Ego as the Rational Part of Personality

Conceptualizing the ego
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According to Sigmund Freud, the ego is part of personality that mediates the demands of the id, the superego, and reality. Freud described the id as the most basic part of personality that urges people to fulfill their most primal needs. The superego, on the other hand, is the moralistic part of personality that forms later in childhood as a result of upbringing and social influences. It is the ego's job to strike a balance between these two often competing for forces and to make sure that fulfilling the needs of the id and superego conforms to the demands of reality.

A Closer Look at the Ego

The ego prevents us from acting on our basic urges (created by the id) but also works to achieve a balance with our moral and idealistic standards (created by the superego). While the ego operates in both the preconscious and conscious, its strong ties to the id means that it also operates in the unconscious.

The ego operates based on the reality principle, which works to satisfy the id's desires in a manner that is realistic and socially appropriate. For example, if a person cuts you off in traffic, the ego prevents you from chasing down the car and physically attacking the offending driver. The ego allows us to see that this response would be socially unacceptable, but it also allows us to know that there are other more appropriate means of venting our frustration.

Freud's Observations on the Ego

In his 1933 book New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, Freud compared the relationship between the id and the ego to that of a horse and rider. The horse represents the id, a powerful force that offers the energy to propel forward motion. The rider represents the ego, the guiding force that directs the power of the id toward a goal.

Freud noted, however, that this relationship did not always go as planned. In less ideal situations, a rider may find himself simply along for the ride as he allows his horse to go in the direction the animal wants to go.

Just as a rider may not always be able to control a horse, the id's primal urges may sometimes be too powerful for the ego to keep in check.

In her own 1936 book The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense, Anna Freud that all of the ego's defenses against the id were carried out behind the scenes. These measures against the id are known as the defense mechanisms, which are carried out silently and invisibly by the ego.

While we cannot observe the defenses in action, Anna Freud suggested that they could be observed in retrospect. Repression is one example. When something is repressed from awareness, the ego is not aware that the information is missing. It is only later when it becomes obvious that some piece of information or memory is gone, that the actions of the ego become apparent.

Quotations About the Ego

Sometimes it helps to look at the original source of these ideas to get a better perspective on the topic. So what did Freud have to say about his concept of the ego? He wrote extensively about the ego as well as its relationship to other aspects of personality.

Here are just a few of his more famous quotes about the ego:

On the Ego's Origins

"It is easy to see that the ego is that part of the id which has been modified by the direct influence of the external world." (Sigmund Freud, 1923, From The Ego and the Id)

On the Ego's Influence

"The ego is not master in its own house." (Sigmund Freud, 1917, From A Difficulty in the Path of Psycho-Analysis)

"The ego represents what we call reason and sanity, in contrast to the id which contains the passions." (Sigmund Freud, 1923, From The Ego and the Id)

"The poor ego has a still harder time of it; it has to serve three harsh masters, and it has to do its best to reconcile the claims and demands of all three... The three tyrants are the external world, the superego, and the id." (Sigmund Freud, 1932, From New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis)

"Towards the outside, at any rate, the ego seems to maintain clear and sharp lines of demarcation. There is only one state—admittedly an unusual state, but not one that can be stigmatized as pathological—in which it does not do this. At the height of being in love the boundary between ego and object threatens to melt away. Against all the evidence of his senses, a man who is in love declares that "I" and "you" are one, and is prepared to behave as if it were a fact." (Sigmund Freud, 1929, From Civilization and Its Discontents)

8 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.
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By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is the author of the "Everything Psychology Book (2nd Edition)" and has written thousands of articles on diverse psychology topics. Kendra holds a Master of Science degree in education from Boise State University with a primary research interest in educational psychology and a Bachelor of Science in psychology from Idaho State University with additional coursework in substance use and case management.