How Freud's Pleasure Principle Works

Young child eating cake and acting on the pleasure principle
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In Freud's psychoanalytic theory of personality, the pleasure principle is the driving force of the id that seeks immediate gratification of all needs, wants, and urges. In other words, the pleasure principle strives to fulfill our most basic and primitive urges, including hunger, thirst, anger, and sex. When these needs are not met, the result is a state of anxiety or tension.

Sometimes referred to as the pleasure-pain principle, this motivating force helps drive behavior but it also wants instant satisfaction. As you might imagine, some needs simply cannot be met in the moment we feel them. If we satisfied our every whim whenever we felt hunger or thirst, for example, we might find ourselves behaving in ways that are not appropriate for the given moment.

For example, if you followed the demands of the pleasure principles, you might swipe your boss's water bottle off the table and take a big swig right in the middle of a business meeting if you were thirsty.

Let's take a closer look at how the pleasure principle works and how it drives behavior, but also the forces that help keep the pleasure principle in line and help us behave in socially acceptable ways.

How the Pleasure Principle Works

Recall that the id is the most basic and animalistic part of the personality. It is also the only part of the personality that Freud believed was present from birth. The id is one of the strongest motivating forces, but it is the part of the personality that also tends to be buried at the deepest, unconscious level. It consists of all of our most basic urges and desires.

During early childhood, the id controls the majority of behavior. Children act on their urges for food, water, and various forms of pleasure. The pleasure principle guides the id to fulfill these basic needs to help ensure survival. 

Sigmund Freud noticed that very young children often try to satisfy these often biological needs as quickly as possible, with little or no thought given whether or not the behavior is considered acceptable. This works out great when you're a kid, but what happens as we age and our childish behaviors become less and less acceptable.

Thanks to the development of another important part of the personality—the ego—we are able to keep the id's demands in check.

The Reality Principle

As children mature, the ego develops to help control the urges of the id. The ego is concerned with reality. It helps ensure that the id's needs are met, but in ways that are acceptable in the real world. The ego operates through what Freud referred to as the reality principle. This reality principle is the opposing force to the instinctual urges of the pleasure principle.

Instead of seeking immediate gratification for urges, the reality principle guides the ego to seek avenues to fulfill these needs that are both realistic and socially appropriate.

Imagine that a very young child is thirsty. They might simply grab a glass of water out of another person's hands and begin guzzling it down. The pleasure principle dictates that the id will seek out the most immediate way to gratify this need.

Once the ego has developed, however, the reality principle will push the ego to look for more realistic and acceptable ways to fill these needs. Instead of simply grabbing someone else's water, the child will ask if they can also have a glass.

In our earlier example, rather than grabbing your boss's water bottle when you feel thirsty in the middle of a meeting, the reality principle urges you to wait until a more acceptable time to fulfill your thirst. Instead, you wait until the meeting is over and retrieve your own water bottle from your office.

While the pleasure principle plays an essential role in motivating actions, the reality principles help ensure that our needs are met in ways that are safe and socially acceptable.

5 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.