What Is the Death Drive?

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  • Written By: G. Wiesen
  • Edited By: Shereen Skola
  • Last Modified Date: 30 March 2020
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The death drive is a concept developed by psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud that is responsible for the apparent urge in living things to return to a non-living state. Freud developed this theory as an antithesis to the "life instinct" which is responsible for the natural urge toward self-preservation, pleasurable experiences, and procreation. This is a somewhat controversial concept, however, since it assumes that human beings have a natural desire that is self-destructive and opposes the will to live. The death drive was developed by Freud as an explanation for behavior that he saw in which people seemed to repeat actions that were harmful or traumatic despite a natural instinct for life and self-preservation.

It is also referred to as Thanatos, the name for a figure in Greek mythology associated with death and the dying. The basic idea behind the death drive is that there are opposing forces that are an element of human nature. One of these two forces is the life instinct, which is responsible for making people want to live and procreate, and otherwise drives sexual urges and desires. The contrasting force to this is the death drive, which is a destructive compulsion that often manifests through anger, aggression, and violence towards oneself or others.


Even among followers of Freud's approach to psychology, there is a great deal of debate regarding the death drive and its influence on humanity. The controversy arises due to the idea that it is a natural aspect of human thought and consciousness, and that such destructive thoughts and attitudes would, therefore, also be natural. There are some psychological researchers and professionals, however, who feel that the death drive makes sense and see support for it in human behavior. Depression can be connected to this idea, since it may be viewed as an expression of anger and destructiveness turned inward rather than outside of the person feeling it.

Freud developed the idea of the death drive toward his later years of working in psychoanalysis, as he was trying to explain behavior that he observed. He saw that people often seemed to relive or recreate traumatic and terrible experiences in the present, rather than trying to keep them in the past. Over time, this behavior indicated to Freud that people have a natural tendency toward repeating certain actions that are destructive and ultimately seem to work against the more beneficial life instinct. This behavior was the basis for the death drive, which he viewed as a regressive force in people's lives, moving them backward toward a previous non-living state, rather than forward into life and pleasure.


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