The Secondary Process and Delayed Gratification

The secondary process helps you delay gratification.

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The secondary process helps manage and relieve tension created when the ego prevents the id from pursuing its urges or desires. Let's take a closer look at how the secondary process works.

What Exactly Is the Secondary Process?

In Freud's psychoanalytic theory of personality, the secondary process discharges the tension between the ego and the id that is caused by unmet urges or needs. The secondary process functions through the ego's action of looking for an object in the real world that matches the mental image created by the id's primary process.

As you may recall, Freud described the id as the most basic and primitive part of personality present from birth.

It is the id that compels people to meet all of their most basic urges and needs. The ego, on the other hand, develops later and is responsible for mediating between the id's demands and the constraints of reality.

A large part of the ego's purpose is to delay the demands of the id until the appropriate time. The ego conforms to what is known as the reality principle. That is, the ego must take the demands and reality of the outside world into account in addition to the id's basic needs and urges. The reality principle is what leads us to weigh the potential risks and rewards of a particular action. If the action in improbable or inadvisable at the moment, we might delay it until a later time. If the risk of taking the action is simply too high, we will instead find alternative ways to fulfill the need.

An Example of How It Works

So let's imagine that you are in the middle of a psychology class lecture. Your stomach begins to rumble. The id begins to demand satisfaction, urging you to do something to end your hunger. What do you do? Run out of class to the nearest fast-food vendor? Reach out and grab a bag of licorice sitting on a classmates desk? Both of these actions would be inappropriate and could lead to some serious ramifications.

The ego uses the secondary process to temporarily discharge the id's energy until you are able to safely and appropriately fulfill your need.

You spend the last minutes of class fantasizing about a cheesy slice of pepperoni pizza. As soon as class is dismissed, you head to your favorite pizza parlor for lunch.

As you might imagine, the strength of the secondary process can vary depending on a number of factors. If the id's needs are very urgent, like if you really need to get to a restroom as quickly as possible, these needs may override the ego and the secondary process and instead force you to act on such demands.

Your ability to restrain the basic demands of the id have probably become stronger as you have grown older. According to Freud, a healthy adult personality is characterized by the ability to delay gratification until it is acceptable or realistic.

2 Sources
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  1. Boag S. Ego, drives, and the dynamics of internal objectsFront Psychol. 2014;5:666. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00666

  2. Lapsley DK, Stey PC. Id, Ego, and Superego. In: Ramachandran VS, ed. Encylopedia of Human Behavior, 2nd edition. Cambridge, MA: Academic Press; 2012. doi:10.1016/B978-0-12-375000-6.00199-3

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