The concepts of the id, ego, and superego originate from Sigmund Freud’s structural model of the psyche, proposed in the early 20th century, which divides the mind into three interacting agents to explain human behavior and the dynamics of the personality.
According to Freud’s model of the human psyche, the mind’s three distinct components are:
- The id is the most primitive part of the mind, containing innate impulses and desires, and operates according to the pleasure principle (Samuels & Samuels, 2019), impulsively seeking immediate gratification regardless of external reality or moral considerations. It is entirely unconscious (Green, 2019) and houses basic drives such as hunger, thirst, and libido.
- The ego develops to mediate between the unrealistic id and the external real world, operating according to the reality principle (Civitarese, 2018), which seeks to satisfy the desires of the id in a realistic and socially appropriate manner. It is partly conscious and unconscious, and it employs defense mechanisms to prevent the individual from becoming overwhelmed by anxiety.
- The superego is the moralistic component of the psyche, representing the internalized ideals, norms, values and morals of society, and strives for perfection by judging the actions and thoughts of the ego and inducing feelings of guilt or pride. According to Freud, it operates on the morality principle and consists of two subsystems: the conscience, which punishes misbehavior with feelings of guilt, and the ego-ideal, which rewards good behavior with feelings of pride and self-satisfaction (Kernberg, 2016; Rennison, 2015).
Each of the three parts of the psyche develops at different times and is governed by different principles, as explained below:
|Function||Consciousness||Governing Principles||Age of Development|
|Id||Houses basic drives and seeks instant gratification||Unconscious||Pleasure Principle (seeks pleasure)||Present at birth|
|Ego||Mediates between the id and external reality||Partly conscious and unconscious||Reality Principle (mediates between constraints of reality and pleasure-seeking)||Develops around age 2-3|
|Superego||Represents internalized societal norms and values||Partly conscious and unconscious||Morality Principle (seeks moral ideals)||Develops around age 5|
Id, Ego, And Superego Examples
1. A Kid In The Candy Store
Scenario: A child is in a grocery store with their parent, and they pass by the candy aisle. The child sees a chocolate bar that they really want.
- Role of Id: The id, seeking immediate gratification, urges the child to grab the chocolate bar and eat it right away, without any consideration for the consequences or the fact that it hasn’t been paid for.
- Role of Ego: The ego, understanding the reality of the situation, recognizes that the child cannot just take the chocolate bar without paying. It prompts the child to ask the parent if they can buy the chocolate for them, attempting to satisfy the id’s desire in a socially acceptable and realistic manner.
- Role of Superego: The superego, representing the child’s internalized moral standards, reminds the child that stealing is wrong and that they should respect the rules of the store and the wishes of their parent. If the parent says no, the superego would encourage the child to accept the decision gracefully, reinforcing the value of respecting authority and behaving appropriately.
2. Finding A Lost Wallet
Scenario: A student is in a classroom and finds a forgotten wallet on the floor, filled with money.
- Role of Id: The id, driven by immediate desires, tempts the student to take the money from the wallet for personal gain, without considering the consequences or ethical implications of such an action.
- Role of Ego: The ego, working on the reality principle, assesses the situation and understands that taking someone else’s money is both morally wrong and punishable. It guides the student to consider the consequences and look for a more acceptable solution, such as finding the owner or turning the wallet into the lost and found.
- Role of Superego: The superego, embodying the student’s moral compass and societal norms, reinforces the idea that stealing is wrong and that the right thing to do is to return the wallet to its rightful owner. It encourages feelings of empathy and responsibility, prompting the student to imagine how they would feel if they lost their wallet and someone else found it.
3. Desiring Someone Else’s Possessions
Scenario: A young girl is playing in a park and sees another child playing with a colorful, attractive toy balloon. She desires to have the balloon for herself.
- Role of Id: The id, focused on immediate gratification and possessing no consideration for morality or social rules, urges the girl to snatch the balloon from the other child, aiming to satisfy her desire without regard for the other child’s feelings.
