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

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

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 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 instincts 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 instincts. These behaviors support both individual well-being and the harmonious existence of a cooperative and healthy society.

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.” Freud believed that people typically channel their death instincts outwards. Aggression, for example, arises from the death instincts.

Sometimes these instincts towards destruction can 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.

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, Ernst, 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" that 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.

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 instincts 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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Article Sources
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  1. Capuzzi D, Stauffer MD. Counseling and Psychotherapy: Theories and Interventions. Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association; 2016.

  2. Jones-Smith E. Theories of Counseling and Psychotherapy: an Integrative Approach. Los Angeles: SAGE; 2021.

Additional Reading
  • 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.