The famed psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud believed that behavior and personality were derived from the constant and unique interaction of conflicting psychological forces that operate at three different levels of awareness: the preconscious, the conscious, and the unconscious. He believed that each of these parts of the mind played an important role in influencing behavior.
Freud likened these three levels of mind to an iceberg. The top of the iceberg that you can see above the water represents the conscious mind. The part of the iceberg that is submerged below the water but is still visible is the preconscious. The bulk of the iceberg that lies unseen beneath the waterline represents the unconscious.
- The preconscious consists of anything that could potentially be brought into the conscious mind.The preconscious also acts as something of a guard, controlling the information that is allowed to enter into conscious awareness.
- The conscious mind contains all of the thoughts, memories, feelings, and wishes of which we are aware at any given moment. This is the aspect of our mental processing that we can think and talk about rationally. A part of this includes our memory, which is not always part of consciousness but can be retrieved easily at any time and brought into our awareness.
- The unconscious mind is a reservoir of feelings, thoughts, urges, and memories that outside of our conscious awareness. Most of the contents of the unconscious are unacceptable or unpleasant, such as feelings of pain, anxiety, or conflict. According to Freud, the unconscious continues to influence our behavior and experience, even though we are unaware of these underlying influences. The unconscious can include repressed feelings, hidden memories, habits, thoughts, desires, and reactions.
If the conscious mind represents the tip of the iceberg, it is the unconscious mind that makes up the massive bulk of the iceberg that lies invisible and unseen below the surface of the water. Memories, thoughts, feelings, and information that is too painful, embarrassing, shameful, or distressing for conscious awareness is stored in the enormous reservoir that makes up the unconscious mind.While this information is not consciously accessible, Freud still believed that its influence could play a powerful role in conscious behavior and well-being. He linked psychological distress to unresolved feelings of conflict that were outside of awareness, and many of the therapeutic techniques he utilized focused on bringing unconscious urges, feelings, and memories into conscious awareness so that they could then be dealt with effectively. Techniques such as free association and dream analysis are centered on bringing unconscious influences to light. Freudian slips, or accidental slips of the tongue, are sometimes thought of as being a sign of unconscious thoughts and feeling bubbling up to the surface of awareness.
According to Sigmund Freud, human personality is complex and has more than a single component. In his famous psychoanalytic theory of personality, personality is composed of three elements. These three elements of personality—known as the id, the ego, and the superego—work together to create complex human behaviors.Each component not only adds its own unique contribution to personality, but all three elements interact in ways that have a powerful influence on each individual. Each of these three elements of personality emerges at different points in life.
- The Id – The id, the most primitive of the three structures, is concerned with instant gratification of basic physical needs and urges. It operates entirely unconsciously (outside of conscious thought). For example, if your id walked past a stranger eating ice cream, it would most likely take the ice cream for itself. It doesn’t know, or care, that it is rude to take something belonging to someone else; it would care only that you wanted the ice cream.
- The Superego – The superego is concerned with social rules and morals—similar to what many people call their ” conscience ” or their “moral compass.” It develops as a child learns what their culture considers right and wrong. If your superego walked past the same stranger, it would not take their ice cream because it would know that that would be rude. However, if both your id and your superego were involved, and your id was strong enough to override your superego’s concern, you would still take the ice cream, but afterward you would most likely feel guilt and shame over your actions.
- The Ego – In contrast to the instinctual id and the moral superego, the ego is the rational, pragmatic part of our personality. It is less primitive than the id and is partly conscious and partly unconscious. It’s what Freud considered to be the “self,” and its job is to balance the demands of the id and superego in the practical context of reality. So, if you walked past the stranger with ice cream one more time, your ego would mediate the conflict between your id (“I want that ice cream right now”) and superego (“It’s wrong to take someone else’s ice cream”) and decide to go buy your own ice cream. While this may mean you have to wait 10 more minutes, which would frustrate your id, your ego decides to make that sacrifice as part of the compromise– satisfying your desire for ice cream while also avoiding an unpleasant social situation and potential feelings of shame.
Freud believed these three pieces of the mind are in constant conflict, as the primary goal is different for each piece. Sometimes, when the conflict is too much for a person to handle, his or her ego may engage in one or many defense mechanisms to protect the individual.These defense mechanisms include:
- Repression: an unconscious mechanism in which the ego pushes disturbing or threatening thoughts out of consciousness.
- Denial: the ego blocks upsetting or overwhelming experiences from awareness, causing the individual to refuse to acknowledge or believe what is happening.
- Projection: the ego’s attempt to solve discomfort by attributing the individual’s unacceptable thoughts, feelings, and motives to another person.
- Displacement: a mechanism by which the individual can satisfy an impulse by acting on a substitute object or person in a socially unacceptable way (e.g., releasing frustration directed toward your boss on your spouse instead).
- Regression: a defense mechanism in which the individual moves backward in development in order to cope with stress (e.g., an overwhelmed adult acting like a child).
- Sublimation: similar to displacement, this defense mechanism involves satisfying an impulse by acting on a substitute, but in a socially acceptable way (e.g., channeling energy into work or a constructive hobby; McLeod, 2013).