Defining Freud’s Id, Ego, Superego and Other Theories

Sigmund Freud in his office
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Sigmund Freud's work and theories continue to leave a mark on psychology today. He is often described as one of the most influential thinkers in psychology history as well as one of the most controversial. While many of his theories have not stood the test of time, students continue to learn about his work and the influence that it had on psychology and current approaches to the study of human behavior.

In this study guide, explore some key questions about Freud and his psychoanalytic theories. Plus, you can learn important terms and definitions related to Freud's theories.

Components of the Mind

Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud divided the mind up into three components: the conscious, the preconscious, and the unconscious.

  • The conscious mind: This refers to everything within our awareness, such as our thoughts, feelings, and emotions.
  • The preconscious mind: Thoughts and feelings that are preconscious are not currently within our awareness (consciousness), but can be brought into awareness at any time.
  • The unconscious mind: This includes all the thoughts and feelings we are unaware of. But elements of the unconscious mind, according to Freud, can be revealed through things such as dreams and Freudian slips.

Iceberg Metaphor

Freud used an iceberg metaphor to describe the three components of personality; it's an easy way to remember these concepts. The top of the iceberg (the part you can see), is the conscious mind. The middle of the iceberg (partially submerged, but partially visible), is the preconscious. The bottom of the iceberg (completely submerged and not visible) is the unconscious.

The Id, Ego, and Superego and How They Interact

Freud posited that the id, ego, and superego make up personality and influence human thought and behavior.


The id is the part of the human psyche that strives to fulfill primal needs. Until the need is fulfilled, a person will be in a state of tension. For instance, an infant that is hungry will cry until it is fed. The id operates using the pleasure principle—in other words, it demands instant gratification.


The ego, according to Freud, is the part of the human psyche that operates in the real world, by what Freud called the reality principle. The ego's job is to moderate our impulses and desires until we can satisfy them during an appropriate time.

For instance, you might be on the way to a doctor's appointment when you suddenly become very hungry. While the id urges you to get food and fulfill your need right away, the ego mediates this desire with rational thoughts such as I need to be on time for this appointment, and I will get food when I leave the doctor's office. This is how the ego and the id interact.

The ego often responds to the id's urges with delayed gratification (instead of the instant gratification the id desires).

The purpose of the ego is to mediate among the demands of the id, the superego, and reality. Because of the conflict these three forces produce, ego anxiety can occur. In order to cope with this anxiety, the ego relies on defense mechanisms.


The superego urges us to conduct ourselves in a way that aligns with our internalized standards (i.e., what we've learned is "good" behavior from our parents and society).

Freud said that the superego is made up of the conscience and the ego ideal. Our conscience helps us determine "right" from "wrong," and the ego ideal aspires to the "good behavior" of our internalized standards.

Recap: Freud's Id, Ego, and Superego

The three parts of the personality are the id, the ego, and the superego.​

  • The id operates based on the pleasure principle.
  • The ego operates based on the reality principle.
  • The superego serves as the source of moral anxiety and contains both the ego ideal and the conscience.

Stages of Personality Development

Freud suggested that personality is the result of five stages of psychosexual development, which are: the oral stage (dominated by the id), the anal stage (the ego is formed), the phallic stage (the superego emerges), latency (a phase marked by sexual repression), and the genital stage (sexual feelings reemerge).

When a person becomes "stuck" at a certain stage of development, a fixation can result. As a result, the adult personality is marked by inadequacies that were never resolved during childhood.

During the phallic stage of development, the Oedipal complex and Electra complex generate anxiety. These complexes are marked by sexual feelings toward the opposite-sex parent. In order to resolve this anxiety, children then identify with their same-sex parent.

Recap: Psychosexual Development

Freud theorized that there are five stages of psychosexual development that contribute to personality. The stages are:

  1. Oral stage: Birth to 1 year
  2. Anal stage: 1 to 3 years old
  3. Phallic stage: 3 to 6 years old
  4. Latent stage: 6 years old to puberty
  5. Genital stage: Puberty and on

The Neo-Freudians and How Their Theories Differ from Freud's

The neo-Freudians are psychologists whose theories aligned with some of Freud's psychoanalytic theory, but their thinking was different from Freud's in some fundamental ways. The major neo-Freudians are Karen Horney, Alfred Adler, Erik Erikson, and Carl Jung.

