One of the three divisions of the psyche in psychoanalytic theory, ego is the part of human personality that moderates primitive impulses (id) with reality to produce appropriate behavior.
Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) believed that human personality has three components: the id, the ego and the superego. In his scheme, the id is impulsive and needdriven. The id, like an infant, demands immediate action for basic needs such as eating, drinking, and eliminating waste without regard to consequences or social norms. The ego is that portion of the personality that imposes realistic limitations on such behavior. The ego decides whether id-motivated behavior is appropriate, given the prevailing social and environmental conditions. If, for example, individuals with psychosis begin to eat out of the garbage, they may be responding to the demands of the id. Their ego may, according to Freud, no longer be functional. They may, through mental illness, have regressed to responding directly to the id.
While the id operates on the pleasure principle, the ego uses the reality principle to determine whether to satisfy or delay fulfilling the id's demands. The ego considers the consequences of actions to modify the powerful drives of the id. A person's own concept of what is acceptable determines the ego's decisions. The ego also must negotiate with the superego (conscience) in the difficult battle between the id's drives and a person's sense of right and wrong. Repression and anxiety result when the ego consistently overrides the id's extreme demands. The superego, the conscience, is often thought of as the internalization of parental and cultural pressures. A powerful superego can cause paralysis, just as a powerful id can cause impulsive need-driven behavior. Ideally, the ego in each person successfully moderates between these other two parts of the self.
See also Freud, Sigmund; Id ; Superego .
Freud, Sigmund, and James Strachey. The Ego and the Id. New York: Norton, 1989.
Hall, Calvin S. A Primer of Freudian Psychology. New York: Meridian, 1999.
Zimbardo, Philip G. Psychology and Life, 12th ed. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman, 1988.