Pleasure Principle

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We can’t understand Freud’s concepts of the ego, id and superego (ego ideal) without first comprehending his theories regarding pleasure and pain. Freud refers to this as the pleasure-principle (also known as the pleasure-pain principle). According to Freud’s psychoanalytical theory, the pleasure-principle is a major source of  motivating energy behind mental processes.

The id, the ego, and the superego are separate parts of the personality that fulfill different roles, working towards conflicting objectives, in response to inner and environmental stimuli. The mental apparatus reacts through primary and secondary processes to achieve stability, eliminating conflict in psychic processes, and satisfying drives to eliminate pain. Anna Freud wrote, “the sovereign principle which governs the psychic processes is that of obtaining pleasure” (1936).

Immediate Gratification and the Pleasure Principle

The pleasure-principle refers to the biological drive to satisfy instinctual urges through “immediate gratification of all needs, wants, and urges.” Kendra Cherry explains “the pleasure principle strives to fulfill our most basic and primitive urges, including hunger, thirst, anger, and sex” (2020). When these needs are not met, we experience a state of tension. Freud wrote, “the course of mental processes is automatically regulated by the pleasure-principle.” Freud continues “any given process originates in an unpleasant state of tension and thereupon determines for itself such a path that its ultimate issue coincides with a relaxation of this tension, i.e. with avoidance of pain or with production of pleasure” (1920).

From the earlier work of Gustav Theodor Fechner, Freud quoted, “conscious impulses always bear a relation to conditions of pleasure or pain; pleasure or pain may be thought of in psycho-physical relationship to conditions of stability or instability” (1920). The motivating influence of chasing pleasure and avoiding pain has a long history. We refer to it as the hedonic principle. The underlying principle is that instinctual urges create a tension (or instability), motivating action to immediately satisfy the urge to regain stability. 

In modern psychology, the homeostasis refers to this motivational tendency towards stability—or balance, keeping our biological system within a comfortable window of tolerance.

The Ego, the Id and the Pleasure-Principle

One of the main pillars of Freud’s psychoanalytical theory is the complex interaction between instinctual drives and society norms. These opposing motivations create an inner conflict, tension leading to psychosis and learned defensive responses to eliminate the tension, regaining a sense of psychological stability.

The main players in this internal war, occurring in the mind are the ego, the id, and the superego (or ego ideal).

The pleasure principle works through the id. The pleasure-principle “serves the id like a compass.” The drive towards pleasure and the avoidance of pain are the primary principles directing the id.

The Id

The id, Freud explains, is “partly innate” and “partly acquired.” Operating in the unconscious realms, the id is home to the primary process, reacting to stimuli, according to the laws of the pleasure-principle, without first communicating with our conscious and logical mind (1923).

As Joseph Ledoux, the Henry and Lucy Moses Professor of Science in the Center for Neural Science at New York University, remarks, “Freud was right on the mark when he described consciousness as the tip of the iceberg” LeDoux explains ,”emotional responses are, for the most part, generated unconsciously” (1998, p. 17).

The id pushes for immediate resolution of instinctual urges. These urges arise from a colossal range of stimuli. We commonly think of sexual desires and and impulses for aggression as the reactions proceeding from the id. These impulses are magnified when attainment of perceived needs are thwarted. Whether it’s are ‘need’ to belong, eat, or propagate (sex), when the need is suppressed or unattainable, our bodies experience increased stress, losing stability.

The id is the psychic process satisfying these urges through immediate gratification.

LeDoux explains this process in his book the Emotional Brain, “emotional responses can occur without the involvement of the higher processing systems of the brain, systems believed to be involved in thinking, reasoning, and consciousness” (p. 161).

The Ego

Freud teaches that the pleasure-principle does not rule our behavior uninhibited. “It is not strictly correct to speak of a supremacy of the pleasure-principle over the course of psychic processes.” Freud is referring to the ego’s interference with the id.

Freud continues, “One can only say that a strong tendency towards the pleasure-principle exists in the psyche, to which, however, certain other forces or conditions are opposed, so that the ultimate issue cannot always be in accordance with the pleasure-tendency” (1920).

In self-preservation situations the ego intervenes. “Under the influence of the instinct of the ego for self-preservation it [the pleasure-principle] is replaced by the reality principle, which without giving up the intention of ultimately attaining pleasure yet demands and enforces the postponement of satisfaction” (1920).

The Ego and Integration

The ego integrates the influence of the outside world. By modifying instinctual desires, to something that doesn’t collide with our societal needs. We need the safety of society, we need the closeness of intimacy. Callously charging to fill every instinctual urge risks some of these goals that require temporary restraint.

