Pleasure Principle (Freud): Definition and Examples

pleasure principle by freud overview, explained below

The Pleasure Principle, as defined by renowned psychologist Sigmund Freud, is the instinctual pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain to fulfill biological and psychological needs (Sayers, 2020).

At the heart of Freudian psychoanalysis, this concept forms the bedrock of many of our understanding of human behavior and motivations.

Born in 1856, Sigmund Freud is hailed as the father of psychoanalysis, a field that has significantly shaped psychology and psychiatry. The Pleasure Principle, a central pillar of his theories, remains a pertinent psychological principle explored both in academic research and in understanding everyday actions.

By navigating through Freud’s Pleasure Principle, we set out on a journey to understand ourselves better, shedding light on our innate desires and how they contrast with the demands of reality. This exploration promises to provide insights into human behavior, decision-making, and the ongoing debate between instant gratification and long-term satisfaction.

chrisComprehension Questions: As you read through this article, I will pose comprehension and critical thinking questions to help you get the most out of this article. Teachers, if you assign this article for homework, have the students answer these questions at home, then use them as stimuli for in-class discussion.

Freud’s Pleasure Principle: Definition

According to Freud’s theory of personality, the pleasure principle revolves around the pursuit of satisfaction.

This is an instinctive drive in humans to seek pleasure and evade any form of discomfort or pain. Freud believed that this driving force forms the fabric of our most primal urges (Renkins, 2017). Our primary desire, according to Freud, is to create an equilibrium by satisfying these cravings, thereby establishing a state of comfort and contentment.

According to this central Freudian concept, from the moment of birth, we strive to fulfill our desires and avoid uncomfortable situations (Johnson, 2020). For instance, a newborn will cry when hungry (an uncomfortable situation), expressing a desire for food (a satisfying situation). As we mature, our desires become more complex, extending beyond basic survival needs to include more abstract desires such as love, power, and success.

However, this pursuit of pleasure doesn’t exist in isolation. Freud depicted it as one half of a dichotomy, counterbalanced by the Reality Principle (Freud and Strachey, 1955) – playing with this tension is central to much of Freud’s psychoanalytic theory. We will dive deeper into this crucial contrast in the next section.

The Pleasure Principle vs The Reality Principle

An integral part of Freud’s psychoanalytic theory, the Reality Principle serves as a counterpoint to the Pleasure Principle.

While the Pleasure Principle propels us towards immediate gratification, the Reality Principle, on the other hand, compels us to consider the constraints and consequences of reality (Sayers, 2020).

Under the Reality Principle, actions are guided by prudence and caution (Johnson, 2020). For instance, while you might desire to quit your job and travel the world (Pleasure Principle), the need to pay bills and maintain financial stability (Reality Principle) will likely prevent you from doing so.

Consequently, when these two principles are at odds, you experience what Freud described as inner conflict. This tug of war between the yearning for instant satisfaction driven by the Pleasure Principle and the sensible delay of gratification necessitated by the Reality Principle manifests itself often in our daily decision-making processes.

Parsing this complex interaction, Freud posited that our minds have sophisticated mechanisms to mediate this conflict. A deeper understanding of these mechanisms calls for a close look at the three essential components of the Freudian mind– the Id, the Ego, and the Superego.

Comparative FeaturesThe Pleasure PrincipleThe Reality Principle
Psychological functionSeeks immediate gratification of desires and needs (Renkins, 2017)Grasps the reality of the external world and adjust desires and needs accordingly (Samuels, 2019)
Association with Freud’s structural Model of the psychePrimarily related to the Id – our primitive and instinctual aspectAssociated with the Ego – which mediates between the Id, Superego and reality (Freud & Strachey, 1955)
Impact on behaviorCan lead to impulsive, irrational behaviorsFosters rational and pragmatic behaviors (Johnson, 2020)
Stage of dominance in personal developmentDominant in early childhoodDevelops and gets robust over time as the individual learns to navigate societal rules (Crews, 2017)
Temporal aspect of satisfactionAchieves temporary relief, but can lead to long-term dissatisfaction if uncheckedAlthough it delays immediate pleasure, it helps achieve long-term satisfaction and actualisation (Renkins, 2017)

The Pleasure Principle Rules the Id (and is Counterbalanced by the Ego)

To understand the Pleasure Principle fully, we need to know Freud’s iconic tripartite model of the human mind: the Id, Ego, and Superego (Sayers, 2020).

