How the Primary Process Is Used in Personality

Man thinking about food
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According to Freudian theory, the primary process involves forming a mental image of the desired object in order to satisfy the desire for that object. For example, if you were craving a piece of chocolate cake but sadly did not have any at the moment, you might deal with this by visualizing a delicious piece of cake.

How the Primary Process in Freudian Theory Works

In Freud's psychoanalytic theory of personality, the primary process works to resolve the tension created by the pleasure principle. The pleasure principle is what drives the id and seeks instant gratification of all needs, wants, and desires. When the pleasure principle creates tension, the id must find a way to discharge this energy.

As you may recall, Freud believed that the id was the most basic and primitive part of personality. He also suggested that it was the only part of personality that is present from birth. The primary process is referred to as a primary part of personality because it is believed to come first. Since the id is present from birth, the primary process is also assumed to emerge quite early in human development.

Babies are essentially, according to Freud, all id. They want the immediate gratification of their needs, and the pleasure principle drives them to have all needs or wants to be filled immediately. Freud described the primary process as infantile, primitive and dreamlike, driven by a need to maximize pleasure and minimize pain.

How It Influences Personality

The primary process acts as the id's mechanism for discharging the tension created by the pleasure principle.

A primary process is used instead of acting on dangerous or unacceptable urges. The id forms a mental image of a desired object to substitute for an urge in order to diffuse tension and anxiety.

This image can take the form of a dream, hallucination, fantasy, or delusion. For example, if you are hungry, you might form a mental image of a slice of pizza or a deli sandwich. The experience of this mental image through the primary process is known as wish fulfillment.

However, problems also result from using the primary process to dissipate the energy of the id. The primary process has no way to distinguish between the fantasy image and reality. So while the primary process can be used to temporarily reduce tension, it is only effective in the short-term. Your mental image of the food you are craving will only satisfy you for so long. Eventually, the tension will return when needs go unfulfilled.

As people develop and grow more mature, the ego and superego eventually emerge and begin to exert their own influence over personality. Later, the secondary process will begin to play a role in dissipating tension caused by the id's desire to meet basic needs and the ego's need to conform to reality.

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