The id is one of three parts of the mind, according to Sigmund Freud’s largely debunked psychoanalytic theory of personality.
The other two are the ego and the superego.
The Id represents the instinctual, most primitive component of the personality, containing all inherited biological drives such as hunger, sex, and aggression.
Unlike the superego, the id is said to be present from birth and serves as the source of our basic impulses. As Kring and Johnson (2018) note:
“According to Freud, the id is present at birth and is the repository of all the energy needed to run the mind, including the basic urges for food, water, elimination, warmth, affection, and sex.”
For example, we can see that a baby has an instant impulse to seek milk from its mother’s breast – this is the Id at work.
The id operates on the pleasure principle, which is the psychoanalytic concept that refers to the instinctive drive to seek pleasure and avoid pain.
It 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, when you are hungry, the id prompts you to eat; when you are thirsty, it prompts you to drink. It doesn’t take into account any circumstances; it just seeks instant satisfaction.
And if you don’t eat within a reasonable timeframe from whe then id compels you to do so, you may feel unpleasurable feelings – like irritation (being ‘hangry’).
According to Freud, the id is entirely unconscious. It operates without our need to think about it or focus on it. Furthermore, one unfortunate feature is that it is unable to consider the consequences of its desires.
However, it still doesn’t doesn’t operate independently. It interacts with the ego and the superego, the two other components of Freud’s model of the psyche. In fact, the ego and the superego attempt to keep it in line:
- The ego, guided by the reality principle, tries to satisfy the id’s desires in realistic and socially acceptable ways.
- The superego, functioning as the moral conscience, can either inhibit the id or facilitate the ego’s strategies to redirect its impulses.
See Also: Freudian Slip Examples
1. Sexual Desires
According to Freud, the id is primarily composed of sexual energy (libido).
The id seeks to fulfill these sexual desires regardless of societal norms or consequences.
This could manifest in various forms, like the impulse to engage in sexual activities or fantasize about sexual scenarios.
For instance, an individual might feel a strong sexual attraction to a co-worker, which the id would seek to act upon for immediate satisfaction, disregarding the potential repercussions at the workplace (Freud, 1953).
Freud also argues that some children have innate sexual desires regarding their parent of the opposite sex, which emerge from a very young age.
The id includes the basic instinctual drives, among which is the biological need for sustenance i.e., hunger.
When an individual feels the urge to eat, the id motivates them to satisfy this desire immediately.
An example might be an individual who, despite being on a strict diet, is enticed by the aroma of a pizza and indulges in it to satisfy the id’s demand for immediate gratification.
Freud associated aggression with the id, calling it the ‘death instinct’ or Thanatos.
This represents an innate drive towards destruction, aggression, and conflict.
For instance, if you feel irritated, insulted, or frustrated, then you might feel a sudden impulse to react aggressively. This is the id at work, acting without regard to reality or social norms. It needs the superego and ego to pull the id back into line, and prevent us from lashing out and causing harm.
The id is driven by desire for pleasure and possession, regardless of how it gets it.
In other words, our greed comes from the id.
A person governed by the id might constantly desire more wealth, power, or material possessions, even if they already have more than necessary. In fact, Freud would suggest there’s something within all of us that will keep desiring more and more. It’s only our well-develped ego and superego which keep that in check.
An example would be a hoarder, who continues to hoard everything to an unhealthy extent, even though they know they’ll never use everything they have hoarded in their garage.
5. Immediate Gratification
The id operates on the ‘pleasure principle,’ which is the desire for immediate satisfaction of all wants, needs, and urges.
As a result, the id governs our drive for instant gratification and resists the ego’s command that we delay gratification for our long-term benefit.
For example, a teenager might decide to skip school to attend a concert, ignoring potential academic repercussions for the immediate pleasure of the music event.
Yet, we know that delayed gratification is the key to long-term success and achieving long-term goals.
The instinct for survival or self-preservation is tied to the id. It represents the primitive drive to protect oneself and ensure one’s own survival.
For instance, the id might compel someone to flee from a dangerous situation, like a burning building, without pausing to collect their belongings.
People who can resist this base instinct, such as firefighter heroes who run into the fire to save a baby or soldiers in a battle, tend to have a very well-developed superego or focus on other desires such as positive social regard above personal safety.
Nevertheless, at our base, the id prioritizes immediate personal safety over material loss or even saving face socially, highlighting the id’s role in survival instincts.
7. Sudden Emotional Outbursts
The id is associated with raw, unfiltered emotions. These often manifest as sudden emotional outbursts when an individual’s id takes over, bypassing the ego’s control.
For example, an individual experiencing grief might suddenly burst into tears in the supermarket, despite trying to appear composed.
The id’s influence is visible here, as it prioritizes emotional expression over societal expectations of composure.
Oftentimes, when under stress or feeling anxious, our ego’s ability to direct our emotions in socially-appropriate ways is curtailed, which leads the id to come to the surface and take control.
Freud attributed jealousy, particularly sexual jealousy, to the id. This primitive emotion emerges when the id perceives a threat to its source of gratification.
For instance, an individual might feel intensely jealous when their romantic partner spends time with an attractive friend.
The id, perceiving a threat to the relationship that provides it with emotional and physical pleasure, triggers feelings of jealousy.
Envy is another emotion associated with the id. The id doesn’t understand fairness or morality (that’s the domain of the superego). The id merely seeks what it desires.
