environmental influence, and self-efficacy in shaping one’s personality, rendering Freud’s focus on childhood conflicts and unconscious urges incomplete (Bandura, 1977). It’s important to note that while Freud’s theory has faced criticism, it undeniably made a profound impact on psychology, sparking conversations that continue to shape the field even today.
  • Lack of Real-Life Complexity: The conceptual triad of id, ego, and superego, as proposed by Freud, has also been the subject of criticism. Notably, critics have found fault in the overly simplistic nature of these three entity-like components (Rennison, 2015). They argue that the human psyche is complex and cannot be simply divided into these neat compartments. The tripartite structure is seen as too theoretically convenient, lacking nuance and complexity. Cognitive psychologists, especially, deem Freud’s constructs unhelpful in predicting behavioral outcomes due to their inconsistent definitions and applications across contexts.


Freud’s theory of personality involves three structures that exist in the human psyche. Each one has its role in the expression and management of impulses and needs.

While the id represents a person’s instincts and primal urges, the superego represents the internalized standards derived from parental and societal influences. The ego is tasked with fulfilling the ids needs based on the constraints of reality and principles of morality from the superego.

When the ego becomes aware of disturbing thoughts and desires that come from the id, it engages in a defense mechanism. By distorting reality in various ways, the anxiety experienced from becoming aware of those desires is resolved.

Freud’s theory of personality has implications for the treatment of psychological disorders such as depression and anxiety. This form of therapy is referred to as psychoanalysis. Although time consuming, research shows that psychoanalysis is effective.

Other Theories of Personality


Adler, A. (2002). The collected clinical works of Alfred Adler (Vol. 1). Alfred Adler Institute. American Psychological Association. Psychodynamic psychotherapy brings lasting benefits through self-knowledge.

Bandura, A. (1977). Social Learning Theory. London: Prentice-Hall.

Bowins, B. (2004). Psychological defense mechanisms: A New Perspective. American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 64, 1-26.

Cramer, P. (2000). Defense mechanisms in psychology today: Further processes for adaptation. American Psychologist, 55(6), 637-646.

Di Giuseppe, M., & Perry, J. C. (2021). The hierarchy of defense mechanisms: Assessing defensive functioning with the Defense Mechanisms Rating Scales Q-Sort. Frontiers in Psychology, 12, 718440.

Freud, S. (1894). The neuro-psychoses of defence. SE, 3: 41-61.

Freud, A. (1937). The Ego and the mechanisms of defense, London: Hogarth Press and Institute of Psycho-Analysis.

Freud, S. (2012). The basic writings of Sigmund Freud. Modern library.

Green, C. D. (2019). Where did Freud’s iceberg metaphor of mind come from? History of Psychology, 22(4), 369b.

Jung, C. G. (2014). The archetypes and the collective unconscious. Routledge.

Popper, K. (1959). The Logic of Scientific Discovery. Hutchinson & Co

Rennison, N. (2015). Freud and psychoanalysis: Everything you need to know about id, ego, super-ego and more. Oldcastle books.

Shedler, J. (2010). The efficacy of psychodynamic psychotherapy. American Psychologist, 65(2), 98.

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Dr. Cornell has worked in education for more than 20 years. His work has involved designing teacher certification for Trinity College in London and in-service training for state governments in the United States. He has trained kindergarten teachers in 8 countries and helped businessmen and women open baby centers and kindergartens in 3 countries.

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This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

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