Freud emphasized that childhood experiences are the most influential factors in creating adult personality and behavior. However, the neo-Freudians tended to disagree, stating that environmental factors (such as cultural influences) play important roles in shaping personality, too.

Karen Horney

Freud developed the theory of penis envy, which described how women were jealous of men's genitals. Many found this theory sexist, and neo-Freudian Karen Horney came up with the theory of womb envy, stating that instead, men were jealous of women's wombs and life-giving abilities.

Alfred Adler

While Freud believed that sex was the primary motivation behind human behavior, neo-Freudian Alfred Adler disagreed. He believed that the behavior of adults was motivated by feelings of inadequacy they experienced during childhood.

Erik Erikson

Erik Erikson developed a theory of development based on psychosocial development (which emphasizes that our relationships impact our sense of self), whereas Freud focused his theory of development based on psychosexual development.

Erikson believed that the personality continually develops throughout adulthood, whereas Freud believed that adult personality was shaped solely by childhood experiences.

According to Erikson, each person experiences a challenge during each stage of development. His stages are labeled with the names of each one's "conflict." They are:

Carl Jung

One of the most famous examples of Jung's work is a concept known as the collective unconscious.

Unlike Freud, who believed that the unconscious was individual and influenced by childhood experiences, Jung believed that the unconscious is universal and shared among human beings.

Humans, according to Jung "inherit" experiences from their ancestors, and this manifests in archetypes, mythology, religion, and dreams.

Recap: The Neo-Freudians vs. Freud

  • The neo-Freudians included Karen Horney, Alfred Adler, Erik Erikson, and Carl Jung.
  • Horney rejected Freud's notion of penis envy and presented her own theory, womb envy.
  • Adler theorized that feelings of inferiority were the driving force behind human behavior.
  • Erikson created a theory of development that spanned the whole lifespan and that centered on social relationships.
  • Carl Jung developed the theory of the collective unconscious. He believed the unconscious is universal and shared.

Freudian Terms You Should Know

Before you take that important exam in your personality psychology class, there are a number of terms related to Freud and psychoanalysis that you should understand. Some of the major ones include:

  • Conscious mind: The thoughts, feelings, and emotions, that are part of our awareness
  • Preconscious: The thoughts, feelings, and emotions that are not part of our awareness, but could come into awareness at any time
  • Unconscious mind: The thoughts, feelings, and emotions that are not part of our awareness, but influence behavior and may appear in dreams
  • Id: The part of the psyche that is present from birth and informs our primitive needs and desires
  • Ego: The part of the psyche that moderates desires of the id and the superego; the ego deals with "real life"
  • Superego: The part of the psyche that aspires to goodness as we've learned it through our parents and society
  • Libido: Part of psychoanalytic theory; the "life instinct" or "sexual instinct" that provides energy for human activity
  • Pleasure principle: The concept by which the id operates—craving fulfillment of its desires, or instant gratification
  • Reality principle: The concept by which the ego operates—moderating the id's desire for instant gratification to conform to real-life situations
  • Primary process: Unconscious thoughts that are uninhibited by logic; one example is magical thinking
  • Secondary process: Conscious thoughts that appease external and internal demands at the same time; includes problem solving and planning
  • Ego ideal: Part of the superego; aspires to ideas of goodness taught by our parents and society (i.e., honesty, loyalty, etc.)
  • Conscience: Part of the superego; acts as a judge of our actions and what's "right" and "wrong"
  • Freudian slip: When a belief or feeling in the unconscious reveals itself through speaking, writing, or performing a behavior; reveals someone's "true wishes or feelings"

Frequently Asked Questions

  • When were the terms id, ego, and superego first used?

    Freud came up with the concepts of the id, ego, and superego in 1923.

  • Have any of Freud’s theories been proven false?

    Many of Freud's theories were controversial and aren't considered to have sufficient evidence to prove them accurate. For instance, Freud's theory of psychosexual development has been refuted; other psychologists note that there are motivations behind human behavior aside from sexual impulses. In addition, Freud's theories about hysteria and penis envy are viewed as particularly sexist .

  • What is the difference between Sigmund Freud and the neo-Freudians?

    Freud believed that sex motivated human behavior, whereas the neo-Freudians believed there were other strong motivators, including (as Alfred Adler posited) overcompensating for inadequacy. Freud emphasized childhood experiences as the central influence of adult personality, but the neo-Freudians realized that cultural, social, and other environmental influences play a role.

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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.
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By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.