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The reality principle is a concept developed by Sigmund Freud and is different from Freud’s better-known "pleasure principle" because it expresses the mature mind’s ability to avoid instant gratification in favor of long-term satisfaction. Both ideas have to do with the theoretical sections of the mind created by Freud: the ego, id, and superego. Actually, it’s more accurate to say the reality principle is a production of the ego, while pleasure principle emanates from the id and may rule the ego if a person has not become mature and realistic.
Some examples of the reality principle are useful in understanding it. A person dieting chooses not to give into cravings because she knows that satisfying cravings, and thus satisfying the pleasure principle, is short-term empty satisfaction that thwarts the object of the diet. Someone with little money who is shopping with a friend, decides not to make purchases, even if there is strong temptation to buy. The shopper is aware that any satisfaction from a purchase can’t outweigh the real need to be thrifty and careful with money.
These choices gain rewards. The dieter may lose weight more easily by consistently avoiding foods during cravings. The shopper has fewer worries because he didn’t overspend. In essence, people abstain from instant gratification because they know such gratification thwarts pleasure later. It is the ability to judge the situation with longer-term goals in mind and avoid the id’s constant demand for pleasure now.
When examples of the reality principle are given, it sounds like most adults have developed this capacity in their ego. They are all grown-ups, and they can easily override the constant and immediate gratification demands of the id. This is far from true and most people will give in to the pleasure principle at least some of the time, or they may have an extremely underdeveloped ego control of the id.
If the reality principle is not in place, a different dynamic develops in the self. The superego steps in, inflicting guilt because a person keeps strictly obeying the pleasure principle. The ego becomes trapped in between the “should” of the id and the “shouldn’t” of the superego, and from that standpoint, a person becomes miserable by constantly giving into immediate desires and then constantly feeling that they shouldn’t. It is not hard to find examples of adults who live this way, though it should be noted that not all mental health specialists adopt the Freudian model of ego, id, and superego.
With psychoanalysis from a Freudian standpoint, one goal would be to id control. To gain maturity and better sense of self, people would gradually develop the reality principle and learn to defer pleasure by making better choices. In a traditional psychoanalytic model, this could be the work of several years, and even with work, most people will sometimes make the choice to gain instant gratification instead of adopting the more modulated stance of choosing delayed gratification that still reaps benefits.
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