Anna Freud explains, “in the ego, on the contrary, the association of ideas is subject to strict conditions, to which we apply the comprehensive term ‘secondary process’; further, the instinctual impulses can no longer seek direct gratification—they are required to respect the demands of reality and, more than that, to conform to ethical and moral laws by which the superego seeks to control the behavior of the ego. Hence these impulses run the risk of incurring the displeasure of institutions essentially alien to them” (1936).

The ego works to substitute the reality-principle for the pleasure-principle. Where the id pushes to satisfy urges unchecked, the ego evaluates the costs before action. The ego represents reason and prudence; the id contains the passions.

The ego is the most adaptive organ of the psychic apparatus.

The Pleasure-Principle and Defense Mechanisms

The instinctual process of the pleasure principles rules the infant child. The underlying urges drives their entire psychic life. However, through psychic development, the ego matures, and mechanisms of delaying or denying the urges form. Consequently, these mechanisms allow the child to survive in the social environment of adulthood.

The developmental process is not an automatic task, nor is the final destination tension free. The conflict between the ego and the id will always exist. The cognitive dissonance arising from the clash between the reality principle and the pleasure principle cause considerable stress. But other stresses also occur during the development of psychic processes.

Freud wrote “the replacement of the pleasure-principle by the reality-principle can account only for a small part, and that not the most intense, of painful experiences.” He continues, “another, and no less regular source of pain proceeds from the conflicts and dissociations in the psychic apparatus during the development of the ego towards a more highly coordinated organization” (1920).

The Child and Bad Urges

​The growing child learns that some urges are ‘bad.’ We never fill many of the instinctual urges. Instead of a constant ache of unfulfillment the psychic apparatus adapts through a variety of mechanisms. Freud wrote, “they are thereupon split off from this unity by the process of repression, retained on lower stages of psychic development, and for the time being cut off from all possibility of gratification” (1920).

The labeling of desire during this developmental phase confuses the child. “how can a desire be bad?” The child must resolve the internal conflicts. The cognitive dissonance motivates action. Internal conflicts create stress motivating a defensive reactions. The child discovers ways around personal desires to do bad to mitigate the confusion.

Anna Freud is the youngest daughter of Sigmund Freud. She followed in her father’s footsteps, advancing psychoanalytical theory. One of her major contributions was the continued development of her father’s early concepts of defense mechanisms. She expanded on the role of mechanisms in resolving the conflict between the ego and the id.

How the Ego Wards Off Discomfort

In 1936, Anna Freud published The Ego and The Mechanisms of Defense. Her book deals exclusively with “the ways and means by which the ego wards off unpleasure and anxiety, and exercises control over impulsive behavior, affects, and instinctive urges.”

​Anna explains that there is not always a conflict between the ego and the id’s needs. She writes, “in favorable cases the ego does not object to the intruder [the id] but puts its own energies at the other’s disposal and confines itself to perceiving; it notes the onset of the instinctual impulse, the heightening of tension and the feelings of unpleasure by which this is accompanied and, finally, the relief from tension when gratification is experienced” (1936).

A significant problem arises as we develop and integrate society rules and regulations. Rules and regulation soils the simplicity of the pleasure principle. Generally, satisfying pleasure does not always produce pleasurable feelings. Anna Freud explains, “if the instinct could achieve gratification in spite of opposition by the superego or the outside world, the result would, indeed, be primarily pleasure but secondarily unpleasure, either as a consequence of the sense of guilt emanating from the unconscious or of the punishments inflicted by the outside world” (1936).

Part of the resolution to this unwinnable conundrum is defense mechanisms. Some of our techniques to ward off the conflict are adaptive leading to growth. Other mechanism are maladaptive interfering with future pleasure and inviting accumulating troubles and anxieties.

A Few Words by Flourishing Life Society

Some of Freud’s concepts leave me scratching my head, trying to figure out what he is talking about. However, his concept of the pleasure principle are foundational, not only to psychoanalytical therapy but to the whole field of emotions. His teaching on the conflict between emotion and logic (the id and the ego), the role of the pleasure-principle, and the individual struggle to regulate emotions through defense mechanisms, is enlightening, benefitting the entire field of psychology.

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Cherry, Kendra (2020). What is the Pleasure-Principle? verywellmind. Published 5-7-2020. Accessed 9-1-2022.

Freud, Sigmund (1920/1990). Beyond the Pleasure Principle. W. W. Norton & Company; The Standard edition.

Freud, Sigmund (1923/1990). The Ego and the Id. W. W. Norton & Company; The Standard edition.

Freud, Anna (1936/1992) The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense. Routledge.

​LeDoux, Joseph (1998). The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life.​ Simon & Schuster.

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