In essence, the pleasure principle rules the Id, the reality principle rules the ego, and the perfection principle rules the superego. Let’s take them one by one:

  • The Id: The Id is the primal part of the brain that operates solely on instinct. This unorganized component contains the most basic drives and is entirely subconscious. Here lies the cradle of the Pleasure Principle. The Id, ruled by this principle, seeks immediate gratification without cogitation of consequences (Freud & Strachey, 1955).
  • The Ego: The ego is the measured negotiator. The Ego, unlike the Id, contemplates the consequences and the logistics of satisfying the urges produced by the Id. It operates on the Reality Principle and endeavors to satisfy the Id’s demands in realistic and socially acceptable ways (Renkins, 2017). Take, for example, a situation where you feel an intense craving for ice cream late at night. Your Id simply wants to satisfy this desire, but your Ego reminds you of the local grocery store’s operating hours and your dietary restrictions – and negotiates an acceptable compromise.
  • The Superego: Last is the Superego, the moral compass. The Superego operates on ideals rather than principles. It embodies societal regulations and personal morals and plays a hand in guiding behavior towards a morally and socially acceptable path (Samuels, 2019). If we revisit the ice cream situation, the Superego’s intervention might result from the perspective of health consciousness rooted in societal norms around wellness.

Overall, the Pleasure Principle, in collaboration with the Reality Principle, weaves an intricate web within which the Id, Ego, and Superego coexist and interact, guiding behavior and decision-making within the mind’s complex confines. Understanding this interplay allows for a deeper comprehension of ourselves and our often-conflicting motivations.

Freudian ComponentDefinitionRuling Principle
IdThe Id is the primitive, instinctive component of personality that operates at the unconscious level. It encompasses all of the innate components of personality present at birth, including the sex (life) instinct, Eros, and the aggressive (death) instinct, Thanatos (Freud & Strachey, 1955).The Pleasure Principle: The Id seeks immediate gratification of all desires, wants, and needs. If these needs are not satisfied immediately, the result is a state anxiety or tension (Renkins, 2017).
EgoThe Ego is the component of personality that is responsible for dealing with reality. It evolves as we interact with the world and learn that we must bear with frustration, delay, and occasional dissatisfaction (Crews, 2017).The Reality Principle: The Ego, acting according to this principle, seeks to please the Id’s drive in realistic ways that will benefit in the long term, rather than bringing about harm (Sayers, 2020).
SuperegoThe Superego is the component of personality composed of the internalized ideals we have gained from our interaction with parents and society. It strives for perfection and communicates its standards of judgment — the conscience (Samuels, 2019).The Perfection Principle: The Superego seeks to live up to moral standards, incorporating societal and parental norms, and tries to suppress the urges of the Id that are considered wrong or socially unacceptable (Johnson, 2020).
chrisComprehension Checkpoint: Can you briefly describe the difference between the Pleasure Principle and the Reality Principle? How does this dichotomy influence the operations of the Id, Ego, and Superego?

Pleasure Principle Examples

**The Pleasure Principle is not merely an academic concept. It has tangible implications in our real-world, influencing everything from our interpersonal relationships, decision-making, lifestyle choices, to our understanding of self (Robinson et al., 2021). **

Below are a few concrete examples.

1. Children’s Impulsiveness

Consider children, notoriously known for their yearning for immediate gratification. A child, dominated by the Pleasure Principle, may insist on having a candy right before dinner. The candy represents the id’s desire for instant pleasure. However, the parent, embodying the child’s external reality, would likely step in, reminding the child of the upcoming mealtime (Robinson et al., 2021) – a clear interplay between the Pleasure and Reality Principles.