- Role of Ego: The ego, operating under the reality principle, recognizes that simply taking the balloon is not socially acceptable and could result in negative consequences. It encourages the girl to either ask the other child if she can have a turn playing with the balloon or ask her parents to buy one for her, seeking a realistic and socially appropriate way to satisfy the desire.
- Role of Superego: The superego, representing internalized values and societal norms, reminds the girl that it is wrong to take things from others without permission and encourages sharing and politeness. It promotes empathy, suggesting that the girl consider how she would feel if someone took her belongings, and encourages her to behave in a way that is considerate and respectful of others.
4. Obeying Signs At The Zoo
Scenario: A boy is at a petting zoo and sees a sign that says “Do Not Feed the Animals,” but he has some snacks in his pocket and wants to feed the cute goats.
- Role of Id: The id, seeking immediate pleasure and having no regard for rules, encourages the boy to feed the goats right away to experience the joy of interacting with them more closely.
- Role of Ego: The ego, recognizing the need to adhere to rules and consider the well-being of the animals, reminds the boy that feeding the animals might be harmful to them and against the zoo’s policies. It encourages him to enjoy watching the animals and following the guidelines set by the petting zoo.
- Role of Superego: The superego reinforces the importance of following rules and respecting the well-being of the animals. It encourages the boy to understand that the rules are in place for a reason and that he should act responsibly and ethically.
5. Handling Group Work Scenarios
Scenario: A girl is working on a group project for school, and she thinks her idea is the best, but her friend has a different idea.
- Role of Id: The id, driven by self-interest and basic urges, encourages the girl to insist on her own idea and disregard her friend’s input, aiming for personal gratification and dominance in the situation.
- Role of Ego: The ego, striving for a realistic and harmonious solution, encourages the girl to listen to her friend’s idea, consider its merits, and work towards a compromise that incorporates the best elements of both ideas and maintains group harmony.
- Role of Superego: The superego, representing ethical values and societal norms, reminds the girl of the importance of cooperation, respect for others’ opinions, and fairness. It encourages her to be considerate, open-minded, and work collaboratively with her friend for the common good of the group project.
6. Seeking A Solution At The Library
Scenario: A child is in a library and finds a book that they have been wanting to read, but it’s time to leave, and they haven’t brought their library card to check it out.
- Role of Id: The id, seeking immediate gratification, tempts the child to sneak the book out of the library without checking it out, disregarding the rules and potential consequences.
- Role of Ego: The ego, aiming to find a balance between desire and reality, suggests that the child should ask the librarian if they can hold the book until they can return with their library card, or make a note of the book’s title to borrow it next time.
- Role of Superego: The superego reinforces the idea that stealing is wrong and encourages the child to follow the library’s rules and procedures, fostering a sense of responsibility and respect for community resources.
7. Helpfulness And Altruism
Scenario: A student sees a classmate struggling with their homework and considers whether to offer help, even though it might mean spending less time on their own activities.
- Role of Id: The id, focused on self-interest and immediate pleasure, encourages the student to ignore the classmate’s struggle and prioritize their own activities and enjoyment.
- Role of Ego: The ego, seeking a socially acceptable and realistic solution, prompts the student to assess how much time they can afford to spend helping the classmate while still managing their own responsibilities, aiming for a balance between altruism and self-care.
- Role of Superego: The superego, representing internalized moral values, encourages the student to empathize with the classmate and offer assistance, emphasizing the virtues of kindness, cooperation, and community support.
8. Only Taking Your Fair Share
Scenario: A child is at a friend’s birthday party and sees a big bowl of candy. The child wants to take a handful of candy, but the party host has asked everyone to take only one piece each.
- Role of Id: The id, driven by immediate desires and pleasure, urges the child to grab a handful of candy, focusing solely on the child’s own wants without regard for rules or fairness to others.
- Role of Ego: The ego, working to help the child maintain self-control, reminds the child of the host’s rule and the need to be polite and considerate, suggesting taking just one piece of candy now and perhaps asking later if it’s okay to have more.
