Reality Principle and Sigmund Freud

What's Stopping You From Inappropriate Behavior

Man shoplifting
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Have you ever had a sudden urge to do something you knew wasn't appropriate for that situation—maybe snatch an item of clothing from a store and walk out the door without paying for it? Did you follow through? Probably not—but what stopped you? According to Sigmund Freud, who conceived of the psychoanalytic theory of personality, what he termed the reality principle prevented you from doing something that might have landed you in trouble.

The Reality Principle at Work

To understand the reality principle, it's important to first have a grasp of how the two components of personality identified by Freud function. The id seeks instant gratification of needs, demands, and urges. If we acted according to what our id wanted, we might find ourselves grabbing food off of another person's plate just because it looks so delicious or getting too friendly with someone else's spouse when we're feeling amorous. The id is ruled by the pleasure principle—the idea that impulses need to be fulfilled immediately.

The ego, on the other hand, is the component of personality that deals with the demands of reality. It makes sure that the desires of the id are satisfied in ways that are effective and appropriate—in other words, the ego is ruled by the reality principle.

The reality principle forces us to consider the risks, requirements, and possible outcomes as we make decisions by temporarily halting the discharge of the id's energy until a suitable time and place. In other words, the ego doesn't try to block an urge, but instead, it works to make certain the desires of the id are met in ways that are safe, realistic, and appropriate. For example, rather than snatching that slice of pizza, the ego will force you to wait until you can buy your own slice, a delay achieved through what is known as the secondary process.

Reining in Unsuitable Behavior

As you might imagine, the reality principle and the pleasure principle are forever at odds. Because of the role the ego plays, it's often referred to as having an executive or mediating role in personality. The ego constantly engages in what is known as reality testing; it must come up with realistic plans of action that can satisfy our needs.

Freud often compared the relationship of the id and the ego to that of a horse and rider: The horse represents the id, ruled by the pleasure principle and providing the energy to race to satisfy needs and desires. The ego is the rider, constantly tugging on the reins of the id in order to steer a person to act in ways that are acceptable and appropriate.

The development of a healthy ego, one that leans on the reality principle to control impulses, delay gratification of a desire until it can be met appropriately, and so forth, is an important part of psychological development and one of the hallmarks of a mature personality. Throughout childhood, kids learn how to control their urges and behave in ways that are socially appropriate. Researchers have found that children who are better at delaying gratification may have better-defined​ egos because they tend to be more concerned with things such as social appropriateness and responsibility.

1 Source
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  1. Boag S. Ego, drives, and the dynamics of internal objects. Front Psychol. 2014;5:666. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00666

Additional Reading
  • Freud, S. New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. 1933. Translated by W. J. H. Sprott. New York: Norton.
  • Klein, G.S. "The Vital Pleasures." In R.R. Holt and S.E. Peterfreund (Eds.), Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Science: An Annual of Integrative and Interdisciplinary Studies. (Vol. 1). 1972. New York: Macmillan.
  • Mischel, W. "Delay of Gratification, Need for Achievement, and Acquiescence in Another Culture." Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology1961. Vol. 62, 543-552.
  • Zern, D. "Competence Reconsidered: The Concept of Secondary Process Development as an Explanation of 'Competence' Phenomena."The Journal of Genetic Psychology.1973. Vol.122, 135-162.

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.