This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 11 table of contents.

The Ego

The second of Freud's three divisions of the psyche is the ego. Ego means "I." It is roughly equivalent to our sense of identity-who we think we are. Modern theorists sometimes refer to the ego as the executive function. The part of the mind/body system that Freud called the ego is the part that executes plans and coordinates activity.

What is the ego? What was the point of the "rider on the horse" analogy?

Freud described the ego, drawing power from the id while controlling it, as resembling a rider on a horse. In this metaphor the horse represents the id: a primitive, animal-like source of energy. The rider represents the ego. It may be weak or strong, clumsy or skillful. If the rider is uncoordinated or lacking in skill, the horse goes whatever direction it pleases, and the rider must hold on for dear life. This is like a person whose impulses are out of control, poorly coordinated by the ego. On the other hand, if the rider is an expert, the horse becomes like an extension of the rider's willpower, making the rider swifter and more powerful than a human on foot. Similarly, in Freud's view, the id provided raw energy, and the ego (if skillful or well controlled) used this energy to do remarkable, positive things.

What is ego strength?

To Freud, a good horse rider was like a person with good ego strength. Having a strong ego is not the same thing as being egotistical or "stuck up." Having good ego strength means you can remain in control of your impulses, even under adverse circumstances, and that you persist in directing your energy toward long-term goals.

What part of the ego was unconscious, in Freud's opinion?

In Freud's scheme the ego is not entirely conscious. Some of the plans and activities a person coordinates may not be conscious. For example, repression of unpleasant memories is an activity that Freud attributed to the ego, and it was though to be an unconscious sort of defense. Similarly, the other defense mechanisms (discussed in the next section) were said to be unconscious functions of the ego, carried out to defend the psyche (the overall mental system) against painful thoughts and emotions.

What is "secondary process thinking"? What causes it to develop, in Freud's view?

Freud said the ego develops in early childhood. Little children discover that id-impulses often cannot be gratified immediately. The pleasure principle is not realistic. Sometimes, to get what you want, you must be rational or tolerate a delay. The ego develops as a result of this clash between desires of the id and realities of the world. With the development of the ego comes conscious, rational thinking. Freud called this secondary process thinking because it occurs later in development and modifies the most animal-like primary process thinking.

How does ego development affect the ability to delay gratification? What is the reality principle?

While primary process thinking is dominated by the pleasure principle, secondary process thinking-that which is controlled by the ego-is based on the reality principle. Freud described the reality principle as the ability of the ego to make plans that take reality into account, even if it means postponing pleasure or enduring pain. For example, most students realize they must complete school before they can embark on a career. Therefore they endure years of schooling in order to achieve their ultimate goals. In Freud's scheme this would be seen as an example of the ego's ability to execute plans and to defer gratification, in accordance with the reality principle.

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