For example, a person might envy a colleague who receives a promotion they were also vying for.
This envy stems from the id’s desire to possess the recognition and benefits associated with the promotion.
10. Addictive Behaviors
Freud noted that addiction could be understood as a manifestation of the id.
Addictive substances or behaviors provide immediate pleasure or relief, adhering to the id’s principle of immediate gratification.
For example, a person struggling with addiction might find it hard to resist the id’s urge for the immediate pleasure or relief a substance provides, despite understanding the long-term consequences.
Many of us have the ability to exercise our ego to direct these behaviors in a more socially appropriate (or personally healthy) manner, such as by exercising when we think we want a drink, or deciding not to have another drink and instead ordering a root beer.
11. Impulsive Actions
Actions taken on impulse, without considering the potential consequences, are heavily influenced by the id.
This component of the psyche seeks immediate gratification, often leading to hasty decisions.
For example, someone might impulsively decide to quit their job because of a minor disagreement with a colleague.
The id in this situation seeks immediate relief from the stressful situation, ignoring the financial implications and future employment prospects (Freud, 1915).
Teenagers, who haven’t fully developed their superego yet, are more prone to the id’s influence here (cognitive psychologists don’t use the term ‘superego’ but they similarly think self-control isn’t developed until the mid- to late- 20s.)
12. Reckless Behavior
The id’s pursuit of immediate pleasure can lead to reckless behavior, particularly when the ego and superego fail to regulate these urges effectively.
For instance, an individual may engage in high-risk activities like illegal street racing, driven by the adrenaline rush and excitement, ignoring the danger and illegality of the activity.
We can see, once more, that this sort of behavior is most common in teenagers, whose id continues to have stronger sway until the ego and superego develop more fully.
13. Excessive Consumption
Behaviors like overeating, overspending, or binge-watching television series often reflect the id’s demand for immediate satisfaction.
The id acts without regard for the potential long-term consequences, such as the fact you’re going to feel sick tomorrow if you eat so many nachos tonight!
A person might binge eat their favorite food, driven by the id’s desire for the immediate pleasure it brings, disregarding the potential negative impact on their health.
14. Violent Fantasies
The id’s influence isn’t limited to behavior; it also extends to our thoughts and fantasies.
Violent fantasies, even when not acted upon, can reflect the id’s aggressive drives.
For example, a person wronged by a colleague might fantasize about revenge scenarios.
These thoughts, which are rooted in the id’s aggressive instincts, tend to persist in many people throughout life, but their developed ego and superego keep them in check, preventing us from acting upon these unhealthy impulses.
Narcissistic behaviors, characterized by an excessive focus on oneself and disregard for others, can be understood as manifestations of the id.
Narcissism reflects the id’s self-centeredness, as it seeks to fulfill its own desires without consideration for others.
For example, a narcissistic person might constantly seek admiration and validation from others, driven by the id’s desire for self-gratification.
It might also choose to lie and swindle others with no regard for morality because it doesn’t have a healthy superego keeping it in check morally.
Id vs Ego vs Superego
The id, ego, and superego interact with one another to shape an individual’s behavior, thoughts, and feelings. Each is explained below:
- Id: The id is the most basic, primal part of the personality, present from birth. It operates on the pleasure principle, seeking immediate gratification for our wants and needs. The id is entirely unconscious and contains our most fundamental desires and drives, such as those related to hunger, sex, and aggression. It doesn’t consider reality or social appropriateness and only focuses on personal satisfaction.
- Ego: The ego develops from the id during infancy, and its role is to mediate between the demands of the id, reality, and the superego. The ego operates according to the reality principle, trying to satisfy the id’s impulses in a manner that is socially acceptable and realistic. The ego works both consciously and unconsciously and serves to rationalize the id’s demands and navigate the external world’s expectations.
- Superego: The superego emerges around the age of five and embodies societal rules and moral standards learned from parents and other significant figures. It works to control the id’s impulses that are deemed socially unacceptable and strives for perfection, operating on the morality principle. The superego is present in all three levels of consciousness: the conscious, preconscious, and unconscious.
Here’s a comparative table of all three:
|Function||Seeks pleasure||Mediates reality and desires||Imposes moral standards on behavior|
|Operates||Unconscious||Conscious, Preconscious, Unconscious||Conscious, Preconscious, Unconscious|
|Principles||Pleasure principle||Reality principle||Morality principle|
|Development||Present from birth||Develops during infancy and uses strategies such as sublimation||Develops around the age of five|
I would close with a critique – the concepts of id, ego, and superego tend to be less popular today, given the rising currency of cognitive psychology in psychology departments around the world. One obvious issue with the concept of the id is that it assumes sexual impulses exist from birth, ignoring the role of puberty in bringing-on human sexuality. Nevertheless, the three concepts of id, ego, and superego continue to be interesting to study, and are part of common discourse to talk about our impulses, ability to achieve self-control, and our moral compass, respectively.
Freud, S. (1920). Beyond the Pleasure Principle. The International Psychoanalytical Press.
Freud, S. (1923). 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.
Freud, S. (1933). New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. The Hogarth Press.
Kring, A. M., & Johnson, S. L. (2018). Abnormal psychology: The science and treatment of psychological disorders. John Wiley & Sons.
Marcuse, H. (1955). Eros and Civilization. Beacon Press.
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]