2. Addiction

Addiction is another stark example of the Pleasure Principle at work. Addictive behaviors, whether towards substances or activities (for instance, excessive gaming or compulsive shopping), represent the continual pursuit of pleasure or relief from discomfort (Robinson et al., 2021). People with addiction, much like the Freudian id, may pursue short-lived pleasure despite the serious long-term consequences – underscoring the ongoing tension between immediate gratification (Pleasure Principle) and consequential reality (Reality Principle).

3. Decision-Making

Decision-making, particularly regarding significant life choices like career paths or financial investments, is also heavily influenced by the Pleasure Principle. While one might experience a desire to invest in risky stocks for potentially high returns (immediate pleasure), a careful consideration of possible financial loss frames the Reality Principle in action (Freud & Strachey, 1955).

These real-life examples highlight how the Pleasure Principle pervades our daily lives, shaping our decisions, guiding our behaviors, and playing a significant role in defining who we are. Understanding its operation provides a valuable lens into the internal motivational currents driving us.

chrisComprehension Checkpoint: Why is the Pleasure Principle not limited to theory but relevant to our daily lives? Provide two additional real-world example that illustrates the operation of the Pleasure Principle. Be prepared to share your two examples in class.

Critiques and Limitations of the Pleasure Principle

Despite the fascinating insights Freud’s Pleasure Principle offers, it remains a matter of contention.

Some psychologists and scientists have argued against Freud’s Pleasure Principle. These critics often point out that the principle may oversimplify human nature. Many human behaviors and motivations don’t neatly fit within the binary frame of seeking pleasure and avoiding pain (Crews, 2017).

For instance, consider altruistic behaviors displayed by people, like a firefighter saving others from a burning building or a donor contributing to charity. These actions often involve personal sacrifice and bring no immediate pleasure, challenging the Pleasure Principle’s fundamental premise (Johnson, 2020).

Moreover, modern psychology emphasizes the role of cognitive processes, like learning and memory, that play significant roles in behavior. These perspectives argue that there are instances where we might seek pain as a form of pleasure or choose pain to achieve a greater or longer-term pleasure, complicating the Pleasure Principle’s outlook (Samuels, 2019).

Finally, many contemporary psychologists maintain that Freud’s theories, including the Pleasure Principle, tend to lack empirical evidence and can be challenging to scientifically verify. This limitation has stirred a broader debate about the Pleasure Principle’s relevance in today’s complex understanding of human behavior and motivation (Crews, 2017).

CritiquesExamples and explanations
Over-simplified human natureMany human behaviors and motivations don’t neatly fit within the binaries of seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. Altruistic behaviors and acts of selflessness are good examples (Crews, 2017).
Lack of consideration for cognitive processesCognitive processes, such as learning and memory, also significantly influence human behavior, which Freud largely overlooked (Samuels, 2019).
Lack of empirical evidenceMuch of Freud’s work, including the Pleasure Principle, has been criticized for lacking empirical evidence and being challenging to scientifically verify or falsify (Johnson, 2020).

Despite these critiques, the Pleasure Principle continues to lead discussions within psychology and psychoanalysis, serving as a conceptual cornerstone enabling us to dig deeper into human motivations and behaviors. Its influence extends beyond itself, paving avenues for novel theories and perspectives.

chrisComprehension Checkpoint: Of the above limitations and criticisms of Freud’s Pleasure Principle, rank them from most to least convincing. Explain why you find each one convincing or unconvincing.

Beyond Freud: Modern Adaptations and Related Theories

While Freud’s Pleasure Principle has faced critique, it has undeniably left a lasting legacy on the fields of psychology and psychoanalysis.

This legacy is evident in the plethora of theories and concepts that have evolved from or were inspired by the Pleasure Principle. From the Hedonic Treadmill, which suggests humans maintain a relatively stable level of happiness despite changes in fortune or achievements (positive or negative), to Positive Psychology’s emphasis on maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain to promote happiness, it’s clear the Pleasure Principle’s influence stretches far and wide (Robinson et al., 2021).

Moreover, the Pleasure Principle’s concept has found a foothold in the burgeoning field of neuroscience, particularly in studying the dopamine system’s role. Scientists have linked this neurotransmitter to pleasure and the brain’s reward system. This biological underpinning of pleasure-seeking behavior signals an exciting fusion of Freudian thought with modern neuroscience (Sayers, 2020).

