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

The Super-Ego

The super-ego was a third function that Freud hypothesized. The word super means above, and the super-ego is like a supervisor of the psyche, monitoring our activity and making value judgments which lead us to feel good or bad about our behavior. Freud believed that we learn morals and values from the people who take care of us in childhood. Gradually these values are internalized or taken inside us, and the result is the super-ego. He said the super-ego, as an "internalization of parental values," was responsible for both pride and guilt. Because of this two-edged quality, one psychoanalyst (Schecter 1979) referred to the loving and persecuting super-ego.

What was the super-ego? What does the iceberg diagram show?

According to Freud, the super-ego was partly unconscious. We could be aware of parts of it, but we could also be surprised by guilt or pride. Freud, in a famous metaphor, compared the psyche to an iceberg. The following diagram is based on Freud's metaphor. Like an iceberg (Freud said) nine-tenths of the psyche is invisible to us, submerged in the unconscious.

The "devil on one shoulder, an angel on the other" represents what, in Freudian terms? What "three masters" did the ego serve?

Freud said the ego is often caught in a struggle between the id and super-ego, which pull in opposite directions. This is commonly symbolized by a devil on one shoulder, an angel on the other shoulder, each speaking into a different ear.

Freud wrote, "The poor ego...has to serve three harsh masters," It adapts to reality, it adapts to the urges of the id, and it adapts to the super-ego. This was the ego's function: to serve as the master executive, juggling all the priorities, planning out the best course of action. In Freud's theory, the ego was the agent of adaptation for the entire personality.

The Iceberg metaphor

How are Freudian concepts "best regarded"?

Are these divisions of the psyche real ? Students sometimes get carried away with Freudian theory and start talking about id and ego and super-ego as truly existing things. However, Freudian concepts are best regarded as metaphors....ways of describing patterns of behavior, not physically existing brain circuits.

What part of the brain is responsible for id-like functions?

If you want to make the opposite argument, that a concept like id is more than a metaphor, you could point to similarities between the id as Freud described it and the limbic system of the brain. Almost all the impulses Freud attributed to the id (sex, aggression, "primitive" emotions) are controlled by the limbic system.

What was known about the organization of the brain, in Freud's day?

The limbic system was not named and identified until the 1940s. However, in Freud's day, doctors believed that the large cerebral cortex of the human brain functioned largely to inhibit or suppress the activity of lower brain centers. This conclusion was based on the observation that patients who suffered damage to the cerebral cortex became uninhibited, restless, and impulsive. Freud was trained as a biologist and was attempting to make his theory consistent with biological knowledge of his day.

Why did Freud cite Faust more than any other work, according to Swales?

Freud was a heavy user of cocaine in his early adulthood, and this may explain some of his ideas about the id. Cocaine is known to activate the structures of the limbic system, causing sexual and aggressive impulses.

One researcher (Swales) pointed out that Freud cited Goethe's Faust more than any other literary work. Faust is about a man who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for deep knowledge about human nature. Putting two and two together, Swales suggested that Freud might have accepted his addiction to cocaine as the price to be paid for insights into the "seething cauldron of excitations" as he described the id. This may also account for Freud's bouts of depression in later years—another typical side effect of long-term cocaine use. It should be noted, however, that other Freud scholars were outraged at Swales's suggestions, which they regarded as speculative and damaging to Freud's reputation.

What was the reason for so many conflicts in human society, according to Freud?

Freud described an unruly unconscious at odds with civilization. In a book titled Civilization and its Malcontents, Freud argued that civilization clashes with our animal nature. A primary purpose of organized society (he argued) was to tame the primitive id. For example, as Freud pointed out, all major religions regulate sexual behavior. Doesn't it seem odd, Freud asked, that social institutions concerned with spiritual goals always regulate this aspect of behavior? To Freud, it all fit with his theory. To the extent we successfully tame our animal nature and turn its energy toward higher goals approved by society, we are civilized. However, this means we are always fighting our inner nature. Freud thought this was the underlying reason for many conflicts and problems in modern humans. We are torn between the impulses of the primitive id and the dictates of society.

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