Reality Principle (Freud): Definition and Examples

reality principle by freud, explained below

The Reality Principle by Sigmund Freud refers to the concept that human behavior is guided by the demands and expectations of the external world, often at the expense of individual pleasure or desire.

Freud (1856–1939), an Austrian neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, left a significant impact on the field of psychology through his theories and principles (Sayers, 2020).

Among his many contributions, the Reality Principle stands out for its influence on shaping our understanding of human cognition and behavior.

The reality principle was presented by Freud as the driver behind the Ego, acting as a counterbalance to the pleasure principle, which underpinned the Id.

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 Reality Principle: Definition

In simple terms, the Reality Principle is about being practical.

Given our primal urges and desires, dictated by the “id” (another of Freud’s fundamental constructs), we could easily find ourselves slipping into behaviours that our society deems unacceptable. To ensure harmonious living within a social structure, an individual must learn to cope with these urges, and consequently, the Reality Principle comes into play (Freud & Strachey, 1955).

The Reality Principle allows us to take actionable steps, not based on immediate gratification (as propounded by the Pleasure Principle), but on a greater understanding of the environmental demands and norms (Civitarese, 2018). For instance, a toddler might want to grab a toy off a store shelf (drive of the id – the Pleasure Principle), but the parents would deter the child, teaching them about property rights and the need to make a purchase (enforcing the Reality Principle).

In essence, the Reality Principle serves as the governing force directing us to fulfill our needs and desires realistically and socially acceptably. This principle acts as a bridge between our innate desires (Id) and our moral compass and societal norms (Superego).

The Reality Principle vs The Pleasure Principle

According to Freud’s theory of personality, the reality principle and the pleasure principle represent two contrasting forces within us.

The pleasure principle, associated with the Id’s workings, seeks immediate fulfillment of need without considering the consequences – a direct reflection of our primal instincts (Freud & Strachey, 1955). Suppose you’re on a diet, and you see a piece of cake. The Id, guided by the Pleasure Principle, would urge you to devour it without further ado.

However, the Reality Principle comes in to counter these primal urges. It links to the Ego and helps conform to societal norms, thus delaying gratification and ensuring actions are grounded in practicality, rather than mere pleasure-seeking (Gaude, 2021). Taking the cake scenario again, the Ego, under the Reality Principle’s influence, would resist the temptation considering the diet you’re on.

In this sense, while the Pleasure Principle is about immediate gains, the Reality Principle is about long-term, sustainable benefits, working within the confines of what is socially acceptable and practically feasible. The interplay between these principles forms a significant part of Freud’s psychodynamic theory and explains the decision-making and behavioral patterns of individuals.

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)
chrisComprehension Checkpoint: Based on the above discussion, how does Freud’s Reality Principle shape human behavior in conjunction with the Pleasure Principle? Can you provide an example displaying this interaction within a practical real-world scenario?

The Reaity Principle Rules the Ego (and Counterbalances the Id)

Freud conceived human mind as comprising three entities: the Id, Ego, and Superego.

  • The Id, operating on the Pleasure Principle, is entirely unconscious and incorporates all our innate biological drives (Renkins, 2017). For example, when a baby cries for milk regardless of the time, place, or situation, they’re being driven by the Id.
  • The Ego, representing the conscious and preconscious mind, works according to the Reality Principle (Freud & Strachey, 1955). It attempts to gratify the Id’s impulses in a long-term, realistic, and socially acceptable manner. For instance, your Ego would influence you to save money from each paycheck for a desired vacation (Reality Principle) rather than impulsively spending your money on attractive but nonessential items (Pleasure Principle).
  • The Superego, on the other hand, is traditionally associated with morality and societal norms, reflecting the perfection principle. It’s our inner critique and moral compass that restrains both the Ego and the Id (Renkins, 2017). For example, it’s the Superego that might stop you from breaking the traffic signal even when no traffic police are around to enforce the rule – the moral imperative prevails.

Together, these three components interact dynamically to shape our personalities and guide our behaviors. We are constantly trying to balance the demands of the Id (instinctual desires), the Ego (reality), and the Superego (morality).

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: How could the reality and perfection principles work together? How might they clash with one another?

Examples of the Reality Principle at Work

The Reality Principle influences human behaviour in innumerable ways.

Here are three examples.