Renewed interest in dreams and their interpretation, a subject Freud extensively explored in tandem with the Pleasure Principle, also underscores its persistent relevance. Rapid advancements in neuroimaging techniques have revisited and revitalized debates around whether our dreams do indeed fulfill unrealized desires, as Freud had purported (Samuels, 2019).

In sum, Freud’s Pleasure Principle, despite its limitations, continues to foster new ideas, inspire fresh perspectives, and enrich our understanding of human behavior.

Modern Adaptations and Related TheoriesBrief Descriptions
Hedonic TreadmillThis concept suggests that humans maintain a constant level of happiness over time, despite changes in fortune or achievements positive or negative (Robinson et al., 2021).
Positive PsychologyAn offshoot of psychology that emphasizes positive experiences, including subjective experiences like joy and ecstasy. It shares the Pleasure Principle’s approach to maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain (Johnson, 2020).
Dopamine and the Neuroscience of PleasureRecent studies in neuroscience have linked dopamine to the sensation of pleasure and a key player in the brain’s reward system—highlighting a biological underpinning to Freud’s Pleasure Principle (Sayers, 2020).
Neuroscientific Studies of DreamsAdvances in neuroimaging techniques have allowed for new studies on dreams, their origin, and function—tying back to Freud’s theory of dreams acting as fulfillers of unrealized desires (Samuels, 2019).
chrisComprehension Checkpoint: With the benefit of neuroscience, we have a more sophisticated understanding of the pleasure principle. How does neuroscience explain our drive for pleasure? Does neuroscience support or challenge, build upon or replace, Freud’s theory of the pleasure principle?


Freud’s Pleasure Principle, over a century old, remains a pivotal framework for understanding the motivations driving human behavior.

Despite criticisms and limitations, its influence permeates a wide range of fields from psychology to neuroscience, grounding our understanding of the profound dichotomy between pleasure and reality that plays out in our minds. It has paved the path for numerous theories and concepts, contributing to the richness and diversity of perspectives within psychoanalysis.

From the impulsive desires of a child to the struggle with addiction, from the altruistic sacrifice to the conscientious investor, the Pleasure Principle offers a lens through which we can begin to decode the complex motivations underpinning these wide-ranging behaviors.

However, the Pleasure Principle warrants careful consideration, especially in light of evolving psychological views and emerging research methodologies (Johnson, 2020). But regardless of its validity, granting immediate desires or postponing them for long-term gains echoes everywhere in our lives—meaning its exploration continues to be a deeply worthwhile endeavor.

By delving into Freud’s Pleasure Principle, we don’t just gain a deeper understanding of Freudian psychoanalytic theories. It also prompts us to think about our own decisions, desires, and motivations. Are our behaviors guided by an instinctive drive for pleasure? Or, have we mastered the Reality Principle, skillfully negotiating immediate gratification for more considerable, long-term rewards? And most importantly, how do we strike a balance that allows us to navigate life effectively?

The Pleasure Principle implores us to ponder over these questions, enabling us to understand ourselves better and navigate the complex world of human behavior. And it is this journey towards understanding, more than the destination, that remains its greatest contribution.


Crews, F. (2017). Freud: The making of an illusion. New York: Profile Books.

Freud, S., & Strachey, J. (1955). Beyond the pleasure principle (Vol. 18, pp. 3-64). London: Hogarth press.

Johnson, B. (2020). Pleasure principle. Encyclopedia of personality and individual differences, 3952-3954. doi:

Renkins, J. (2017). Freud’s Theory for Beginners: About Dreams, Psychosexual Stages, Id, Ego and Superego. United Kingdom: Lulu.

Robinson, M. D., Klein, R. J., Irvin, R. L., & McGregor, A. Z. (2021). Attention to emotion and reliance on feelings in decision-making: Variations on a pleasure principle. Cognition217, 104904. doi:

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:

Sayers, J. (2020). Sigmund Freud: the basics. London: Routledge.

Website | + posts

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]

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *