What is the Pleasure Principle?

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  • Written By: Sheri Cyprus
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 15 October 2019
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In psychology, the pleasure principle is part of Sigmund Freud's psychoanalytic theory involving subconscious or unconscious motivation. According to Freud, the id is the part of the mind that is pleasure seeking and instinctual. While the ego component of the mind strives to keep the id realistically and intelligently under control, the id itself is not capable of being rational, only self-gratifying. In two of the essays that Freud started in 1920, "Beyond the Pleasure Principle" and "The Ego and The Id," he elaborates on his psychoanalytic concepts.

Freud's pleasure principle concept was greatly influenced by Aristotle's work "Physics," which asserts that humans, like animals, are instinctively directed to seek gratification and avoid pain. Aristotle states that what separates, or should separate, humans from animals is "a rational principle." According to Aristotle, although human beings and "brutes" are both innately driven to seek gratification for hunger, thirst and sexual urges, people don't have to, and shouldn't, be morally directed by these instinctual needs. The "rational principle" that humans have balances out the primal drive for pleasure without morals.

In Freud's psychoanalytic approach, the ego balances the id to prevent people from becoming totally selfish and self-destructive. Primal urges are able to be balanced with common sense. Intelligent thought can rule out the pleasure principle's control. Whereas the ego is organized and rational, the id is disorganized and impulsive.


The third fixture involved in the workings of the mind in Freud's theory of the id and ego is the superego. The superego goes one step further than the ego in managing the gratification-seeking id. Rather than be the voice of reason alone, it is also critical. The superego brings about guilt or anxiety if the pleasure principle drive of the id goes too far, such as if the individual cheats on his or her spouse. In this way, the superego is the "moral principle", while the ego is the "reality principle" and the id is the "pleasure principle."

The id is balanced by both the ego and superego so that the drive for pleasure is guided by reason and morals. Studies have supported Aristotle and Freud's assertion that animals don't possess the natural ability for self-control as humans do. If the balance isn't there in a person, the individual has no or limited self-control and is often unable to control his or her impulses. It should be noted that not all people believe in a balance of the pleasure principle. For instance, hedonism is a philosophy that basically holds that pleasure over pain is good in and of itself.


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