1. Persistence when Studying

First, consider the classic examples of college students preparing for their final exams (Freud & Strachey, 1955). The Id’s pleasure-seeking instincts could prompt them to indulge in binge-watching their favorite series – an immediate gratification. However, the Ego, under the guidance of the Reality Principle, would resist this temptation in order to focus on their studies, knowing that performing well on exams is essential for their future.

2. Keeping to a Budget

Second, let’s reflect on our buying behaviors (Renkins, 2017). The urge to impulse spend is strong, given the hoard of attractive products and advertisements we encounter daily. This is the Id’s pleasure-seeking tendency at play. However, the Reality Principle, via the medium of the Ego, encourages us to buy within our means and save for the future.

3. Socially Acceptable Behavior

Finally, think about social etiquette and norms (Gaude, 2021). A common example: we might all, at times, want to verbalize our anger and frustration directly to someone’s face. Doing so might bring immediate pleasure (Id’s influence), but the Reality Principle (Ego’s governance) would nudge us to re-communicate these feelings in a more polite, tactful way, considering social norms and the person’s feelings.

Through these examples, the Reality Principle’s significance becomes evident, facilitating our navigation through life’s challenges and societal expectations.

chrisComprehension Checkpoint: Come up with three more examples of the reality principle in action. Bring these examples to class and be ready to share them with your peers.

Critiques and Limitations of the Reality Principle

Like any theory, the Reality Principle has its fair share of debates and criticisms.

One of the primary criticisms stems from the other branches of psychology that place less emphasis on the unconscious mind and more on observable, quantifiable behaviours (Crews, 2017). Behaviourists, for example, argue that behaviours are learnt responses to stimuli, reducing the need for inner determinants like the reality or pleasure principles (Crews, 2017). A computer typist doesn’t avoid mistakes because of an internal desire to do well (Reality Principle) but because of consciously learned rules and possible repercussions of errors.

Furthermore, Humanistic psychologists like Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow felt Freud’s theories were too deterministic and dismissed the role of personal agency and self-directed growth (Crews, 2017). They leaned in favor of self-actualization and individual potential more than innate instincts or societal pressures, framing a different perspective on decision-making processes. [For example, someone may choose to pursue art due to a genuine love for creativity, not because it satisfies some primal drive (Pleasure Principle) or because society approves of it (Reality Principle)](Crews, 2017).

From a contemporary standpoint, while Freud’s Reality Principle is often acknowledged for its application in explaining the struggle between desires and social norms, it might seem overly simplistic in today’s complex psychological terrain (Gaude, 2021). Human behavior, influenced by a plethora of genetic, biological, psychological, and socio-cultural factors, may not be entirely encapsulated by Freud’s Reality Principle. As the field evolves, the principle’s relevance may need continual review and adaptation.

Critique SourceDescription of CriticismExample
Behaviourist Psychology (Crews, 2017)Human behaviors are less about unconscious desires and socio-cultural pressures and more about learnt responses to environmental stimuli.A trained computer typist avoids errors not because of internal desires (Reality Principle) but because of consciously memorized rules and possible consequences of mistakes.
Humanistic Psychology (Crews, 2017)Freud’s theories dismiss the role of personal agency, self-directed growth, and self-actualization.One may pursue art not because it satisfies primal drives (Pleasure Principle) or because society approves (Reality Principle), but due to a genuine love for creativity.
Contemporary Psychology (Gaude, 2021)Freud’s Reality Principle, while helpful in explaining certain human behaviors, may be an oversimplification in the face of more complex, contemporary psychological understanding.Current day psychologists recognize the role of a wide range of factors including genetics, biology, individual psychology, cultural and societal values, all contributing in various degrees to human behavior.
chrisComprehension Checkpoint: In what way have the critiques of Freud’s Reality Principle contributed to the evolution of psychology as a science? Can you detail your thoughts on how the principle could be re-interpreted or updated according to these criticisms?

Beyond Freud: Modern Adaptations and Related Theories

Freud’s theories, including the Reality Principle, have significantly influenced the evolution of psychology over the last century (Samuels & Samuels, 2020).

Post-Freudian theorists like Erik Erikson, Anna Freud, and Heinz Hartmann expanded and refined Freud’s original concepts. Erikson, for instance, proposed an eight-stage theory of psychosocial development, incorporating societal and cultural influences more substantially than Freud (Samuels & Samuels, 2020). For Erikson, the Id-Ego-Superego segmentation was not enough; he argued for more dimensions to capture the diverse individual encounters and experiences (like the struggle between autonomy and guilt in his stage of industry vs. inferiority).