- Role of Superego: The superego reinforces the importance of following rules, being respectful to the host, and showing fairness and consideration to all the other children at the party.
9. What To Do About A Lost Dog
Scenario: A student finds a lost dog on the way home from school and wonders whether to ignore it, bring it home, or find the owner.
- Role of Id: The id makes the child impulsive and encourages them to either bring the dog home for personal enjoyment or ignore it to avoid responsibility and continue with their own plans.
- Role of Ego: The ego, balancing between the id and superego, desires and reality, suggests that the student should check if the dog has any identification tags and, if possible, contact the owner or take the dog to a local shelter, considering both the well-being of the dog and the student’s own responsibilities.
- Role of Superego: The superego encourages the student to act responsibly and empathetically, emphasizing the importance of helping others (including animals) and doing the right thing by trying to reunite the lost dog with its owner.
10. Sharing Toys
Scenario: A child is building a block tower with a younger sibling and wants to use all the best pieces to make their side of the tower look cooler.
- Role of Id: The id, focused on self-gratification and dominance, urges the child to take all the best blocks without considering the younger sibling’s feelings or the value of sharing.
- Role of Ego: The ego, seeking a balanced and harmonious solution, encourages the child to share the blocks equally with the younger sibling, ensuring both can enjoy the activity and create something they are proud of.
- Role of Superego: The superego, representing internalized ethical principles, reinforces the values of sharing, fairness, and kindness, reminding the child to be considerate of the younger sibling’s feelings and the importance of playing together cooperatively.
More about Sigmund Freud and his Theory of Personality
Beyond the foundational concepts of the id, ego, and superego, Freud’s theory of personality also delves into the stages of psychosexual development, which he posited as critical to the formation of adult personality (Kernberg, 2016; Rennison, 2015).
These stages – oral, anal, phallic, latent, and genital – each focus on a different erogenous zone and present unique conflicts that individuals must resolve to ensure healthy personality development.
For instance, during the phallic stage, Freud theorized the occurrence of the Oedipus and Electra complexes, where children experience unconscious feelings of desire for the opposite-sex parent and rivalry with the same-sex parent. Successfully navigating these stages and resolving the associated conflicts, Freud believed, was essential for the development of a well-balanced personality.
Furthermore, Freud’s psychoanalytic theory introduced the concept of defense mechanisms (Bowins, 2004; Di Giuseppe & Perry, 2021), which Freud called the strategies employed by the ego to protect the individual from anxiety-arousing thoughts and feelings.
These mechanisms, including repression, denial, projection, and rationalization, operate unconsciously and distort reality to make it less threatening. For example, repression involves pushing distressing thoughts into the unconscious mind, while projection attributes one’s unacceptable feelings to others.
Understanding these defense mechanisms is crucial as they reveal how individuals cope with internal conflicts and external stressors, providing deeper insights into the complexities of human behavior and the intricacies of Freud’s theory of personality (Kernberg, 2016; Rennison, 2015).
Read Next: Learn About the Freudian Slip
Bowins, B. (2004). Psychological defense mechanisms: A New Perspective. American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 64, 1-26.
Civitarese, G. (2018). Where does the reality principle begin? The work of margins in Freud’s “Formulations on the two principles of mental functioning”. In On Freud’s”Formulations on the Two Principles of Mental Functioning” (pp. 105-125). Routledge.
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. (1961). The Ego and the Id. In J. Strachey (Ed. and Trans.), The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 19, pp. 3-66). Hogarth Press. (Original work published 1923)
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.
Kernberg, O. F. (2016). The Superego, the Ego, and the Id in the Psychoanalytic Conceptual System. Psychodynamic Psychiatry, 44(3), 523–534.
Rennison, N. (2015). Freud and psychoanalysis: Everything you need to know about id, ego, super-ego and more. Oldcastle books.
Samuels, R., & Samuels, R. (2019). The pleasure principle and the death drive. Freud for the Twenty-First Century: The Science of Everyday Life, 17-25. doi: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-24382-1_3
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]