Freud & Psychoanalytic Theory – MCAT Psychology | MedSchoolCoach

Freud & Psychoanalytic Theory

MCAT Psychology - Chapter 7- Section 1 - Personality & Identity - Personality Formation
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Sample MCAT Question - Freud & Psychoanalytic Theory

The ____ is governed by the reality principle, which describes how:

a) id; humans have to delay gratification in order to meet the demands of the real world.

b) ego; humans have to delay gratification in order to meet the demands of the real world.

c) id; humans desire immediate gratification.

d) ego; humans desire immediate gratification.

B is correct. The ego operates on the reality principle which states that humans have to forgo or delay gratification (e.g. sexual desires, etc) in order to meet the demands of the real world. A and C are incorrect as it is the ego, not the id, that operates on the reality principle. D is incorrect since the definition given describes the pleasure principle that the id operates on and not the reality principle that the ego operates on.

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Freud & Psychoanalytic Theory for the MCAT

Psychoanalytic theory, developed by Sigmund Freud, revolutionized the field of psychology and profoundly shaped our understanding of human personality. At the core of this theory lies the concept of personality structure, which encompasses the intricate interplay between various mental forces and processes that shape our thoughts, behaviors, and emotions. This approach delves into the depths of the unconscious mind, exploring the hidden motivations and conflicts that influence our daily lives. By examining the dynamic relationship between the conscious and unconscious aspects of the psyche, psychoanalytic theory offers a unique lens through which to comprehend the complexities of human behavior and the formation of personality. In this exploration, we will delve into the key components of psychoanalytic theory that you need to know for the MCAT exam, which include the id, ego, and superego.

Sigmund Freud and Psychoanalysis

Freud was a physician who treated mental disorders using a technique he developed called psychoanalysis. The goal of psychoanalysis was to study the unconscious mind. To Freud, understanding the unconscious mind was very important in determining an individual’s motivations and behaviors. 


The way psychoanalysis works is the physician has very lengthy verbal interactions with the patient. The goal of these interactions is to determine the influence of repressed conflicts, sexual urges, early childhood memories, and internal conflicts on the motivations and behaviors of the individual. So when Freud had these long verbal interactions with patients, he made many observations. From these observations, he developed a psychoanalytic theory with hypotheses to explain these observations.


Now, as mentioned earlier, Freud really focused on the unconscious mind and how important it was for determining our behaviors. For example, Freud believed that slips of the tongue, or Freudian slips, often reveal a person’s unconscious desires. As an example, let’s say you have an employee at a company and they’re training a new hire. During the training, they mean to say, “Don’t touch the hot wire,” but instead they accidentally say, “Don’t touch the hot hire.” Now, “hot hire” certainly has a sexual aspect to it. Freud would have taken this slip of the tongue as a revelation of the employee’s sexual desires for that new hire.


Criticisms of the Psychoanalytic Theory

The psychoanalytic theory is simply a theory and we know now that there is very little experimental support for most of what Freud came up. So the next thing we’ll go over is some criticisms of this theory.


First, Freud believed that our behavior is primarily determined by unconscious thoughts that we’re not aware of. A lot of psychologists have an issue with this because this suggests that we don’t have conscious control over ourselves. Instead, Freud’s theory postulates that these unconscious thoughts that we don’t even know about control our lives.


Second, Freud heavily emphasized the role of childhood experiences on our lives. The criticism here is that this suggests that our future is largely determined by the early years of our life. In other words, Freud believed that if a certain event happened in your childhood, you were going to grow up to be a certain kind of person. Many psychologists disagree with this idea that your future is determined solely by what happened when you were a child.


Finally, many psychologists believe that Freud focused too much on sexual desires. There are actually psychologists that came after Freud, who built upon his theory and, in some cases, shifted the theory away from sexual desires and more towards social interactions.


Freudian Personality Structure

According to Freud, our personality has three components: the id, the ego, and the superego. Freud believed that our behavior is determined by the way that these three components interact. Let’s go through each component one by one.

The Id

First, we have the id. This is the primitive, instinctive, irrational, and biological component of our personality. Remember, Freud heavily emphasized the role of the unconscious in determining our behavior. The id is unconscious as it’s described as instinctive, so it plays a major role in determining our behavior.


Now, the id operates according to the pleasure principle. This principle states that humans desire gratification, such as sexual intercourse, and want to eliminate tension that results from the lack of gratification, such as hunger or thirst. To eliminate these tensions you’re going to want to seek food and water, which you can think of as gratification. And something else to note, is that at birth only the id is present. This means that, as a baby, all we want is gratification. 

The Ego

Next, we have the ego. This is the decision making component of personality that operates according to the reality principle. According to the reality principle, individuals often have to forgo or delay gratification in order to meet the demands of the real world. Now, just to be clear, the ego is not the opposite id. The ego, just like the id, wants to maximize gratification. But it does so in a more rational way, such that it’s able to avoid negative consequences from society. For example, let’s say you’re at a meeting at work and there’s a co-worker that you want to have sexual intercourse with. In this situation, the ego is going to prevent you from just immediately satisfying your gratification because it wants to avoid negative consequences from society.

The Superego

Finally, we have the superego. This is the moral component of personality that represents societal and personal standards of right and wrong. The superego strives for perfection and, because of that, it works in contradiction to the id. Remember, the id just wants gratification, while the superego wants to be morally perfect. Therefore, the id and superego are opposites to each other and the ego actually has to balance the two.



In fact, the ego is so important when it comes to balancing the id and superego, that Freud, in treating his patients with psychoanalysis, essentially wanted to strengthen their egos.

Levels of Awareness

Freud also believed that we had three levels of awareness: the conscious, preconscious and unconscious, which relates to his three components of personality: the id, ego, and superego. The way that the components of personality relate to the levels of awareness is often represented using a diagram of an iceberg (Figure 1). At the surface you have the conscious then, a bit deeper, you have the preconscious and, very deep, you have the unconscious. You can also see where the different components of personality live in these different levels. So you can see that the ego and the superego can be found at all three levels of awareness. But the id is strictly in the unconscious. Let’s look at each level more closely.

The Conscious

First, the conscious. these are our mental contents: our thoughts, our feelings, and perceptions that we are aware of at a particular moment in time. An example could be this lesson that you’re paying attention to right now or realizing that you’re starting to get a bit hungry. This is our awareness, and this includes parts of our ego and superego.

The Preconcious

Next, we have the preconscious. These are the mental contents that are just beneath awareness but can be readily retrieved and brought to our awareness. A very good example is what you had for lunch yesterday. It’s not something that’s consciously in your awareness, but you can easily retrieve those memories and bring it to your awareness. And again, this includes parts of our ego and superego. 

The Unconscious

Finally, we have our unconscious. As we’ve mentioned multiple times, we know the unconscious is very important to Freud in determining our behavior. The unconscious is made up of our memories, emotional conflicts, thoughts, and desires that are not directly accessible, but they greatly influence behavior. An example would be childhood trauma. Freud thought that these kinds of memories and emotional conflicts were located in our unconscious, but still greatly determined our behavior. And because of the importance of the unconscious, Freud’s technique of using psychoanalysis to treat patients often consisted of trying to get information about the unconscious. If you look at the way that the unconscious is described, it’s not directly accessible, but that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to access. In fact, some of the techniques of psychoanalysis, such as dream analysis or Freudian slips, were designed to try to get information about the unconscious. And again, the unconscious consists of the id, ego, and superego. 

Freud's conscious, pre-conscious, and unconscious versus the id, ego, and superego
Figure 1. Freud's Levels of Awareness Versus Personality Structure

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