Freud's Life and Death Instincts

Theory proposes opposing urges to procreate or die

Freud believed people have life and death instincts
Image: Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Sigmund Freud’s theory of drives evolved throughout the course of his life and work. He initially described a class of drives known as the life instincts and believed that these drives were responsible for much of our behavior.

Eventually, he came to believe that life instincts alone could not explain all human behavior. With the publication of his book Beyond the Pleasure Principal in 1920, Freud concluded that all instincts fall into one of two major classes: life instincts or death instincts.

Life Instincts (Eros)

Sometimes referred to as sexual instincts, the life instincts are those which deal with basic survival, pleasure, and reproduction. These instincts are essential for sustaining the life of the individual as well as the continuation of the species. While we tend to think of life instincts in term of sexual procreation, these drives also include such things as thirst, hunger, and pain avoidance. The energy created by the life instincts is known as libido.

In his early psychoanalytic theory, Freud proposed that Eros was opposed by forces of the ego (the organized, realistic part of a person's psyche which mediates between desires). In this later views, he maintained that life instincts were opposed by the self-destructive death instincts, known as Thanatos.

Behaviors commonly associated with the life instincts include love, cooperation, and other ​prosocial actions.​

Death Instincts (Thanatos)

The concept of the death instincts was initially described in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, in which Freud proposed that “the goal of all life is death.” 

In support of his theory, Freud noted that people who experience a traumatic event would often reenact that experience. From this, he concluded that people hold an unconscious desire to die but that the life instincts largely temper this wish. Freud based his theory on a number of key experiences:

  • In working with soldiers after World War I, Freud observed that his subjects often re-enacted their battle experiences and noted that "dreams occurring in traumatic have the characteristic of repeatedly bringing the patient back into the situation of his accident."
  • Freud noted similar behavior in his 18-month-old grandson, Ernest, who played a game called Fort/Da whenever his mother was away. To deal with his anxiety, the toddler would toss out a spool tied to a string in his cot and say "fort" (meaning away) whenever the spool disappeared and say "da" (or here) whenever he reeled it in. Freud wondered how "repetition of this distressing experience as a game fit in with the pleasure principle?"
  • Finally, in his own patients, Freud noted that many who had repressed traumatic experiences had the tendency to "repeat the repressed material as a contemporary experience" rather than remembering it as something belonging to the past.

In Freud’s view, the compulsion to repeat was "something that would seem more primitive, more elementary, more instinctual than the pleasure principle which it overrides." He further proposed that the death instincts were an extension of that compulsion wherein all living organisms have an instinctive "pressure toward death" which stands in stark contrast to the instinct to survive, procreate, and satisfy desires.

Moreover, when this energy is directed outward toward others, Freud maintained, it is expressed as aggression and violence.

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Article Sources
  • Mitchell, S. and Black. M. (2016) Freud and Beyond: A History of Modern Psychoanalytic Thought (Updated Edition). New York, New York: Basic Books/Hachette Books; ISBN-13: 978-0465098811.