Various cognitive-behavioral therapies today also incorporate elements of the Reality Principle. Cognitive restructuring, a standard therapeutic technique, encourages clients to replace irrational thoughts with more realistic ones – echoing the balance the Ego needs to strike under the Reality Principle’s guidance (Samuels & Samuels, 2019).

Moreover, theories of motivation and self-regulation incorporate aspects of the Reality Principle. Behavioral economist Dan Ariely’s work on irrational decision making, for example, suggests that while we are influenced by impulsive, pleasure-seeking tendencies (reflecting the Pleasure Principle), our behaviors regularly exhibit rationality and restraint (equating to the Reality Principle) (Samuels & Samuels, 2020).

Freud’s principles have indeed found resonance in modern psychology, albeit in adapted forms, as psychology continues to grow and integrate diverse perspectives and dimensions of the human mind.

Adaptation SourceDescription of The AdaptationExample
Post-Freudian theorists (Samuels & Samuels, 2020)Expanded and refined Freud’s principles by incorporating societal and cultural influences in a more substantial way.Erik Erikson proposed an eight-stage theory of psychosocial development, adding dimensions such as cultural experiences and societal influences.
Cognitive-behavioral therapies (Samuels & Samuels, 2019)Therapies incorporate elements of the Reality Principle to encourage clients to replace irrational thoughts with more realistic ones.“Cognitive restructuring,” a technique used in CBT, reflects the balance struck by the Ego under the Reality Principle.
Theories of motivation and self-regulation (Samuels & Samuels, 2020)Reflect elements of the Reality Principle in understanding how individuals restrain impulsive, pleasure-seeking tendencies to exhibit rational behavior.Behavioural economist Dan Ariely’s work on irrational decision-making discusses how our behaviors exhibit both impulsive tendencies (Pleasure Principle) and rational restrictions (Reality Principle).
chrisComprehension Checkpoint: How have post-Freudian theorists leveraged Freud’s reality principle in their theories? Have these theorists build upon, or rendered redundant, the reality principle?


Drawing on Freud’s Reality Principle gives us a path into the complex interactions of our unconscious, desires, values and social demands.

Freud’s contribution through the Reality Principle, a concept that continues to shape our understanding of human behavior and decision-making, reflects the thoughtful and detailed views of his time (Civitarese, 2018). Serving as the foundation for numerous psychoanalytic theories, its value and significance cannot be underestimated.

On the other hand, it is the task of evolution and progress to adapt and build upon these premises (Samuels & Samuels, 2020). While some post-Freudian theorists extended his theories, others diverged, exploring new paradigms and rendering psychological understanding more comprehensive and nuanced.

Critiques do exist, as with any theoretical postulate (Crews, 2017). Various fields in psychology continue to provide alternative viewpoints on human behavior. Yet, the relevance of Freud’s perspective, the wrestle between id’s desire for immediate gratification (Pleasure Principle) and ego’s advocacy for a realistic, long-term well-being (Reality Principle), remains undeniable.

To summarize, Freud’s Reality Principle offers an enduring lens through which to examine human behavior. Its applications, interpretations, and limitations underscore the dynamic and evolving nature of psychology. The readers are encouraged to reflect on their personal decisions, behaviors, and the intricate balance between desire, reality checks, and societal norms. Are we not all, after all, jugglers in the circus of life, trying to keep the Id, Ego, and Superego in harmony?

chrisComprehension Checkpoint: Reflecting upon the article, how would you propose that the reality principle can be operationalized in everyday decision-making? Come up with an example of how the competing interests of Id, Ego, and Superego have affected you in a real-life personal situation.


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.

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

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

Gaude, U. (2021). The Relevance of Freud in the Modern World. Journal of Clinical & Diagnostic Research, 15(8).

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

Samuels, R., & Samuels, R. (2019). Science and the reality principle. Freud for the Twenty-First Century: The Science of Everyday Life, 5-16.

Samuels, R., & Samuels, R. (2020). Logos, global justice, and the reality principle. Zizek and the Rhetorical Unconscious: Global Politics, Philosophy, and Subjectivity, 65-86.

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

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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]

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