Freud's Theories of Life and Death Instincts

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 Principle in 1920, Freud concluded that all instincts fall into one of two major classes: life drives or death drives.

The life and death instincts in psychology
Illustration by JR Bee, Verywell

The Life Drive (Eros)

Sometimes referred to as sexual instincts, the life drives deal with basic survival, pleasure, and reproduction. These instincts or drives 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 terms 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 view, he maintained that life instincts were opposed by the self-destructive death instincts, known as Thanatos.

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

The life drives are focused on the preservation of life, both of the individual and of the species. This drive compels people to engage in actions that sustain their own lives, such as looking after their health and safety. It also exerts itself through sexual drives, motivating people to create and nurture new life. 

Positive emotions such as love, affection, prosocial actions, and social cooperation are also associated with the life drives. These behaviors support both individual well-being and the harmonious existence of a cooperative and healthy society.

The Death Drive (Thanatos)

Freud first introduced the concept of the death drive in his essay Beyond the Pleasure Principle. He theorized that the death drive is the drive toward death and destruction, famously declaring that “the aim of all life is death.”

Freud believed that people typically channel their death drive outwards and that it manifests as aggression toward others. This drive can also be directed inwards, however, which can result in self-harm or suicide.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Freud based this theory on various clinical observations. For instance, Freud noted that people who experience a traumatic event would often reenact that experience. For instance, while studying soldiers returning from World War I, Freud observed they had a tendency to repeat or re-enact their traumatic experiences in a way that took them back to the combat scene.

He noted similar behavior in his 18-month-old grandson, Ernst, who played a game called Fort/Da whenever his mother was away. To deal with his anxiety, his grandson would repeatedly toss away and retrieve a wooden reel with a piece of string tied around it. Freud wondered how "repetition of this distressing experience as a game fit in with the pleasure principle?"

From this, he concluded that people hold an unconscious desire to die but that life instincts largely temper this wish.

According to Freud, the death drive stands in stark contrast to the drive to survive, procreate, and satisfy desires.

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 drive was an extension of that compulsion wherein all living organisms have an instinctive "pressure toward death."

Current Opinions

As with much of Freud's work, there is controversy about the life and death drives. The death drive, in particular, is perhaps one of Freud's most controversial and complicated theories. First, there is no way to actually verify that these drives exist.

First, the death drive

The concept of the death drive is very abstract. This makes it difficult for many to accept difficult

there have been a number of critics who have questioned the very validity and even existence of repression.

A Word From Verywell

While Freud's theories are not as prominent as they once were, understanding how your own self-preservation and destructive tendencies influence your behavior can be helpful for your well-being. The life drive might compel you to seek healthy relationships and social support, which are essential for emotional health.

Destructive tendencies, on the other hand, might lead you to engage in actions that are less healthy, such as behaving aggressively or engaging in risky actions. Once you are able to recognize some of these tendencies in yourself, you might be better able to temper these drives and replace negative behaviors with more positive choices.

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2 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Capuzzi D, Stauffer MD. Counseling and Psychotherapy: Theories and Interventions. 6th ed. Amer Counseling Assn; 2016.

  2. Jones-Smith E. Theories of Counseling and Psychotherapy: An Integrative Approach. 3rd ed. SAGE Publications, Inc; 2020.

Additional Reading
  • Mitchell SA, Black MJ. Freud and Beyond: A History of Modern Psychoanalytic Thought. Updated edition. Basic Books; 2016.